Louisa Lindsey's New Hope Farm, adorned with thick weeds and rusted vehicles, appears as a drab portrait of poverty barely 15 miles from the chrome-plated offices around Dulles International Airport.

Inside her farmhouse, that image quickly fades in the light of a gentle spirit who has lifted the lives of 29 foster children, by last count, and a similar number of displaced elderly people whom she has sheltered in the last 35 years.

Lindsey, 70, is a one-woman volunteer human service agency, a frail safety net for those whom government cannot, or will not, serve. Her self-described "life's career" recalls a disappearing facet of rural American life: neighbor helping neighbor, even neighbor helping stranger.

Lindsey, who says she accepts only token payment from her adult boarders, puts it simply: "I'm just living the gospel."

The longtime widow isn't as spry as she once was, and the five men -- who range in age from early thirties to early nineties -- staying in her northern Loudoun County house fill her days. The house is a perpetual mess. Flies buzz and dogs bark intermittently in the cluttered living room, which features a pig thermometer, wax begonias in a plastic foam cup, family photos, a poster for the movie "The Trip to Bountiful," and a statuette pair of praying hands.

Lindsey perennially claims to be on the verge of getting on top of the repairs and the cleaning, but there are meals to cook, and chickens and goats to feed every morning -- even after the two or three times a week she works all night as a private nurse.

"You don't judge her by her housekeeping; you judge her by what she's done for people," says Al Dixon, who lives in nearby Waterford and often drops by to help. From time to time, some neighbors have complained about Lindsey's care of her farm animals and the old vehicles she keeps on her property.

County social service officials, citing confidentiality of the people they sent to the farm, say they can't talk about their dealings with Lindsey. Officials said they do not routinely inspect small boarding houses but have no reason to believe conditions at Lindsey's farm warrant investigation. State government officials said Lindsey does not need a nursing home or group home license because she has fewer than the number of boarders specified for regulation.

Growing up in Southwest Virginia, Lindsey said she patterned her life after an uncle who was a minister and found homes for the down-and-out. "There was no welfare then," she says. "When they couldn't find someone {to shelter a needy family}, they'd call a clergyman."

After her husband died in the mid-1950s, Lindsey, with five children of her own, bought her farm a few miles from the village of Lucketts. Word got out that she couldn't say no to a request to shelter a troubled youth or a homeless senior citizen. For 3 1/2 decades, the needy have passed through her haven on their way to independent adult lives or, in the case of many of the elderly boarders, have stayed until they died. Lindsey is particularly proud of the way the children turned out. "I'm happy to say they're all good workers; none of them is in jail," she says.

Three of her current boarders are men in their thirties who work, often not returning home till 8 or 9 p.m. The other two spend most of the day sitting in the living room joshing each other, napping and watching television.

Leon Compher, a placid, one-armed man who describes himself as "going on 90," is known as the "cat man" because of his affinity for felines. He can usually be found camped in his favorite rocker, dressed in flannel shirt, sport jacket and hat, even in the summer. Compher grins even when he dozes.

And there is Donnie Lanham. At age 34, Donnie is an adult mind trapped in an infant's body, wracked and withered by childhood disease that left him able to move only a few facial muscles. He speaks in strained syllables that seem like slow gargling to the first-time visitor but later become recognizable as expressions of highly measured thought.

Lindsey gets him out of bed, feeds him, washes him, changes him, props him up in the living room, helps him recline and positions him so he can watch a strategically placed television set. The routine continues all day, every day, between farm chores. Respite occurs primarily when Dixon or another neighbor takes Donnie to church or on another brief outing. On most of the nights that Lindsey works, a neighbor helps with Donnie.

He was a premature baby given little chance of living very long. When Donnie was a month old, county social service workers brought him to New Hope Farm. "He was just a little teeny thing, like that," Lindsey says, spreading her hands about a foot apart.

Six months after he arrived, it looked like the end. Donnie contracted a disease, thought to be spinal meningitis. A local doctor advised against taking Donnie to a hospital, saying he likely wouldn't live two hours, Lindsey says.

For hours, she rocked him in her arms, feeding him lemonade from a medicine dropper because it was the only nourishment his body would accept, she said. "We didn't have any hopes for Donnie, none of us," Lindsey said. "But Donnie wouldn't give up. There was such a great bond of love between Donnie and me at that time." She eventually adopted him.

Government officials "tried to take Donnie away a few times," and once succeeded, but she "went and got him back." County officials had heard rumors that he was being whipped, Lindsey said, and one agency wanted to send Donnie "to learn to run a computer with his head."

"He can't even hold his head up. I fought them. He is a very bright boy," she said, adding that he has received some teaching at home.

Donnie interrupts, choking out one syllable with determination, pausing to catch his breath for a full second, and moving slowly to the next syllable: "Let-me-tell-it!" His eyes shine with merriment and anticipation.

"All right, you tell it," Lindsey says.

"I-love-it." He pauses. "Peo-ple-ask-what-do-I-have-to-live-for." He catches his breath again, prepares to emphasize his point. "I-am-hap-py . . . . They-ain't-got-what-I-got. Hap-pi-ness. Hap-pi-ness-and-love-in-my-heart."

His greatest satisfaction is "that-I-can-talk," Donnie says as Lindsey gets up from the couch and adjusts his head so that his cheek doesn't rest on his pillow and further muffle his speech.

"If-you-want-to-be-hap-py-come-look-at-me," Donnie says.

Particularly fond of vanilla ice cream cones and the music of the late Hank Williams Sr., Donnie dreams of going to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Dixon says he hopes to find a way to get Donnie there someday.

One of Lindsey's foster children was Catherine Hill, who came to her at the age of 7 in desperate need of a stable home. "When I came, I wouldn't eat . . . . I couldn't even cry," says Hill, 41 and raising a family near Charles Town, W.Va.

Lindsey "taught me a lot of things," Hill says of her 12 years on the farm. "The world would be another place if there were other people just like her."

Retired Loudoun physician Joseph Rogers, whose mother is cared for by Lindsey in Rogers' home, agrees. "She has very high standards and high goals -- but not for her own comfort."

Lindsey says her five long-term boarders contribute a total of about $200 a month to the household, most of it coming from an elderly resident's Social Security check. Lindsey earns $800 a month for her outside nursing work and picks up extra money selling lambs, calves, eggs and milk. Even though the farm is paid for, she says, her modest income barely pays the taxes and the bills.

At first, Lindsey says, the Loudoun County government gave her "a dollar a day" to house each foster child, but after a few years she stopped taking that money. The last child arrived more than a decade ago. Although the county government has placed foster children in many other Loudoun homes, it has yet to open a permanent shelter for homeless adults.

Over the years Lindsey has opened her door to those with emotional problems, or physical or mental handicaps. Despite her deep faith, she says, she doesn't preach to her boarders. But some of her philosophy comes across loud and clear: Hard work and clean country air are good for the body and soul.

One troubled 17-year-old boy arrived on her farm in such bad shape that he wouldn't respond to his own name. She introduced him to farm animals in an effort to motivate him. "A goat, I think, helped bring him out a bit."

Lindsey insists she has done nothing unusual in caring for so many people that she can't count them all. "I was going to write them all down this morning, but I never have time," she says. "The chickens need water . . . .

"I think everybody seems pretty happy here. That's the whole good in life," she says.

"I might not have a mansion here, but I don't know anybody else taking them in."

"I don't know if I'll take anybody else. I've got too much going on," she says.

Donnie rolls his eyes in her direction, and grins, before getting in the last word: "I-know-you-will."