Ronako Mejbon has played many important roles in her life – as a daughter, a mother, a community navigator, a nursing assistant and now as a community health worker at CHAS Health partnering with The ZONE at Northeast Community Center. She has a passion for helping others born out of her own experience navigating the health care system in the United States with her own family.
Ronako was born in the Marshall Islands and moved to Hawaii at the age of 15. At first it was just to visit her grandparents living there, but she ended up staying and graduating from high school. One of the main reasons her grandparents both moved to Hawaii was to access quality, affordable health care that was originally provided to Marshall Islanders as part of a compact with the United States, but eliminated in 1996.
For more on the legacy of United States nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands and the environmental and human health impacts, please read this comprehensive story in the Spokesman Review from March 2021. Access to federal health care benefits was just reinstated for Marshall Islanders at the end of 2020.
Ronako moved to Tempe, Arizona with her family in 2007 and attended community college, hoping to become a registered nurse. However, her parents became very ill and needed access to affordable medical care, which was now almost impossible to obtain for Marshall Islanders. In 2009, the family visited a family member in Spokane and ended up staying. Ronako, as the only daughter in the family (she has 4 brothers), became the caretaker for her parents. She came across Project Access, which provided access to quality medical care for un-insured and low-income individuals. Her parents got treatment for their illnesses and she cared for them until their untimely deaths in 2014 and 2015. Ronako went back to school to receive certification as a Nursing Assistant, but she was only able to work a short time in this role due the health care needs of her own daughter, Shara. After receiving treatments for several years, Shara is now a healthy, active 6-year old who just started Kindergarten at Linwood Elementary.
Because Ronako helped her own family navigate the health care system in Spokane, she became a resource for other Marshall Islanders seeking medical care – doing the work of a care coordinator as a community volunteer. In 2018, she took the Community Health Worker certification through the Spokane Regional Health District, which prepared her to take on the role of Community Health Worker at CHAS Health in 2020, when the pandemic began. Since last year, she has helped families most negatively impacted by COVID 19 navigate access to health care, food, and housing.
The ZONE has a partnership with organizations like CHAS Health to create better access to culturally-relevant, nutritious food to improve whole family health for immigrant and refugee families. CHAS Health is committed to removing barriers to care by expanding access to quality health and wellness services in the community. Ronako works with The ZONE Lead Family Advocate Tim Blessing to access and deliver food to Marshallese families each week. But she does more than deliver—she helps families find ways to use the fresh vegetables and fruits and protein items. Ronako loves to cook and she is passionate about kids and families eating food that is “good for the body and the brain.” When Ronako delivers food, she finds out about other needs of families. It is often difficult for Marshallese community members to talk about their needs. As a community health worker, Ronako provides confidentiality and safety for community members to be able to share their stories and needs. She says, “I have the ability to listen and respond with compassion.”
Marshallese families in Spokane were disproportionately impacted by COVID 19, many getting sick, or stopping work, which caused rent and other bills to pile up. Ronako has been a tremendous support for Marshallese families accessing rental assistance and other support through the partnership with The ZONE this summer and Fall. We look forward to continue partnering with her and her CHAS Health CHW colleague, Betline Akeke, to remove barriers and open up opportunities so all Marshallese youth and families can thrive in Spokane!