The Rotary Club of Webster Groves has completed the second phase of an international project with the Rotary Club of Nuku’alofa in the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga. This project provided urgently needed water storage tanks for a primary school in the Village of Houma, located on the Tongan island of ‘Eua. This project came about at the request of Lonita Benson, a 2014 graduate of Webster Groves High School, who was serving with the Peace Corps in Houma.
For many years, the village primary school was forced to operate with an insufficient supply of potable water, which meant the school was routinely forced to close after lunch, and the fifty young students were sent home. Our club contributed a total of $5,600 to purchase the three water storage tanks having a total capacity of 5,800 gallons, and the Nuku’alofa Club oversaw their purchase and installation. 
More photos of this project are available in the slide show link "Tonga Water Project" in the lower left column of this website.
Although Houma’s Government Primary School had two water tanks in their compound, only one of them stored potable water. As a result, because the students lacked a sufficient supply of clean water, classes were frequently terminated after lunch, and the fifty children were sent home. The three new tanks have a total capacity of 5,800 gallons (22,000 liters); although their primary role is to collect and store rain water for the school, any surplus water can also be used to augment the existing tanks serving the village, which has a stable population of about 250 people. 
Lonita Benson joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Mizzou in 2018 with a degree in International Studies and an emphasis in Peace Studies. She suspects she was assigned to Tonga because her mother had been born there; her parents met in Tonga, when her father arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer during the eighties. Lonita soon found herself teaching school in Houma, which had the lowest standardized test scores in all of Tonga. However, it wasn’t long before she realized that closing the school in the afternoon was a primary reason for the poor scholastics, so she decided to do something about it. After attending several grant-writing workshops, Lonita prepared and submitted more than a dozen grant applications to fund the much-needed water tanks, but all were denied. 
Finally, she reached out to the Rotary Club of Nuku’alofa; they suggested she contact the website of the Rotary Club of Webster Groves in her own hometown, which she did. Her one email yielded two serendipitous relationships: The Club’s webmaster put Lonita in touch with Steve LaBarge, who had watched Lonita grow up at Annunciation Church, and Steve introduced Lonita to Rod Cooper, whose wife Laura had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga, many years before. 
Both Steve and Rod served on the club’s International Projects committee; they presented the project to the club’s next Board of Directors meeting in November 2019, which approved funding of $2,500 for the first,12,000-liter tank (3,170 gallons), drawing on the 2019-20 fiscal year budget. Rod immediately contacted the Rotarians in Nuku’alofa, who agreed to supervise the purchase of the tanks and other necessary equipment, as well as to oversee the installation of the tanks. 
A check for $2,500 was sent by wire transfer in January 2020 to cover the costs associated with the first tank. Following the successful completion of that phase of the project, a second wire transfer of $3,100 was sent in December 2020 for two 5,000-liter tanks (total 2,640 gallons), using budgeted funds from the 2020-21 fiscal year. 
In January, 2020, with the first water tank project was underway, Lonita decided to take some of her accumulated vacation time for a backpacking trip in California. While there, however, she learned that her mother, Elitisi Benson, was very ill with an unknown infection, so she flew home to Webster Groves. Not long afterwards, her mother was diagnosed with COVID-19; sadly, she died in April. 
Lonita still has about a year left in her Peace Corps stint, but she has not been allowed to return to Tonga, due to COVID travel restrictions. She’s been living in Breckenridge, Colorado for the past six months, working for St. Louis-based Civitas, a non-profit that is best-known for its model UN program. Lonita is due to start law school at Loyola of Chicago in August; next spring, she will be attending Loyola’s campus in Rome. If she ever returns to Houma, she will find the three water tanks she worked so diligently to secure. Hopefully, she will also find the children in school for the entire day!  
Founded in 1924, the Rotary Club of Webster Groves is the oldest Rotary Club in St. Louis County and one of 35,000 clubs worldwide. Its club motto perfectly embodies the spirit of Webster Groves: "The City of Beautiful Trees, where roots of community service run deep."  The sixty-two club members take pride in their volunteer work both here and abroad, carrying out the RI motto of “Service Above Self.” The Club’s International Projects Committee is one of dozens that have budget line items each year. Funding derives primarily from two major fund-raisers - Pancake Festivals and Trivia Nights - as well as from members’ dues and donations.  
Rotary International is a global network of 1.2-million people of action, who believe great things can happen when dedicated minds come together to get things done. As community and business leaders representing various professions, experiences, and perspectives, Rotarians share a desire to join others to address challenges affecting their own communities, as well as those in communities throughout the world. 
Solving problems and making a real difference in people's lives takes concerted effort, commitment, vision, and leadership. Creating fully sustainable action plans such as the Tonga water project is an essential component to resolving difficult issues. Rotarians work together to fight disease; promote peace; provide clean water; support mothers and children; fund education; and grow local economies. RI designates every month for specific recognition; March is set aside annually to focus on Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene projects.  
RI first began fighting polio in 1979, ten years before the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was founded, and the disease has been reduced by 99+% since then. Rotarians around the world have contributed $1.6 billion and countless volunteer hours to combat polio in twenty-two different countries. A number of Webster Rotarians have generously volunteered to join vaccination teams during the past four decades. The remarkable success of Rotary’s Polio Plus Program has attracted a two-for-one match from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is a committed member of the GPEI. Polio now remains endemic only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 
Unfortunately, the Rotary Club of Webster Groves is not currently able to gather for their Friday in-person luncheon meetings, nor for their monthly Coffee Hours and Rotary After Hours meetings. However, they continue to meet virtually, in order to enjoy the spirit and fellowship of Rotary, made possible via Zoom technology. They anxiously await the return of “business as usual,” when they will be able to resume lunch meetings at Webster Groves Presbyterian Church, 35 West Lockwood at Gore.