During her week in Nicaragua on behalf of UNICEF's global child protection programs, Harmon says she saw firsthand the issues facing the country, including child trafficking, sexual exploitation, violence and abuse.
"It's basically about protecting those kids, trying to keep them off the streets -- trying to educate them on what trafficking is," the 41-year-old actress said during a recent visit to CBS News. "We have so much that we take for granted -- I know I do -- in this country and then when you go and see the poverty in other countries...it just makes you come back and appreciate things so much more."
It also made Harmon want to do even more. While in Nicaragua Harmon learned about some of the tactics used to lure children into drug trafficking. "They'll go, 'We're going to paint this mural. Do you want to help?' That's how they get them in. That's how they bring them into the fold."
Despite the troubling things she witnessed, Harmon says she left Nicaragua feeling positive -- mainly because of the support UNICEF is bringing to the country, along with the support children there give one another. "These kids -- they have nothing, and they can very easily just throw in the towel and give up. But they don't. That was thing that struck me the most. I walked out of the country literally hopeful."
She brought that hope back to Charlotte, N.C., where she lives with her husband, former NFL player Jason Sehorn, and their three daughters. More field visits are in Harmon's future, but before that it's back home for a few days and then work. Harmon, Sehorn and the kids live in Charlotte, N.C., and Harmon tapes her TNT series, "Rizzoli and Isles," in Los Angeles.
"I shoot six months out of the year," said Harmon, who plays Jane Rizzoli, a tough Boston police detective on the show. "So I'm on the other side of the country for six months out of the year. The silver lining in this is that I'm from Texas. They get on a plane from Charlotte, I get on a plane from LA. We fly, we meet in the middle. They get to spend time with their grandparents and grow up with their cousins. It's not the ideal situation, but it works. It really really does."
And Harmon says she has confirmation that it works for the girls. "Two days ago my little ones were like, 'Mom, can we go to camp this summer instead of coming to visit you?' And I'm like, 'They're fine. My girls are completely fine.' And I go, 'No, you're coming to visit Mommy.'"
“Rizolli and Isles" will return on Feb. 25 for a few more episodes. And then? "We start to shoot season 5 on the 10th of February," said Harmon.
Her part on "Rizolli and Isles" comes a decade after she played ADA Abbie Carmichael on "Law & Order." Harmon says she's learned a lot since then.
"I was so young. I could barely even say corroboration," she said. "I could barely even spell it...But to me every role is different and every role is so different and every role deserves its own research and respect. Abby was a very different character Jane. If anything I learned so much for the cast of 'Law & order' -- just wonderful people. It was a blessing to walk around this city and be with those actors. That was such an amazing experience."
For more on Harmon, check out the video above.