Today is Human Rights Day. The date commemorates, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "the first global statement of what we now take for granted — the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings," as stated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a press release on Dec. 4, 2007. — —

In recognition of Human Rights Day, the Tidings spotlights two local women whose lives and work reflect the efforts of everyday people who honor human rights and help others. — —

Maria Benitez, 46, is a Medford resident and U.S. citizen since 1989. She is a wife and a mother of two teenage sons working with first-time mothers through Healthy Start — a free, home-visiting health service funded by the state and run by La Clinica and Jackson County’s Commission on Children and Families. —

Assisting first-time mothers

Maria grew up in Acuitzio del Canje in Michoacan State and came to the United States with her mother and siblings in 1975 when she was 14 years old. Her father, who was born in 1918, had been living in the United States for most of his life, working at times without documentation and other times as a laborer contracted by the government. Together they settled in Smith River, California. — — — — — — — Maria Benitez — — —

"I was one of the lucky ones to come with legal permanent status," Benitez said. She worked seasonally in the lily fields near Smith River, at fisheries in Crescent City, and the library at the high school she attended in Crescent City, commuting everyday from Smith River.

Coming from Mexico, where "the poor get poorer and the rich get richer," Benitez said she wanted a better life for her children. Both of her sons are "La Clinica babies," said Benitez, referring to the clinic in Phoenix. When she came to La Clinica for prenatal care, she liked the doctors and later started working for La Clinica’s Best Start program. The program ended after two years, but Maria continued her work in the similar Healthy Start program.

Healthy Start is a free, voluntary program for first-time parents and families of newborn babies. For 13 years, Benitez has been visiting the homes of first-time mothers, starting when the babies are born until the child is five years old, and works with the mothers to help them with issues of child safety, entertainment, development, nutrition, and breast-feeding. She gives out videos and refers patients to agencies for assistance not available through Healthy Start. Benitez and one other woman — out of eight employees at Healthy Start — work specifically with Hispanic patients.

"With everyone I meet, I learn something from them and it helps with the next people," she said.

Mi Casa

Angelica Ruppe is a single mother raising two children. She has been the financial director at La Clinica for 13 years. Ruppe is also a member of the Ashland Rotary Club and was part of the Rotary project "Mi Casa Diferente" (My Different House), which allowed families who were living in shacks in Ashland’s sister city of Guanajuato, Mexico to build homes with better materials.

Ruppe is from Guanajuato and has lived in the Rogue Valley for 23 years. She was a Certified Public Accountant in Mexico and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Guanajuato. She came to Ashland in August of 1984 for graduate studies in Business and Education at Southern Oregon State College. — — — — — — — Angelica Ruppe — — —

Ruppe went to her first graduate school class not knowing any English. She said she thought, "Oh my God. What am I doing?" and immediately started going to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in Ashland at a free school run by volunteer teachers. She used the dictionary to translate her school books and lessons, staying up until 4 a.m. most days. It took three months for her to start understanding English.

"But I passed all of my classes," Ruppe said.

She graduated in 1986 and took another year of school, learning about income taxes and business law in preparation for getting her CPA license here. Ruppe said studying for the exam was twice as hard as studying in college.

"It was the hardest I’d ever studied in my life," she said, "15 hours a day, every day for two months — it took my life."

Ruppe passed the CPA exam. In Portland, before the exam, she saw a Mexican flag and cried, thinking, "I am just a Mexican lady, but I’m just as capable as they are." Then she sang the Mexican national anthem and said to herself, ‘I am going to pass this sucker.’

"I am not your typical accountant," Ruppe said. "As a Latina, I have a responsibility to model for others."

Ruppe is invited to schools to talk about what her life has been like, and how she got to where she is. Once a year she goes to Southern Oregon University with the Oregon Society of CPAs to talk about accounting with students. She tells students, "If I can pass the CPA exam, you can do it."

About her work at La Clinica, Ruppe said, "I believe in giving back to the community. There is a purpose in life for you. And for me, my purpose is serving others."

As a member of the Rotary Club of Ashland, she helped put together a World Community Service project, called "Mi Casa Diferente." Angelica went to Guanajuato where money from the Rotary chapter in Ashland and the city and the state governments of Guanajuato provided materials to build houses for low income families who lived in shacks. The project helped 359 people.

When asked why people from Mexico emigrate to the United States rather than fight for better employment opportunities and higher standards of living in Mexico, Ruppe said people get elementary school education in Mexico but the government does not have to provide high school. And without education the people think poverty is their fate.

Both Ruppe and Benitez understand that it’s better to be a legal immigrant, but for immigrants with the pressures to leave Mexico for available work in the United States, they believe mothers and children get caught in the middle.

The belief of "inherent dignity and equality of all human beings" shows through in the work done by Benitez and Ruppe. Both have first-hand knowledge of the inherent struggles for a better life. The understanding and perspectives they’ve gained from personal struggles have become part of their motivation to help others.

"Try to understand every human being — each person individually — because we’re different," Benitez said.

Section two of Article 25 in the U.N. Universal Declaration states, "Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance." Both Benitez and Ruppe said that helping babies and their mothers makes their work at La Clinica valuable.

To read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, visit for English, and for Spanish.