“Books to Palau,” New Era, Nov. 1985, 27
Palau is not a large island. Located about halfway between Guam and New Guinea, it is one of dozens of small Pacific islands that show up on world maps as the specks in the sea called Micronesia. But Palau is a velvety green place, blessed the same by sun and rain, the sort of tropical island everyone dreams of running away to someday.
And even though Palau is not large, the people who live there love their home and consider it an important place. One of the Western Caroline Islands, Palau is the site of the provincial capital, Koror. There’s a small airport, a couple of hotels, and talk of increasing tourism. There’s a Scout troop, a causeway linking Koror to a nearby island called Meyuns, electricity that works at least part of the time, and a school system that’s trying hard despite limited resources and limited funds.
Elder Matthew Fairbanks has spent his entire mission on Palau. He knows everybody on the island, it seems. And they all know him. He’s the Scoutmaster. With the mission president’s permission, he and his fellow missionaries teach some classes at the local schools. And he’s one of the few foreigners who has learned to speak Palauan, the native tongue of the island, where Japanese and English are also spoken.
Through their association with the schools, Elder Fairbanks and his companion, Elder Tirinteata Ratieta, a native of Markei Island in the Republic of Kiribati, became aware of the acute need for books. Elder Fairbanks wrote home to his family in the Bountiful 42nd Ward, Bountiful Utah Mueller Park Stake, and explained the situation. And that’s where Jon Fairbanks, Matt’s 14-year-old brother, got the idea for a wonderful Eagle Scout service project.
“Matt’s an Eagle Scout too,” Jon explained, “and he knew I needed a service project. He explained that some of the books they were using in the schools dated back to World War II. I thought it sounded like a good project to help them get some newer ones.”
Jon started looking for sources. “The principal of an elementary school lives in our ward, so I talked to him first. He gave me all of the old English, math, and spelling books on one wall of a storage room. Then I went to other schools, and at one they showed me two rooms full of math, English, and library books. I sorted through them and handpicked books for the project. Some of them were samples companies had sent to sell teachers on their products. Those books were brand-new.”
It wasn’t long before Jon had gathered more than 1,000 books. The other Scouts in his troop helped him sort them and stamp them: “Jon Fairbanks, Eagle Scout Project, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ‘The Mormons.’”
Then the project hit its first—and only—snag. Books weigh a lot. And 1,000 books … well, they weighed 700 pounds. And Palau isn’t exactly right on Main Street. The cost of mailing the books would be prohibitive.
“But there is an airport in Koror, so we thought maybe the Air Force or the National Guard could arrange to get them there,” Jon said. “No such luck. Then I tried calling the commercial airlines.”
Finally Brother Rex Ballou, operations manager for Cargo Development Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Continental Airlines, helped Jon work out a plan. The books were packaged about 40 pounds to a box, and Jon delivered them to the airport. All of the boxes were stamped with a notice that this was an Eagle Scout project. They were to fly on a space-available basis from Salt Lake City to San Francisco to Hawaii to Guam to Palau. Surprisingly, they arrived in Koror in less than two weeks.
In a letter home, Matt wrote:
“Last Friday morning, Palau Branch President Jay J. VanderWall drove up with 15 boxes full of badly needed books for the Palau schools. The people at Air Micronesia (Continental) were surprised to see so many boxes come with absolutely no charge. One man even asked if the Mormons were starting their own school. When we took the books to Meyuns Elementary School, the principal was just amazed. She was so delighted that someone would help out her school, especially with the real lack of funds they suffer. I know that it has touched many hearts to see a church that really works for the good of the people. It also touches my own heart to know that my family so actively supports their missionary. This mission is a family mission for us. I am just the one out in Palau!”
Some time later, a letter to Jon from Hilaria Lakobong, the school principal, summarized her feelings about his service project:
“It’s a great blessing for us, such a tiny island situated in Micronesia, a dot hard to find on a map. Boy! Surely we all felt proud to have the selections of tons and tons of books. We would like to express sincere thanks. Your brother has provided us, the teachers, with a lot of ideas, materials, and even his humble love. Very thoughtful. And we’re glad to thank you but please forgive our late reply. We’ve been busy setting up the classrooms with books to read!”
Jon’s Eagle project and Matt’s work as a missionary are only part of the story of Palau, of course. Two years ago, attendance at Sunday meetings averaged 29 people. Shortly before Matt came home this past July, attendance was as high as 84, and a new chapel is under construction. Missionaries have succeeded in sharing the idea of family home evening throughout the island, until it is now one of the most popular things for Palauans to do. A number of people and families have been baptized and now rejoice in the fulness of the gospel. Latter-day Saints have a solid reputation on the island, and people recognize the Church as a force for good.
As for the books—well, the books keep right on giving, as fine books always do.