Children balancing school desks on their heads. Roofless houses. Residents plagued by parasites. Rustic toilets.

Those were the images that haunted Regina Ragon, a real estate practitioner with Prudential Realty Center in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., after a 2004 church mission trip to provide medical care in rural Nicaragua.

During three subsequent trips, she witnessed little improvement in the people's lives, only temporary solutions to long-term problems. So in 2006 Ragon launched her own non-profit, Latin American Community Development (LACD), with the goal of helping people in rural Central American towns become more self-sufficient.

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.

Ragon is one of 10 finalists for the Good Neighbor Awards, a grant program recognizing REALTORS who make exceptional volunteer contributions to their communities. Each week, until the five winners are announced in November, we'll bring you the story of one of these finalists.

Simple Answers for Two Communities
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 lacking mandatory uniforms aren't allowed to attend school. LACD helped establish a sewing co-op, enabling Calishuate women to sew those uniforms and to make and sell linens for income.

Another example: Tainted water was causing chronic diarrhea among residents of Potrilleros. A new water filtering tank drastically reduced the problem.

You find what's truly important.
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 also 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 worked together to dig ditches for 10 miles to bring the first-ever potable water to Potrilleros. Before, residents relied on a dirty creek.

Ragon finds herself routinely awed by her Nicaraguan experiences and observes, You go there and find what's truly important-family, friends and enjoying life, she says.

That awe often stems from witnessing the enormous impact of seemingly small gestures. It hit home in February 2009 in Calishuate when Ragon met a boy of about eight years old whose mother cried when Ragon asked if he'd be participating in a school event that day.

He wasn't in school. He lacked 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.

A Way to Show Love
Ragon's Nicaraguan work ultimately made a difference in her own life when she emerged from a near-fatal 2008 car wreck that robbed her of sight in one eye and broke her back. 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 and had to be cancelled.

Rather than being onerous, her Nicaraguan work aided Ragon's healing, motivating her to recover. She reflects on the accident saying, I'm pretty fortunate. I have a whole lot, so I'm more focused on others' needs.

Ragon's short-term goals for Nicaragua 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.

Saborio Acevedo believes Ragon is unstoppable and describes her impact most poignantly by saying she has brought happiness, hope for a better future, a new spirit, and a brotherhood.

That sentiment pleases Ragon. Human beings are made to love. When we're not loving, we're not living. My work in Nicaragua is a way to show love.

Of the 10 Good Neighbor finalists, five winners will receive $10,000 grants for their community projects and will be honored at the REALTORS Conference & Expo in San Diego on November 14. The remaining five finalists will receive $2,500 grants for their cause. To learn about the other finalists, go to

The Good Neighbor Awards is supported by eNeighborhoods,, Lowe's, and HouseLogic.

--Elyse Umlauf-Garneau