Before Kato Ha'unga opens up the door to a storage unit she keeps near Dimond Boulevard in Anchorage, she gives a bit of a caveat.
“It’s a little messy,” she warns. “I haven’t been here in a while.”
Behind the door is a collection of almost 40,000 books, which she has been collecting and saving for almost three years. It started as a modest project, a way to help the country of Tonga, where Ha'unga grew up and which was devastated by two massive earthquakes and a tsunami in September 2009.
Ha'unga was born in Anchorage but moved to Tonga after her parents divorced when she was still very young. There, she was raised by her grandmother and uncle, and her cousins became more like her brothers. She later returned to Alaska, thousands of miles away, to attend school at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she was when the tsunami hit.
After the disaster, Ha'unga was worried for her childhood home, and especially for her family still living there.
"When the tsunami hit, I called Tonga, tried to get a hold of (my) uncle, who couldn't pick up the phone, or grandma," Ha'unga says. "Finally, the very next day, I called back again, and my uncle's son is the first to pick up the phone and I said, ‘Hey, is everybody OK? Is everybody dead?’ just wanting to find out.
"And all he worried about was ‘Oh, all our books are getting wet,’ and ‘what book are you reading? Would you send us some books?’ It was all books that he was caring about, and I’m just caring if grandma’s OK."
Ha’unga had long made a tradition out of bringing books, magazines, postcards -- any slice of life in Alaska -- home with her whenever she returned to Tonga. She said this is how her family members traveled, since many of them were confined to one of the 176 islands that make up the country. Getting around to communities in Tonga is much like traveling in Alaska, where many places are only accessible by boat or plane.
So Kato began gathering books to send home. The idea quickly blossomed into a grander plan, to open the first public library ever in the nation of Tonga. Now, she has a building lined up on the island of Ha’apai, and a potential staff. The building will be part library, part kindergarten.
And now, three years after the back-to-back earthquakes and resulting tsunami devastated Tonga and left many residents homeless, Ha’unga also has those 40,000 books. Only problem is, she’s still trying to figure out how to get them to the country of a little more than 100,000 people.
The Northern Lights Library
Even three years after she began her quest to amass enough books for a library, Ha’unga still can’t say no to a book. The evidence is right there in that storage unit, where every kind of book sits, along with DVDs, VHS tapes, even board games.
Bestsellers, fantasy novels, romance, textbooks, new, used, Ha’unga has a little bit of everything. Some of the books are shoved to the back, already packed away in boxes. Others are piled up toward the front, and Ha’unga swears she’s getting more boxes soon to pack those up as well. Books fill every corner of Ha’unga’s life.
"There's more in my room," Ha’unga says. “There’s people that just stop by my house, I don’t even know from who, who just stop by my house and drop off a box of books outside.”
As we stand in front of the storage unit, an employee of the facility, who must have seen us come in, approaches.
“Hi, Kato?” he asks.
“Yes?” she replies.
“One of our other tenants left you some books,” he says. “They’re in the office, it’s a stack about like that.” He makes a line with his hand at about knee level.
“Oh, great!” Kato says cheerily. “I will stop by, thank you!”
They’re from her storage neighbor, who was there earlier in the summer when Kato was dropping off and organizing some of her other books.
Ha’unga’s enthusiastic response is indicative of her whole personality: she seems excited about everything. She speaks of Tonga and Alaska with exactly the same enthusiasm. She has much love for UAA and the people of Anchorage, and her family back home. She talks about the library -- which will eventually be called the Northern Lights Library -- with unfailing hope and optimism.
It’s a good thing, too, because many people probably would have given up on such a dream by now. She’s had her ups and downs on the project, which she started with just four books. In 2010, the Anchorage Daily News profiled Ha’unga and her dream to open Tonga’s first public library. She had 3,000 books then.
Not much has changed since, except for the number of books. Now, she’s paying about $270 every month just to store them. She has a business bank account set up with Northrim Bank under the name “Northern Lights Library,” but it’s hard keeping it funded.
“I have about $10 in there right now,” she says. Any balance remaining comes out of Ha’unga’s own paycheck.
“If people donate money, it goes to storage room fees, or I buy boxes, or tape … I wish I could save, but I don’t really have a lot of donation with the form of money, just a lot of donations with books,” she says. And with the number ever increasing, it makes it difficult just to keep all the books, much less shipping them 6,000 miles away to Tonga.
Alaskans already know how pricey it can be to ship in and out of the Last Frontier, and the costs only go up when you’re shipping heavy books, much less 40,000 of them. The estimates that Ha’unga has gotten on shipping a container full of the books to the Pacific Island nation range up to $10,000.
She hasn’t established a nonprofit organization, though she is closely involved with several, and has long been a volunteer with organizations like Bridge Builders of Anchorage and the Polynesian Association of Alaska. She says one shipping company may be able to take the books to Seattle, but then she worries she would just be paying storage fees in a different location.
Diane Kaplan, president of the Rasmuson Foundation, said that she had spoken with Kato and offered some ideas for support. She added that the foundation is supportive of the idea and might consider a very small grant to help assist.
Until Ha’unga is able to intensify fundraising or find an organization willing to further help, she’ll likely continue to collect books, because, well, she just can’t seem to help herself.
“Not everybody sees it the way I do,” she says. “I just see the ending result. The way I look at it, it’s like connecting Alaska to Tonga through education.”
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com