Aspen, CO ColoradoWhen Tessa Horan started with the Peace Corps, she envisioned building a library at the school where she taught. She never got the chance.A tiger shark killed Horan while she was on assignment in Tonga. She was just 24.It was Feb. 1, 2006, and Horan was taking a swim following an afternoon soccer game with kids from the village of Tua-nuku on the island of Va Vau, where she taught grade school.
Horan, who attended Aspen High School, was an outdoorsy girl with experience as a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor, ski patroller and raft guide. She was, as her godmother, Peggy McDowell, put it, "small but mighty," and her death left hundreds of friends and relatives worldwide grieving. In the following months, however, Horan's family and friends turned their sadness to joy by traveling to Tonga and building the library Horan envisioned.McDowell still breaks down when remembering the morning after Horan died. She said her husband walked out of the bedroom and told her of a dream he had that Horan wanted the family to build the library. "It gave us all something to do, to focus on," McDowell said. "He also said we should put a website together. He sort of burst some major things for us. That was the beginning of the library. And that was when we started the idea of a foundation in her name to build a library."Three days before she was killed, Horan e-mailed friends and family requesting grant-writing materials and ideas for building a library at the school where she was teaching. Few had a chance to respond to her e-mail before she died; it was only two weeks into her time in Tua-nuku. It's hard to believe someone could have such a significant impact in only a few weeks. But the village, home to 355 people in 60 households, had already recognized Horan as someone special."She walked the road and introduced herself to every household inthe first week," McDowell said. "On Sunday she went to all three churches so she wasn't partial to just one church. That was very much Tessa - she was never just one way."
After Horan died, villagers lined the route along which her body was carried; fellow Peace Corps volunteers stayed with her body day and night until it could be flown home. Her death, in some ways, seems to have taken on a life of its own. One man told Horan's family that she was taken by a spirit who fell in love with her because she was so good. And though her family didn't arrive in Tonga until six months after her death, some in the village were still in mourning. It was during those months that Horan's family raised money and made contacts for the library. For a while, all they had to go on was a single e-mail. At first, they weren't even sure the island could use the library. But after a few breakthroughs and help from Peace Corps personnel in Tonga, the family hired contractors and converted a one-room building into a small library. "We decided to make the dream come true," said her mother, Kristena Prater. "[Tessa] had found a building on the government school grounds the size of a good-sized bedroom. We took that building, put a roof on it and hired a carpenter to help make it happen."On Oct. 17, Tessa's parents, sister Jasmine, McDowell and boyfriend, Scott Jones, got on a plane to Tonga. "She left a year ago, and we basically retraced her steps," Prater said. "We stayed with the host families, met the Peace Corps people, flew into the airport. We went through what she did. Her fellow Peace Corps workers took time off their islands and spent all the time we were there getting the library together."The family was treated like dignitaries while in Tonga. People talked to them on the street, and they were accepted everywhere with grace. Even the crown prince met with the family, breaking a tradition wherein the royal family does not receive guests within 100 days of the death of a king. What may have struck Horan's family the strongest, however, was a healing similar to their own.
After the shark attacked Horan, she called out for help. Tatafu, a 25-year-old villager, put fear aside and swam out to help her. "I don't think we realized," McDowell said, "if he hadn't been swimming with her that day ... we would not have known what happened to her."Horan's mother said talking with Tatafu and hearing the story firsthand was an important part of the trip."He told us he was really frightened," Prater said. "She put her arms around him, and she told him she was dying. Then he swam toward shore. He put her in a canoe and he said she was afraid at first and then became very relaxed. What an intimate experience to have, for him. For him to be with her and help her with it and to be so brave. It was a healing experience for the family."So Tatafu helped build the library. He worked with the carpenter to create the shelves and hammer in the nails. And in mid-October, Horan's family arrived with 1,500 books they had collected and purchased. By the time they flew home on Oct. 31, the library was finished. "We were trying to figure out what we could do ... for ourselves in our healing and for Tessa, what she couldn't finish herself," McDowell said. "She gifted to us, in leaving us, on a spiritual level. We have been catapulted ahead learning about impermanence and acceptance of life."This is the first article in a two-part series. The next story explores some of the difficulties Tessa Horan's family faced after her death, including complaints about how the Peace Corps handled it.