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Nonprofit started by Little Rock woman builds homes for families in Mexico from dirt, tires

by Josh Snyder | March 6, 2019 at 3:14 p.m.
Families work on construction of a home made from tires, clay and red dirt in San Felipe, Mexico. The families are participating in a program offered by Casa Digna, a nonprofit founded by Melody Ashley, of Little Rock.

Tires and dirt are the crucial elements in homes built for some residents of a Mexican town, an effort propelled by a Little Rock woman.

Casa Digna builds homes for residents in the coastal town of San Felipe, located in the Mexican state of Baja California. In exchange for helping with the construction of these houses, which are built largely out of tires packed down with dirt, residents and their families can receive homes for themselves, according to Melody Ashley, the nonprofit's founder.

About 30 families participate in the program, Ashley, who is 58, said. When they complete 100 hours of volunteer service, much of which involves aiding in the construction of these homes, they also become eligible to receive one for themselves, she said.

Jose Luis, association president of Casa Digna, said in a message that the program is aimed at single mothers and families in vulnerable situations.

"This improves the quality of life of families and protects the environment, as well as generating employment opportunities," he wrote.

According to Ashley, each home, as well as a fence around its perimeter, requires roughly 1400 tires to build and costs about $20,800 to make. Though much of the construction is done by the women and children, Ashley said Casa Digna also pays men to provide support for more difficult tasks, such as pouring concrete.

So far, two homes have been completed and two more families are eligible, she said.

Ashley said she first visited San Felipe in about 1989. A graduate of the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in ocean studies, she decided that, “someday I’m going to live there” after visiting the coastal town. In 2000, Ashley purchased a home in San Felipe, she said.

San Felipe, population 19,200, is a popular destination among tourists but the economy has been struggling in recent years, Ashley said.

According to Ashley, residents worked there as fishermen or as construction workers, but when the economy sank several years ago, many families found themselves trapped without jobs or income.

“It hurt generations of families,” she said.

Ashley said she first got the idea to build homes out of tires when she heard an environmentalist and actor named Dennis Weaver built a home in Colorado out of tires. In 2005, she tried the technique for herself, building a master bedroom and fence out of tires.

“Once it was black-papered and chicken-wired and stuccoed it was beautiful,” she said. “And the insulation value was amazing.”

Though two homes have been completed and two more are on their way, Sarah Mayfield, the organization’s executive director, said much work remains to be done. The organization plans to construct a total of 44 homes and intends to build other facilities, including a community center, sports field, laundries, public restrooms and a classroom.

“There’s a lot of 'Band-Aid' working going on, so to speak, and it’s needed,” Mayfield said. “But if we want to change the world for future generations we actually have to change communities, change families and give opportunities.”

Karina Calderon, a San Felipe mother of two who worked her way into a tire home and continues to work for Casa Digna as their office manager, said that moving into the house she helped to build has been a “dream become a reality.”


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