ABOUT THE AWARDS
The Jefferson Awards that recognize volunteerism have been presented on the local and national levels since 1972. Each year a national winner is selected in four categories: elected or public officials, private citizens, people benefiting the disadvantaged and individuals 35 or younger. The final winner of Chattanooga's Jefferson Awards will attend the national awards program in Washington, D.C. this year.
At 69, Judith Ragon decided to travel to Nicaragua to provide food, medical care and shelter for children who have nothing.
"They are so poor. Anything you do for them will make a difference," said Ragon, now 72, a grandmother and a retired teacher.
Because of her work to help both local and international people in need, Ragon is among this month's Jefferson Award winners.
Living in Walker County, Ga., Ragon "would find children living in a dog house or sleeping in their car and be the helping hand that pulled them out of their situation," said her daughter, Regina Renee Ragon, who nominated her for the award. "She would work to find them scholarships and spend nights tutoring students way beyond the call of duty."
Judith Ragon and other members of the Walker County Retired Teachers Association received a grant from the Chattanooga Food Bank to provide meals for children during the summer when school lunches aren't available. In Hamilton County, she also tutored home-schooled students in English.
"I'm not trying to make a name for myself. I just want to help children," she said.
She is the wife of Ronald Ragon, a retired pastor of Brainerd Presbyterian Church, and is the mother of two adult children - Regina and son Ronald Ragon Jr. - and she is a retired Walker County teacher of 34 years.
For the past eight years, she also has been helping children in Santa Teresa, Nicaragua.
It's like going back 100 years in time, she said. The town is near volcanos so the ground is black with volcanic dust, most roads aren't paved, there is no refrigeration for meats sold in open-air markets, and most people travel by ox cart, she said.
Her daughter spent a week in the village about 10 years ago. She returned to Walker County and started the Latin American Community Development nonprofit to improve the quality of life for children in Nicaragua.
Judith Ragon wanted to help, too. At 69, she boarded an airplane for the first time to Nicaragua. She found children attended a school with chickens running through the classrooms. And because there was no security, each student carried his desk home at night so the furniture wouldn't be stolen. All 180 students in the school shared eight books.
"I thought, 'This is horrible,'" said Judith Ragon. "The teacher would put the book in front of them and have the kids surround them and they would read from that book."
Back in North Georgia, she started baking and selling cakes to raise money for the Nicaraguan children. She sold cakes to her church, to people working in factories and her top customers were other Hispanic students, she said. She made at least $100 a week and more on holidays by selling cakes.
She used the money to build a fence that would provide security for the Nicaraguan school. She also collected books from friends, sold them to McKay's used book store in Chattanooga, then used the money to buy Spanish books to start a library for the Nicaraguan children.
When teachers commented about the Nicaraguan children's poor health, Judith Ragon and other volunteers built a four-room medical clinic. They also paid for a dentist and doctor to staff the clinic.
Her motivation is simple, said her husband.
"She loves Jesus," he said.