GUANAJUATO, MEXICO &

Ester, her husband Alfredo, and their four children are sleeping better these days. They are the recipients of a new two-bedroom concrete house with living room, kitchen and bathroom that replaced their one-room tarpaper and stick shack, using funds raised by the Rogue Valley who donated to the Ashland Rotary Club's 'Taste of Guanajuato' in July.

Through a Mexican government-sponsored program called, "Mi Casa DIFerente," each $900 donated here leverages matching funds that provide all the necessary building materials for a house such as the one Ester and Alberto now have.

During a recent visit to the small settlement of nine houses in Sarco, about 12 miles outside Ashland's Sister City, Rotary Club members Angelica Ruppe, Brian Conrad and Deedie Runkel saw firsthand the difference the funds generated in Ashland are making in Guanajuato and its surrounding area.

The visiting Ashland Rotarians joined members of the Guanajuato Rotary Club in painting the first two of 50 houses to be built with funds raised in Ashland a bright pink. All houses built through the "DIF" program in 2007 will be the same color. As he helped the new homeowner place a tile with the Rotary seal on it near the threshold of the new house, Conrad noted, "It's humbling to discover what a huge difference a small effort on our part can make."

Alfredo and his friends in the community spent nearly two months building their house on land given to them by his father, finishing it just before their youngest daughter &

now three weeks old &

arrived. "I wanted the baby to be born in the new house, to know what it was like right from the start," Ester said.

"After our first night in the house, my boys said, 'Mommy, Mommy, this is so much better. We aren't cold or wet. And we don't have to sleep on the floor,'" Ester said.

The day after the painting party, the Ashland delegation paid a visit to Guanajuato's City Hall, where they presented a check for $45,000 (485,000.87 pesos) to Eduardo Romero Hicks, mayor of the city and veteran of many visits to Ashland, and Martha Romero, head of the Mi Casa DIFerente program for the city. This is the first installment on the $75,000 raised at the "Taste" event.

"This program works wonderfully because it gives people a lift to the next step," Romero said. "And it's not a giveaway. They have the satisfaction of knowing they've built their own house and left their old dwelling behind. The children grow up with this example in a safe, secure house. One woman told me, 'There's nothing I can't do now that I've done this.'" Romero said.

Romero said the infusion of cash from Ashland will increase the number of houses built under "DIF" in 2007 from 132 to 182.

For Ruppe, the ceremony was particularly moving. "My roots are here in Guanajuato, where I grew up and went to university. To be able to return and see how these lives have changed because of our efforts is an amazing gift. We've managed to speak from our hearts directly to the hearts of each family," she said. "They all say 'muchas gracias' over and over again."

Key to the success of Ashland's participation in the program is the close partnership with the Guanajuato Rotary Club. President Alejandro Navarro and his architect wife Samantha Smith work closely with "DIF" officials in overseeing progress on the houses, from selection of new sites to coordination with "DIF."

"Mexicans are very independent and seek places to live and work where their sense of self-sufficiency can be realized," Navarro said. "In the very rural areas of the city where these houses will be built, we're especially glad to be able to have such a strong impact. The 30 per cent boost in the number of houses built because of Ashland Rotary's participation has made a huge difference."

The balance of the Ashland Rotarians' week in Guanajuato was spent visiting the sites of future houses and laying plans for the next visit in March, when those who donated money for the houses will be invited to assist in painting them.

"It's one thing to go to a fundraiser and feel good about giving money to a good cause. But seeing just exactly what your money afforded, meeting the people whose lives were changed as a result, and standing next to them as you help paint their first house, is life-changing for you and for them," Deedie Runkel said. "It just makes it all very tangible."

Maria Elena served the group tortillas when they visited to see the site where work on her house in El Varal will get underway next week. To be situated under a pear tree she insisted not be cleared from the area, the new house will bring a vast change for her family of eight.

"We all crowded into her tiny kitchen to get warm, amazed at how calm she was at our invasion, calmly flipping tortillas that we ate as fast as she cooked them," Runkel said. Soon room had to be made for three of the older children as they came home for lunch from the two-room school painted bright lavender on the next hill over.