Mending the Disconnect

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SeaMar Community Center

Perhaps what makes Rogelio Riojas so effective at providing health services to socioeconomically disadvantaged Latinos in Washington is that he knows firsthand what it’s like to be poor, to not speak the dominant language and to feel like a second-class citizen.

Riojas grew up in rural Texas, but every spring he and his parents took the long drive to Granger, Wash., to pick sugar beets. When the harvest was over, Riojas, his parents and other migrant workers traveled west to Mount Vernon, where they worked the strawberry fields. Next, it was down to central California, where the Riojas family spent summers picking grapes and peaches before heading back to Texas.

But when he was 15, Riojas and his parents settled in the agricultural town of Othello, Wash. In his predominantly white high school, Riojas began to see he was different and was told as much by some students.

That disconnect sparked his activism. In 1969, he enrolled in the University of Washington and joined the UW chapter of the MEChA and Brown Berets, Chicano unity and empowerment organizations. He helped raise funds for Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and participated in the 1972 takeover of the shuttered Beacon Hill Elementary School, which resulted in the formation of El Centro de la Raza, or The Center for People of All Races, community facility.

Around the same time he also helped bring a community health center to Othello.

With degrees from the University of Washington in political science and health administration, Riojas took over operations at Sea Mar, a community clinic that concentrated on the Latino population. Mary Bartolo, regional deputy director at Sea Mar, says since Riojas grew up with a lack of access to health care, providing it to others became one of his drivers in life. “Even when [Latinos] could get it, especially the low-income and uninsured, there was the language barrier,” she adds.

Sea Mar now has 56 clinics and programs throughout Washington, and 45 percent of its clientele is Latino. The range of care features medical, dental, maternal support services, child development, behavioral health, housing and youth programs, including boxing.

RUNNERS-UP>>>

Bastyr University, External Site Program

The largest university for natural health arts and sciences in the country, Bastyr University offers free or low-cost naturopathic care to underserved populations in King County through its 15-year-old external site program. Students in advanced naturopathic medicine and acupuncture and Oriental medicine treat patients at 12 locations, including a downtown homeless shelter, a rural community center in Carnation and the Country Doctor Clinic for low-income patients on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The program reached 3,567 patients in 2009.

Airlift Northwest

Before a group of hospitals founded this air medical transport service in 1982, the outcomes for victims of bear attacks in remote British Columbia or survivors of capsized crab boats on Puget Sound or patients in need of an emergency transplants in rural Eastern Washington looked quite different. With helicopters, a Lear jet and a turbo prop stationed in cities from Juneau, Alaska, to Olympia, Wash., and critical-care nurses aboard each flight, Airlift Northwest has made the difference in saving the lives of many of the 80,000 people it has cared for so far.

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