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Casa Digna restores dignity through housing, employment

Little Rock's Melody Ashley started nonprofit to build tire homes for San Felipe families

Published: March 4, 2019      
Courtesy Casa Digna
A worker digs on the construction site of tire homes built for San Felipe families in need with support from Casa Digna. The nonprofit was founded by Melody Ashley, who attends Christ the King Church in Little Rock.

Tourism sites that boast San Felipe in Baja California, Mexico, as the perfect vacation destination will show images of boats traversing crystal waters, families laughing on beaches, golfers carting around pristine courses and luxurious rental homes.  

“It’s where the desert meets the sea. There are areas that are absolutely beautiful,” said Melody Ashley, who has lived in the Upper Gulf of California city, population about 18,000, since 2000. What tourists do not see is extreme poverty, namely 297 families living in shacks on a low stretch of desert, a runoff. 

“You’ll be shocked. A lot of Americans that live there don’t even know that. They just stay in their resort area. They don’t get back where the people live,” Ashley said.

Ashley, 58, who recently moved back to Little Rock, founded Casa Digna, a civil association in Mexico last April to build a stable community for those families. It is also a nonprofit in Arkansas. Her vision for “Dignified House” is to build homes, use recycled materials like used tires and provide employment. Each home costs about $20,000, including labor and materials, and she’s currently trying to raise money for two.

“I had some land and I wanted to do something good with it,” Ashley said, who donated four acres and startup capital. “… I just can’t believe they live the way they’ve had to live. I don’t know how anybody can do it. We’re so blessed in comparison. It’s just the right thing to do.”


Catholic roots

Ashley, who converted to Catholicism at 7 years old, is a 1978 graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock.

“We used to go out and do some service work from school; it was just a caring environment,” Ashley said. “We were made aware of problems in the world and that we had to help. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it?”

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, her working life varied, from owning a landscaping business to buying, remodeling and selling homes. Creating and selling metal art brought her to Mexico.

“They have a love of family and they work to take care of their family,” she said.

But when the city of San Felipe was hit with a succession of economic and natural disasters over the past 10 years (see sidebar), Ashley wanted to help.


Dignified housing

In less than a year, Casa Digna has built four tire homes for four single mothers and 13 children. Johanna, a working single mother to eight children and one adopted child, had been living in a livestock pen — no walls and a partial tin roof.

Today, her family has a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom, brightly painted tire home with a tinted concrete floor, kitchen and bathroom. The homes are made from tires collected at the local dump, where millions of tires have become an environmental hazard. The structures also have rebar connecting the structure, donated clay-based dirt, Rmax foam and are sealed with three layers of cement. Each home has windows and doors, every two homes share a septic tank and the government has said they will soon provide electricity. The goal is to build 44 homes, enough to fit four acres.

Ashley designed, built and lived in the first tire home in 2005.

“We had an earthquake in 2007 about an hour north, a 7.2. I had no cracks at all, no problems whatsoever. They just wiggle a little,” she said. “The insulation is amazing. In July or August we had a power outage and it was 115 outside, I was in my bedroom, which is made of tires, and five hours later when the electricity came back on, it was still in the 70s, super well insulated.”

To qualify, families must give 100 volunteer hours to the community before construction begins. They must be drug free, have no criminal record and not own another property. Casa Digna hires six workers per house, paying them the area’s minimum wage, about $75 a week. 

“That first day we all met out at the property” to build, “the people were coming up to me and talking to me, I understand about every other word, but the looks on their faces — from deep inside me I was overwhelmed with their appreciation to have a home and it moved me. I could feel God throughout; God was present,” she said.


How to help

There are two families — a single mother and a young couple with their two children, Isaiah, 1, and Victoria, 4, who are living temporarily in a warehouse — ready to assist in building their homes. But funds are needed before that dream can be a reality.

Tax-deductible donations can be made through PayPal on

Ashley gave a Casa Digna presentation to some of her 1978 MSM classmates Feb. 19.

“She has a real heart for the people there, especially the women and children,” said classmate Kathleen Pursell of North Little Rock. “She’s a very generous and giving person; giving of her own finances, sweat and tears.”

In the future, they hope to acquire more land to build other structures, including a childcare center, sports field and a pavilion. Ashley also hopes to expand to other Mexican states and, if permitting becomes manageable, the United States.

“We’re building a community. We’re about jobs, recycling, homes and then as it goes on, vocational education,” but housing comes first, she said. “They need a home. Not just food, not just clothes, not just toys at Christmas, not just the possibility to go to college. They need a home now.”

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