BY WAY OF Black Oak Casino, Tuolumne Rancheria residents have newly paved driveways, spruced-up homes, new parks and stronger educational and social services programs .

"Who would have thought this was possible five or six years ago?," said Tribal Chairman Kevin Day. "We are putting our kids through college and improving the health, welfare and quality of life for all our tribe members."

Life has changed forever for the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk and their neighbors, but the biggest changes are still ahead, tribal officials say.

"We have had our growing pains, but even that has been good for us," said Day. "We (tribe members) all get together and eat now. It's a good thing."

The Me-Wuk opened the 22,000-square-foot Black Oak Casino on North Tuolumne Road just north of downtown Tuolumne on May 15, 2001. It is located across North Tuolumne Road from the Mi-Wu Street entrance to the 335-acre Rancheria.

Other than that the casino has been far more successful than expected since opening, Day won't say how much income it brings in.

Signs of that success abound at the Rancheria, also off North Tuolumne Road. About 60 driveways have been paved with money from the casino, and an ongoing home remodel and repair program concentrates on projects to assure the health and safety of residents.

For example, porch railings have been installed on the homes of elderly residents and flashing beacons have been added to direct emergency vehicles to homes. Swamp coolers and thermostats have been replaced and roofs repaired.

The Rancheria also has a new playground and basketball court, and plans are under way to add a sports field, Day said.

About a dozen abandoned mobile homes and 60 abandoned vehicles have been removed from the Rancheria in recent months.

Education is also getting a boost from casino dollars. A school program in The Blue House on the Rancheria offers after-school and other supplemental programs for students to help them get the most out of their education.