Hilda Pacheco, founder of Corazon de Vida, a foundation dedicated to helping 10 orphanages with hundreds of children.
We drove about an hour south of Tijuana, following the signs leading to an orphanage or "casa hogar" as they are called in Mexico. Our first stop took us to Door of Faith Orphanage in the town of La Mision, where Hilda's life story began.
She entered the orphanage at 8 years old. Hilda said, looking back, it's the best thing that could've happened to her and her siblings.
"So the first day we got here it was my sister and I. There were four of us but the orphanage didn't have room for all four of us. They only had room for the two girls and the two boys were placed in another orphanage for a year," Hilda said.
The decision to give up her children didn't come easy for Hilda's mother. They lived in a small home and when their father left the family, their mother was left with four kids on minimal income.
Hilda was given the responsibility to watch over her siblings, but one fateful afternoon her younger brother nearly drowned under her care. This is when her mother had to make the sacrifice to leave them at the orphanage. Hilda admits the separation was incredibly difficult, but deep down she was grateful to her mother for this decision.
"That was one of the things that was good for me realizing that I no longer had to be the one responsible for my siblings," Hilda said.
As we walked around, Hilda showed us the different areas of the orphanage and reminisced about her childhood. She remembers finding joy in having her own bed.
"I mean, we had family of six...we pretty much all slept in one bed, so having my own space, my own bed, was really great and it just felt like something so luxurious," she said.
Growing up here, Hilda never imagined returning someday as an adult. At the time, her focus was to reunite her family. She was eventually able to bring her family back together in the U.S.
Then, 15 years after she left the orphanage, she returned to the Door of Faith Orphanage for a visit that would change her life, yet again.
In 1993, Hilda Pacheco was a manager at a successful aerospace company in Southern California. At the time, she didn't want people to know she had been raised in an orphanage in Mexico. That is until the moment she realized her story could plant desperately-needed seeds of change.
"The big contrast was the facility, how the facility looked. The buildings were run down and there were only about 30 kids. I saw that they were serving rice and potato chips because that's all they had to give them. And I looked at them and said 'Is this all they eat?' and they said, 'Yes, because it's all we have,'" Hilda said.
Hilda realized that in order to help the orphanage, she first had to share her life story. She reached out to her employer and other colleagues in the U.S.
"I never wanted to tell them that I came from an orphanage or anything like that because I never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me," she said. "But I knew that in order to get help for the orphanage, I needed to tell my story and that's what I did."
Her courage paid off. She began fundraising and Corazon de Vida was born! With the foundation's support, the orphanage has been retrofitted with updated buildings, a barber shop, library and homework room.
Corazon de Vida's reach has also expanded to support 10 orphanages throughout Baja California and raises more than $1 million every year.
"Over 25 years we've probably brought down thousands of people. They come to spend time with kids and focus on giving them love and attention. They need arts and crafts," Pacheco said. "So people can see where the need is. You're really helping them change their lives. You're giving them a gift and that gift is a gift of purpose."
During our trip to Baja California, George Perez, a Director for Corazon de Vida, drove us to the orphanages that the foundation helps support.
George manages the day-to-day operations, something that he didn't expect to do for a living.
"Approximately, 17 years ago I came down to visit a home with Corazon de Vida and I met some great kids and I knew on that first day that I needed to spend more time doing this, make a commitment to these kids to help. That was 17 years ago! Fifteen years ago, I quit my I.T. job, sold my house, and made a commitment to do this full time," George said.
Now he makes weekly trips to Baja, giving his full attention and more to hundreds of kids who live in an orphanage, or a casa hogar, as they are known in Mexico. George brings potential and existing donors to visit the homes so they can see how their donations make a difference and are improving the lives of these children.
When we asked George, "What do the children mean to you?"
Without skipping a beat he replied, "They are my life. I don't have kids myself, so I say that I have 500 kids, and so they call me 'dad' and I call them son...daughter. They're my kids -- not kids from my blood, but they're from my heart."
Over the years, George has seen many of the kids develop into wonderful young men and women. Although many come from broken families and incredibly sad situations, he is consistent in their lives and feels fortunate to have the opportunity to know the children.
And just like a father, he worries about his kids. Even though he can't prevent the despair or hardship their reality might bring, he chooses to focus on what he can help provide -- shelter, security and smiles.
Hilda Pacheco, founder of Corazon de Vida, took Vista L.A. to orphanages south of the border in Mexico that her foundation helps support.
