A 2007 graduate of Laurel High School, Hassett served for two years with the Peace Corps (Tonga 2012-14) in the South Pacific kingdom, which was devastated by a tsunami earlier this month.
Together with his wife, Chiara Collette, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who also served in Tonga, Hassett founded Friends of Tonga in 2018 to provide educational opportunities for the island nation’s children. Last summer, in partnership with Schools for Children of the World, the non-profit dedicated its first school in Ta’anga on the island of ‘Eua.
Located northwest of New Zealand, Tonga is a constitutional monarchy comprised of 176 islands, of which 36 are inhabited by the nation’s 109,000 residents.
When forming the organization, Hassett noted that one of the difficulties in raising funds was the public’s unfamiliarity with the country, which was often confused with the African nation of Togo.
That changed with the Jan. 15 eruption of an underground volcano, which spawned a tsunami. Both Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, where Hassett had served, and the island of ‘Eua, where Collette worked, were hit although the Friends of Tonga school was spared.
“While there were only three or four deaths, there were villages that were completely decimated and all of the drinking water and soil have been contaminated,” Hassett said.
He explained that Tongans rely on collection vats, which retain rain water, for their drinking water. The vats, like everything else, have been covered in volcanic ash, which is also affecting soil and crops. Hassett noted that most Tongans feed their families with “subsistence farming,” growing all of their food at home.
To help, Friends of Tonga has begun raising funds for disaster relief efforts.
As of Wednesday, nearly $53,000 had been raised with donations increasing after wrester Ronda Rousey and Bristol (England) Bears rugby player Charles Piutau noted the group’s efforts on social media.
“We are one of the only, if not the only, non-profits based in the United States working in Tonga,” Hassett said. “That’s not bragging, it’s showing a gap that’s part of a broader issue of the South Pacific islands often being overlooked. When Peace Corps volunteers get sent to the South Pacific, the joke is it’s the beach corps. Fiji and Samoa are popular honeymoon destinations, but there are people who live beyond those resorts and call those islands home and it’s a home with unique challenges especially in such times of crisis.”
Hassett, who now lives in Laurel, Maryland, and works as a budget analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explained that all money raised will be given to partner organizations in Tonga.
Currently, Friends of Tonga is coordinating with the Mainstreaming of Rural Development Initiative (MORDI), a Tongan-led, non-government group working to provide clean water and sanitation.
“After a disaster, everyone wants to send supplies and tangible things. They’re well-intentioned donations of stuff, but Tongans don’t need our used teddy bears and winter coats, they need monetary support,” Hassett explained, noting that there are still warehouses full of “stuff” given after a 2015 cyclone.
After basic food, water, sanitation and shelter needs are met, Hassett said funding will focus on reconstruction of infrastructure.
To make a donation, or for more information, visit FriendsofTonga.org.
“We appreciate any level of generosity,” Hassett said, noting donations have ranged from $1 to $4,000. “Every donation is tax deductible and tracked by the IRS. We’re a legitimate non-profit and we’re all volunteers so every donation will go entirely to those in Tonga.”