Ambassador to Tonga Viliami Va’inga Tone, Chiara Collette, Tonga Prime Minister Siaosi ‘Ofakivahafolau Sovaleni and Michael Hassett in 2022.
Courtesy of Michael Hassett

In January 2022, an underwater volcano erupted off the shores of the kingdom of Tonga, an archipelago nation of more than 170  islands, many inhabited; with a population around 100,000. The volcano caused a 66-foot tsunami that decimated an uninhabited island and destroyed many structures in populated areas. It was one of the largest and loudest atmospheric explosion recorded by modern instrumentation.

When the volcano erupted, the only secular nonprofit that included the word Tonga in its name was Friends of Tonga (FoT), a small, Laurel-based nonprofit. Overnight, FoT was suddenly on the radar of international aid organizations and philanthropic efforts offering support to the island nation.

“Tonga gets clumped in with regional aid programs, but because of its small size, distant location, and extremely small population, it tends to get forgotten,” said  Michael Hassett, FoT president and co-founder. “Very little aid is given to the country, and very few organizations provide direct assistance to them.”

The unexpected influx of support, along with FoT’s minimal overhead, clear mission and few layers of administration, allowed the nonprofit to underwrite some of the first aid directed to Tonga following  the disaster.  

Most notably, the international rugby community helped.

“There are quite a few Pacific Islander rugby players internationally, and they’re a tight-knit community,” Hassett said. “Apparently, they found out about our organization, rallied and raised funds for us. We were shocked and thrilled!” 

Hassett and his wife, Chiara Collette, founded FoT after Tonga was hit by Cyclone Gita in 2018. The two met while in the Peace Corps, teaching English in Tonga, and they worked with other former Peace Corps volunteers to form the nonprofit.

“People naturally want to help in times of crisis, but often forget about a nation or place in the long aftermath of a crisis,” Hassett said. “We’re here for the long haul, and we’re partnering with other region-focused organizations, as many of the climate-disaster issues these neighbor nations face are similar.” 

The nonprofit’s initial focus was providing scholarship funds for children in need so they could continue their education; FoT has granted more than 100 scholarships over time. FoT provided funding  and helped coordinate construction of the country’s first cyclone- and earthquake-resistant school; and is on track to build two more schools in the next year or so.

The nonprofit also has been working with local leaders (especially those on the more remote islands), government agencies and local organizations to address water-scarcity issues. Their collaborative efforts have led to the purchase and installation of more than 60 large-capacity community cisterns for water collection and storage. FoT purchases the cisterns, then the local communities provide the labor and coordinate with the Civil Society Forum of Tonga (CSFT), a local nonprofit, to install and maintain them.

“When volcanic ash blanketed Tonga, roof-based rain collection and access to safe drinking water became an urgent issue for many villages,” says Drew Havea, CSFT founder. “Friends of Tonga helped get large community water tanks installed and even provided small tanks for people with disabilities who couldn’t easily fetch their water. The organization’s support and dedication has helped improve basic quality of life for so many people hit by the recent climate disasters.”

Community members erecting one of the rainwater cisterns purchased by Friends of Tonga.
Courtesy of Michael Hassett

 “Particularly, when it comes to foreign aid, local communities need to have ‘skin in the game,’ ” Hassett said. “The community is invested in the result because they helped make it happen.”

To support teachers, parents and students, Hassett and Collette created a free video read-aloud program in which native English speakers (including a number of the couple’s friends, neighbors and colleagues) volunteered to record themselves reading a children’s book. Using a free Adobe Spark account that connects the book’s pages, text and illustrations with the reader’s voice and a short video, children, along with their parents and teachers, are able to follow along with the books and improve their English skills.

“All of our education programs are opt-in,” Hassett explained. “We don’t swoop in and tell a community what to do; that doesn’t empower people.”

Because FoT’s board members are a mix of former Peace Corps volunteers, Tongan expats and Tongan nationals, the nonprofit is “able to think about issues and how to best address them given the specific challenges and circumstances of this nation,” Hassett said.

In 2021, the nonprofit received praise and recognition from the Library of Congress’ Literacy Awards Program with an honorary best-practices mention, along with a financial grant, for their program’s innovation and efficacy. 

“Being able to speak English provides economic and job opportunities for many Tongans, but children on remote islands are hindered and have fewer learning opportunities,” Hassett said, noting FoT’s goal of providing 200 read-aloud book recordings — essentially a book for every school day of the year. 

Collette, who taught at Laurel-based Monarch Global Academy after serving in the Peace Corps, also set up a pen pal and cultural exchange program between U.S. and Tongan schools. She’s also helped coordinate cross-cultural education programs and has created materials for teachers aids so students in both countries can learn about their own and the other country’s transportation issues and needs. 

“In any country, at any time, children want to learn, communities need safe drinking water, and families want to invest in their children’s futures,” Collette said. “Meeting those desires is challenging enough for any small, isolated group of people. Add the looming and probable climate disasters to the mix, and you see Pacific Islanders have a lot of cards stacked against them.”

The Kingdom of Tonga was ranked as the third most at-risk country for natural hazards (cyclones, flooding, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and drought) along with sea-level rise in the 2021 World Risk Report published by Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum.

“We hope to play a small part in providing future generations of Tongans the skills, resources and access to education they will need to meet these challenges head on,” Colette said.

For more information about Friends of Tonga go to