During the week, Bakersfield resident Sara Danville works as a prosecutor with the Kern County District Attorney's office in charge of the Prison Unit. That means she tries cases of inmates accused of committing crimes while locked up.
Come the weekend, however, Danville often dashes out of Bakersfield and heads about 250 miles south. Her car is packed with mostly non-perishable food items and other goodies. Around four hours later she arrives at the Otay Mesa border crossing and ventures into one of the poorest colonias, or neighborhoods, in Tijuana.
I recently went along with Danville for the ride.
After maneuvering through heavy traffic where rules are often ignored and unpaved streets are the norm, we arrived at an orphanage, Casa Hogar Sonrisa de Ángeles, or Smile of Angels Children's Home. Dozens of kids, some as young as 2 years old, surrounded her car yelling, smiling and hugging Danville as she tried to open the car door.
"Ernesto!" Danville cried to a boy who appeared to be around 10-years-old. The scene played out for about 10 minutes as Danville picked up small children in each arm while greeting others with a kiss.
"Sara, ya regresaste!" ("Sara, you're back!") said another.
Why does she come here so far, so often?
"I'm hooked, I love these kids and I can't stay away," said Danville, her face lighting up.
She pulls heavily from her Lutheran faith, saying there's a reason she was called to come here. She heard about the orphanage from her church and decided to get involved.
A little later, the prosecutor and several kids were dancing in the dirt courtyard to whatever pop music they play on the radio today. It was around 11 p.m. but no one appeared to be tired and sleepy except me and the 2-year-old. I was provided a mattress placed on the floor of an office, which I gladly accepted, and quickly fell asleep.
The orphanage is run by a nun, Liliana Camacho, whom everyone simply addresses as "Madre Lili," or Mother Lili. The title suits her well. A commanding figure in her black habit, Madre Lili carries out a combination of roles, including CEO of a small staff and volunteers who help her run Casa Hogar.
She is both demanding and tender with her flock. And like Sara, puts her faith in God to keep the orphanage doors open.
Many times things have looked financially bleak as she's struggled to keep the doors open. To start the center, she raised funds by taking her guitar and singing for donations while riding city buses. Its doors opened in 2009, taking in some of Tijuana's most vulnerable and abused kids.
"Some of them have been abandoned by their families," said Madre Lili. "Others were physically and sexually abused."
Funding comes primarily from donations. Though some of the children are placed at Casa Hogar by the government, funds to care for them may not come until months later, she said. Most of the kids accepted come from homes where either parents or grandparents have requested they be taken in.
There is no charge and in any case, families are too poor to pay. The kids are fed, clothed and taken to school in a beat-up van with way too many miles on it, bald tires and no spare. On outings, children are crammed in, some forced to stand at the rear. Those who don't comply with chores face consequences.
Despite the rough start in life faced by these kids, Danville sees hope in them.
"In my job, I see the consequences when people make bad choices in life," she said. "I want to teach these kids not to make bad choices and avoid going to jail."
Madre Lili calls Danville an angel, but Danville feels differently.
"It is Madre and the kids who are the angels," she said.
Danville is undeterred by the lack of resources at the orphanage and is constantly raising funds for the center. Her generosity has caught the attention of her boss.
"It's her tenacity," said Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green. "I really admire her, her heart's in the right place."
Yes, it is. No one knows that any better than 50 children who live in an orphanage.
Donations to Casa Hogar can be made by contacting Sara Danville by email at email@example.com.
This column was revised to correct Sara Danville's email address.