Ten years ago, Darien's Vicki Gatling was invited to visit Hogares Luz y Vida -- the Home of Light and Life -- an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia.

"What I saw there was this tiny Spanish nun who has taken in these children in this marginalized country and she was doing these amazing things," the 24-year resident said. "She's educating them, they're clean, they're loved, they're happy."

At the end of 2011, Gatling founded the Hands Offering Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides continued support to the orphanage.

"When we think of orphans, we think of sadness and rejection," said Gatling, who is a real estate agent with William Pitt Sotheby, after working in health care for more than 20 years. "(At Hogares Luz y Vida) you don't see that at all. They have such a love for one another; they are not alone."

Those at the orphanage refer to Hogares Luz y Vida as the "hogar," or home, not as an orphanage.

While many of the children are dropped off at the doorstep, others live at the orphanage because their parents are not able to provide for them. On the weekends, Gatling said, the parents of those children visit.

Sister Valeriana Isabel Garcia Martin is small in stature, Gatling said, but she provides a magnitude of energy to the hogar.

In 1983, the Catholic Church placed Martin at Juan Antonio Pardo Ospina Foundation, an institute for blind children in Colombia, after she had spent 13 years at a variety of Colombia and Panama organizations.

It was at the foundation that she saw numerous children abandoned because of their blindness.

In February 1990, Hogares Luz y Vida opened and provided a home for four blind and abandoned children. One year later, with the arrival of Rosa Maria Rivera, a child with cerebral palsy, Martin opened the doors further and welcomed children with various disabilities.

Today, 150 children live at Hogares Luz y Vida. Roughly 70 of them have severe disabilities. What's more, more than 850 children from the surrounding community benefit from the services Martin has made available.

"It's in a very poor area of Bogota," Gatling said. "And what Sister has found is that when she began offering day-care services and morning breakfasts, people would come in from high-risk areas. Those children are seeing some social improvements because these children know they are cared for."

The orphanage also provides a school for its children and those in the surrounding areas. Nearly 400 children attend.

"She is tireless," Gatling said of Martin. "It's unreal. The hogar could be very disheveled, but everything is done to perfection."

As part of its ongoing efforts to provide for Hogares Luz y Vida, Hands Offering Hope raised money to purchase and donate two emergency generators. Many children at the orphanage are on life-sustaining equipment and with power frequently going out, the organization sought a solution. Before the generators were installed, when power went out the nurses would transport the children down three flights of stairs, and would walk a block to the director's home, which had a generator. The trek is often lit by flashlights on the nurses' cellphones.

"When it's dark in that barrio, it's dark," Gatling said.

Those who are involved with Hands Offering Hope visit the hogar multiple times throughout the year. Gatling, who serves as the organization's president, takes two trips to Colombia each year, in February and in the summer.

"It's been very fulfilling for me," Gatling said. "I could fill all my time with it."

The organization is raising funds to fulfill two more goals. The first is to raise $5,000 to $6,000 for an overhang to cover the outdoor recess so that when it rains the children are still able to go outside.

The other is to provide college scholarship money. Gatling said $2,000 is needed per child and the orphanage currently has four or five children wishing to go forward and study at a college or a vocational school.

Part of Gatling's trips are to conduct assessments with Martin to determine what the hogar needs. Martin recently purchased a building next to the hogar and intends to use it as a medical clinic for the orphans and for the surrounding community.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6538; @Meg_DarienNews