During three subsequent trips, she witnessed little improvement in the people’s lives. So in 2006 Ragon launched her own nonprofit, Latin American Community Development, with the goal of helping people in rural Central American towns help themselves.
"Seeing the lack of textbooks, no indoor plumbing, hunger, and people with parasites during that first trip broke my heart," she recalls. "I thought I could do something that would be sustainable for them."
So far, LACD has focused on two farming communities—Calishuate and Potrilleros in Nicaragua’s south Pacific region—bringing simple solutions to help build residents’ long-term self-reliance.
Take the school desks, for example. To prevent them from being stolen, students in Potrilleros had been routinely dragging or carrying the desks home, sometimes for two-mile treks. LACD installed doors and security bars on the open-air school windows.
In Nicaragua, kids must wear uniforms to school, but not all families could afford them. LACD helped establish a sewing co-op, enabling Calishuate women to sew uniforms, as well as to make and sell linens for income. Another example: Tainted water was causing chronic diarrhea among residents of Potrilleros. A simple water filtering tank drastically reduced the problem.
Access to medical care is a chronic problem in rural areas—in Calishuate the closest doctor was a half-day’s walk away. In February, LACD and Calishuate residents completed construction on a medical clinic. Sponsors donated $40,000 worth of medical supplies and equipment to get the clinic running. The clinic also will provide work for Ervin Saborio Acevedo, LACD’s Nicaragua-based coordinator. He’s in nursing school, and Ragon is funding his education.
Beyond the physical changes, Saborio Acevedo says LACD’s work has brought a subtle transformation among residents. "You see hope. Families understand that if we work together, we will achieve great changes in the future."
Such was the case when residents dug ditches for 10 miles to bring the first-ever potable water to Potrilleros. Before, residents relied on a dirty creek.
Ragon is awed by her Nicaraguan experiences. "You go there and find what’s truly important," she says. Most moving, she says, is the impact of seemingly small gestures. In February 2009 Ragon was in Calishuate. When she casually asked a boy of about eight years old whether he’d be participating in a school event that day, the boy’s mother began to cry. It turned out he lacked the mandatory uniform and supplies. Ragon told him to see her the next day. The boy arrived, shy and gazing at the ground, and Ragon gave him a uniform and a backpack.
"He cried. His mother bawled," recalls Ragon. "One little thing can literally change lives. It’s an overflow of emotion realizing what a big difference one person can make."
In 2008, Ragon’s volunteer work made a difference in her own life, too, when she emerged from a near-fatal car wreck that broke her back and robbed her of sight in one eye.
Her recovery included intense therapy to learn to walk again. Yet her focus remained on Nicaragua. Jennifer Ohle, a nurse and LACD treasurer, remembers Ragon awakening from surgery. "She was on a ventilator and bruised head-to-toe," recalls Ohle. "She scribbled ‘Nic’ on a piece of paper." Ragon’s concern: A trip that was planned for the following week had to be cancelled.
Rather than being a burden, Ragon says, the Nicaraguan work has actually fueled her recovery. "I’m pretty fortunate. I have a whole lot, so I’m more focused on others’ needs," she says.
Ragon’s short-term goals for the two towns are getting fertilizer to improve crops and building a road to make the villages more accessible. Eventually, Ragon would like to broaden LACD’s reach to more Nicaraguan communities.
Ragon has brought "happiness, hope for a better future, a new spirit, and a brotherhood" to the communities she serves, says Saborio Acevedo.
That sentiment pleases Ragon. "Human beings are made to love," she says. "When we’re not loving, we’re not living."