Having never stepped foot in the state of Utah, I was more than amazed by its beauty - rustic and dramatically changing from every point of view. The beauty of this state was matched only by the beauty of the family we were there to surprise: the Pauni family. This family's enthusiasm and spirit was contagious. From the moment
yelled, "Good morning, Pauni family!" we were hugged, lifted off our feet and honored by chants and dances from their Tongan culture. I must confess, Tonga was not a place I knew of nor had ever heard of. After spending a week in Utah with the Paunis and with their friends and incredible community, I felt the need to pack my bags and go to Tonga to try to capture some of the magic this incredible family exudes.
Janet Pauni was left a widow and a single mom on one tragic day. Without ever questioning, "Why us?" the children and Janet joined hearts and grabbed onto that family bond they possess and began trying to make it. When I met this family, I fell in love with them on the spot. They are like long-lost friends you have been waiting to reconnect with. The Paunis had what it took to be a strong family; they just needed a home, one that was warm and solid. No more leaks and unwanted varmints sneaking in at night. They had dreamt the American dream: a home. We were there to make that dream come true.
In Tonga culture, the boys and girls cannot sleep in the same area. So to respect their heritage, I did the downstairs for all the Pauni boys, and wow... there are six of them. We called the space the "Lion's Den." They loved it. I did really mature rooms for the older boys. Modern and clean lines with a twist of culture sprinkled in. But the biggest punch came in little Jimmy's room. He really looks up to his older brothers, who are fantastic football players, so I created an out-of-this-world football room. It was a big "hit." The room had 3-D football players, cut out of foam, coming out of the wall. Footballs everywhere, his own official uniform... he loved it. I got a hug so big and so strong, I think I felt a lineman in the making.
We were able to team up with a fantastic builder, Troy Kartchner, from Kartchner Homes. This man and his team made it their mission to not only build a home but to take care of the burden of the old house's mortgage. Kartchner Homes set their sights high and did not let any of us down. Their team raised $200,000 to pay off the old home's mortgage. This took an unbelievable burden off Janet's shoulders. The builders that helped us make dreams come true are heroes in every meaning of the word.
It was such a long week in Logan. The cold weather was really hard, especially for a gal like me from Texas. But we pushed on and built the house on time and had so much fun along the way, meeting the community of Logan and the many Tongan families that call this awesome place home. It never ceases to amaze me how we all do this. It truly is magical. It takes such human compassion and the desire to help a stranger as you would your own brother or sister. Every time I am meeting a new family, builder or community, I am reminded that people are so good on the whole. It is rejuvenating and inspiring to give a family like the Paunis a fresh start. We may have built them a home, but they gave me a jolt in the arm about what matters in life: family unity.
Welcome home, Pauni family, welcome home.