Somewhere in the poor, remote villages of Mexico's Veracruz state, a home has a new metal roof, a concrete slab has replaced the dirt floor under another and some people are getting much-needed medical help.

Some of the money to pay for these improvements came from donors in Madison. But they weren't merely donations collected by a relief agency and handed out to the needy.

The recipients were first-time savings account holders taking part in MatchSavings, a program started about a year ago by the Madison-based World Council of Credit Unions. It is designed to encourage savings over the use of credit to pay for such necessities as housing improvements, health care, education and small business improvements.

"People have access to credit more than a simple savings account," said Jennifer Bernhardt, co-creator of the program and coordinator of its Web site, through which donations are collected. "With credit you're digging a hole. Savings builds a foundation."

MatchSavings works like this: Working with the Caja Yanga credit union in Veracruz, which sends representatives into the remote villages, people who have never before had a savings account sign up to save money for six months toward a specific goal. At the end of the six-month period, their savings are matched by MatchSavings donations and paid out in vouchers or goods, such as materials for home improvements.

"We started it to raise awareness of savings in general, not only getting the rural poor to save," said Tiffany Litscher, the program's manager, who makes quarterly visits to Mexico to see that the program is being run as intended. "We're trying to use it as a tool to get people educated about savings and how to do it here."

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MatchSavings donors can choose which goals they would like their tax-deductible donation to meet. The program's Web site, MatchSavings.org, also introduces donors to the savers whose goals they will help to meet. So far, MatchSavings has raised $7,000 toward a goal of $10,000 they hope to reach in March, Bernhardt said.

It may seem like a modest goal, but Bernhardt said $90 is about what the average Veracruz resident taking part in the program saves in six months.

"For us, saving $90 for six months might not be a big deal," Litscher said. "But for them it can put a roof on their house."

MatchSavings got a donations boost on Thursday, Bernhardt said, when it was mentioned in Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times.

Most who were in MatchSavings' initial group of 117 savers have continued to save after their involvement ended, Bernhardt said. She and Litscher said they hope to expand to the program to another credit union in Mexico and double the number of participants.

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