Puerto Vallarta is a popular costal paradise in Mexico's state of Jalisco, complete with sandy beaches, world-class resorts and fine seaside cuisine. From the resorts that line the coast, it's hard to imagine that life anywhere near the booming tourist hotspot can be anything other than paradise.
Yet, only miles away, hundreds of locals face a stark difference in living conditions — poorly constructed homes, scarce access to quality education and extreme lack of medical resources.
In Las Mesas, a small town about two hours outside of Puerto Vallarta, the harsh realities of life are hard to ignore, as was soon discovered by Brookfield-Riverside Rotary President Charles Ezell upon his first visit to the region back in 1999.
Nineteen years later, Ezell is proud to say he and other area Rotarians have helped make a difference in the everyday lives of those in Las Mesas — with the opening of a new medical facility and clean water center.
Ezell, a Berwyn resident and former teacher, became involved with the Brookfield Riverside Rotary Club about five years ago, following the dissolution of the former Berwyn Rotary Club, where he was member for several years.
"One of the mottos of Rotary is 'service above self,' and I'm a retired educator, and when I first went as a tourist to Mexico, I did the tourist things and what interested me was wanting to see some Mexican schools," he said. "That's what motivated me."
The idea for the medical facility and clean water project first came to mind years ago after he began taking trips to the region to work with elementary school children, donating school supplies to the region through the help of the Berwyn Rotary.
The owner of a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, who became an acquaintance, took Ezell to the poor community outside the city. Ezell couldn't believe what he saw — filthy water sources and people living with untreated medical conditions.
"When I went to this town for the first time … I noticed that there was a lady there who had a laceration on her foot," Ezell said. "I asked my friend, 'Will she receive any medical help?' And he said, 'No, there's no medical help here at all.'
"Then I asked more questions, and we found out that they get their water supply from the river. The water is untreated and delivered in a hose that is above ground and carries a lot of sediment, and the horses and cattle contaminate the water. The water was awful."
Soon, the wheels began turning. Ezell wanted to tackle the idea of bringing clean water and a low-cost, all-access medical facility to Las Mesas.
"I knew that the Rotary in Puerto Vallarta was interested in clean water projects, and so [my wife and I] went to the president of the [Puerto Vallarta] Rotary and started talking to him," he said.
The president of the Puerto Vallarta Rotary Club told Ezell to write a global grant application — a Rotary International project to support large international activities with sustainable outcomes in a specific Rotary area of focus. The Puerto Vallarta club served as the host club for the project. Soon after, Ezell began drafting proposals to Rotary International.
While Ezell said the planning process for the project took about a year, the writing process and getting other Rotary clubs on board to help participate took close to three years.
"As you raise money from local clubs, you get a matching grant from Rotary International," Ezell said.
At one point, Ezell said, he was turned down for the grant since Rotary International did not find the mission specific enough.
"The big sticking point was that Rotary International saw our project as we outlined it as three separate small projects," he said.
After all, not only was Ezell looking for clean water and a medical facility, but also internet access for the area.
But, after reworking the grant proposal and calling it "health infrastructure," Ezell said Rotary International eventually accepted the proposal.
"We're talking about water, and that's certainly clearly under health. We're talking about the clinic, and that's clearly under health; but the clinic has to have a way to connect with the larger community about the coming and going of doctors and staffing and so they really need the internet," Ezell said about how he re-presented the project.
Ezell then began petitioning local Rotary Clubs in LaGrange, Western Springs, Hinsdale and Darien for donations. In total, Ezell said area clubs were able to raise $37,500. Additionally, the Puerto Vallarta Rotary Club raised $2,000 for the project.
After the medical facility, water filtration system and internet towers began construction, Ezell said he ensured the medical facility would be operated through a sustainable plan in partnership with another Jalisco village, Talpa de Allende, whose mayor developed a plan with Ezell to guarantee governance of the facility and provide doctors to serve the clinic five days a week.
The new facility, Las Mesas Clinic, is a three-room dispensary with a reception room, two hospital beds and one examination room. Care is free for all residents of the region, where the only thing they have to pay for are medications, which have been negotiated to be distributed at low cost.
The project also provides a clean water supply for the area through a water filtration plant that purifies water resourced from a local river.
Upon attending the clinic's ribbon cutting ceremony this past November, Ezell's reaction was pure and simple.
"It was a great day," he said.