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Chris Ellison, left, Cheryl Swales, Brek Batley and Hilary Johnston-Croke outside the Siasi ‘o Tonga High School (UNDA)

A University of Notre Dame staff member’s giving nature and the reach of social media have combined to create a rich and rewarding connection between Notre Dame, a Tongan school and Tongan royalty.

Notre Dame’s director of facilities and asset management, Cheryl Swales, was running short of options as she tried to repurpose 1000 student chairs the university had replaced in Sydney about 12 months ago.

With a background in sustainability, Ms Swales was intent on not letting the chairs go to landfill, so she turned to Facebook’s Marketplace as a last resort. 

Within an hour, an Australian member of the board of trustees with the Church of Tonga made contact to say he would happily take the chairs for a new high school under construction in the Pacific country.

“That was just music to my ears,” Ms Swales said. “I thought this is perfect, this is exactly where we would like to see the chairs go.”

In the months that followed, Ms Swales arranged for the donation of more unneeded furniture and books, which were sent to Tonga in shipping containers organised by the church. 

So grateful was the church that it sent her an invitation to the opening ceremony of the Siasi ‘o Tonga High School in Matatoa, Tongatapu, in May. 

Ms Swales travelled to Tonga with Notre Dame’s Chancellor Chris Ellison and board member Hilary Johnston-Croke to attend the opening ceremony and discuss partnership opportunities with several schools.

The trio were honoured to be invited to a private meeting with the King of Tonga, His Majesty Tupou VI, and the Queen, Her Majesty Nanasipau’u, after the ceremony. 

They also met with Australian High Commissioner Brek Batley and Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, Bishop of Tonga.

“This was a great opportunity to strengthen the relationship with our South Pacific neighbours and open up opportunities for Tongan students to travel to Australia to study,” Mr Ellison said.

Ms Swales said the trip to Tonga and the experience of attending the opening ceremony of the school had left an indelible mark on her.

“I didn’t expect to end up meeting royalty over furniture, not in your wildest dreams would you expect that.”


From Facebook Marketplace to a royal meeting (UNDA)