One stop took us to Hacienda Orphanage in Tijuana, which was started about 20 years ago by a nun who wanted to provide a refuge for mothers and children -- most of them victims of domestic violence. Today, it is home to about 45 kids.
"Every month we support their basic needs for food, water, utilities," Hilda said.
We met 13-year-old Osiris. She lives at Hacienda Orphanage with her two younger brothers. Their story has parallels to Hilda's, who was also raised at an orphanage with her siblings in Baja.
She told us in Spanish that her dad works day and night, so they were left at the orphanage.
We asked Osiris, what do you like best about school? She replied, "I like English the best. I got an 'A,' and, well, I'm giving it my all in all the subjects."
She's old enough to understand the reasons she lives there and how important donations are for kids in situations like hers.
"They are so kind, although they don't know us, they help support us. Thank you so much and God will always be with you. We are waiting for you here with open arms," Osiris added.
Having an impact on the future of children like Osiris and her brothers is at the heart of Corazon de Vida. We asked Hilda what it's like to walk around the orphanages and see the changes.
"It's a great feeling!" she said.
Corazon de Vida hosts many fundraisers throughout the year to support and help put food on the table for roughly 500 children from 10 orphanages in Mexico annually.
One of their most successful ways to raise money is day-long bus trips, which are offered monthly, and usually sell out. The buses are filled with volunteers, potential and existing donors that meet at 5:30 a.m. in Los Angeles, Irvine, or San Diego. Most bring toiletries and supplies for the children they will travel hundreds of miles to see in Baja Mexico.
The participants say the experience is truly life-changing.
"I think it's what a lot of us think. You think you're going to bring stuff and you've always dreamed of doing something like this...and you just don't know fully just what it's going to be like and how rich the experience is," longtime donor Tete Henriksen said.
Some locals take the Corazon de Vida bus trips regularly. For them, the kids across the U.S./Mexico border at these orphanages are family and have enriched their lives tremendously.
"It's a great opportunity for us to show some love; to spend a day with some wonderful kids who really need that love, attention, care. Just fun, play around with them; show them that someone cares, and also a good way to donate. If you're looking for a wonderful opportunity to help, this is great," longtime donor Dasha Saian said.
In Mexico, once kids age out of the orphanage system, they're on their own. So in 2002, a local woman named Hilda Pacheco set out to ensure a better future for them by creating a higher education program through her foundation, Corazon de Vida, headquartered in Irvine.
We met with some of the program's outstanding recipients at Vista Hermosa Natural Park in the heart of Los Angeles.
Alberto, Norma, Rocio and Jacky were all raised in case hogares (orphanages) in Baja Mexico. For each of them it was a much-needed fresh start.
"When I arrived at Door of Faith, the first thing my siblings and I thought was that we would be better here. Initially, it was like a sigh of relief, we are finally free. The orphanage caretakers gave us affection that we never had before," Alberto Chavez said.
While Jacky Avila expressed, "To enter an orphanage is like walking into one big family -- so different. Everyone takes care of one another. If you feel sick, the caretakers will take you to the doctor; ask what's wrong and what do you need? They introduce you to all of this, plus to have compassion for others and to be a good person, try to be someone better so you can help others."
With the support of Corazon de Vida, they're now in college, trade or technical school pursuing careers they are passionate about. Alberto is studying to be a teacher and plans to teach children at the orphanage that took care of him and his siblings. Rocio wants to be a dentist and help give kids beautiful smiles.
Norna graduated from fashion design school, a career inspired by her caretaker in the orphanage.
"When I was in the orphanage for young ladies, our caretaker was a seamstress. And I was drawn to how a piece of material can be made into something that benefits someone; to keep warm or for the protection of a person," Norna said.
And Jacky is studying to be a veterinarian. Her love for animals began before she entered the orphanage.
"In my house there was a lot of abuse. So what I would do when I had to sleep outside of my home as a child, my company was my puppy and cat. This is when I started to love animals. They were my family at the time. That's when I decided that I wanted to take care of them when I got older and help them just as they cared for me," Jacky said.
Corazon de Vida is currently helping about 45 students pursue their higher education dreams -- with everything from tuition and housing to transportation and basic living expenses. The students we met are determined to serve their communities in Mexico and all feel so grateful to Corazon de Vida.
"Seriously, just like their name - they have an enormous heart," Norma shared.
To volunteer, donate or learn more about Corazon de Vida: