Making a positive difference

As a transcultural nurse, Valerie Yontz had long been devoted to serving the public health needs of people all over the world. She especially enjoyed working with older adults. So it was only natural that when she earned her Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in 1994, she focused on gerontology.

From her work in a crowded emergency room in an impoverished section of St. Louis, Missouri to refugee camps in Southeast Asia and small villages in Africa, Yontz loved her associates and clients. And it struck her that no matter where she went, people’s health problems often stemmed from their non-medical needs, such as poor sanitation, limited access to food and transportation, inadequate shelter, limited health education, and lack of supportive community resources.

“In the early part of my career, my goal was to provide culturally resonant health care services to disadvantaged people especially inner-city children, immigrant families and rural elders,” Yontz says.

During her PhD research at UH Mānoa, Yontz focused on finding culturally sensitive ways to help older adults. She put her findings into action in 1995 when she joined Kokua Kalihi Valley (KKV) Comprehensive Health Center. There, Yontz wrote many grant proposals to establish and grow KKV Elder Care Programs. Today, almost two decades later, KKV’s elder care programs annually serve hundreds of Kalihi elders from many different cultural backgrounds.

Diverse experiences over her 40-year career in public health taught her that problems will arise. But her UH Mānoa education showed her that “trusting relationships make it possible for solutions to emerge,” she says. She thinks of herself as a “matchmaker,” who can connect people and organizations with the opportunities they need to move toward their goals.

“Public Health is a way of thinking about how to solve issues that people face collectively,” she says. “Public health recognizes that we are truly all in this together.”

Yontz is now working towards another one of her career goals: to help educate the public health workforce in Hawai‘i. In her current role as the Practicum Specialist with UH Mānoa Public Health, she coordinates the continuing education programs for Hawai‘i’s public health workers and develops the curriculum for all five degree programs.

Yontz also played a key role in securing continued accreditation for UH Mānoa Public Health from the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH).  UH Mānoa Public Health has been accredited since the 1960s.

Yontz’s hard work at the UH Mānoa Public Health has been invaluable. In 2018, she was recognized by the university when she won the Chancellor's Award for Outstanding Service in the specialist category.

Professor Kathryn Braun, director of UH Mānoa Public Health, nominated Yontz for the award. “Dr. Yontz has developed strong campus-community partnerships for student practica and continuing education. She is an expert in service-learning and active-learning methods, and has grown the UH Mānoa Public Health network to include nearly 200 Hawai‘i and regional community organizations,” Braun says.

From her public health training and practice, Yontz learned to recognize the potential of each person’s unique contribution to a project and to offer others the opportunity to make a positive difference.

“One of the most important things is to feel joyful. This helps you see possibilities and resources that can be used to solve challenges,” she says.

University of Hawai‘i Alumni