XI'AN, China — Amanda de Lange hopes to one day work herself out of a job.

The BYU graduate from South Africa is the CEO and founder of Starfish Children's Services. She loves finding and saving orphans, but she'd like even better to see a day when all children will have families and the love they deserve.

"My biggest hope is that there will someday be no need for me to help children," said de Lange, who was awarded BYU's Service to Family Award in 2009. "Basically that I would have worked myself out of a job."

She knows that is unlikely to happen.

"I think it is similar to asking for world peace. It is a noble cause but that does not mean it is going to happen," said the 49-year-old single woman who works 18-hour days doing what she can for babies in need. "In the meantime you can work with great diligence to do your part to make it happen. On a more achievable note, I would like to continue to do this to the end of my days. To save these defenseless children one child at a time and then to work to help as many as I possibly can with the resources that I have at my disposal."

Her work began by walking through a Chinese orphanage looking for a baby who needed her.

Among the babies who had been tossed away, dumped at hospitals, cemeteries or by the roadside, she found Sean, a sad, skinny baby boy with a heart defect.

"He seemed so alone and looked horrible," said de Lange, who was pursuing a master's degree at the time. "I knew he was mine."

She took him with her and within months, he was a lively, healthy baby who was shortly adopted by a French couple.

Fustrated to find a dying baby no one was trying to help, de Lange decided to start her own care center.

The Chinese government approved her project. In September 2005, de Lange opened Starfish Children's Services.

Today, Starfish has taken care of 123 children, arranged more than a hundred surgeries and successfully seen to the adoption of 46 children. Currently, there are 47 babies under the age of 3, three foster homes and plans to move to a new, bigger "castle" about 20 minutes away.

Starfish refers to the folktale about a little boy who diligently picked up every starfish he could find and threw it back into the ocean so it could live, despite the fact that he couldn't possibly save them all.

"Our little starfishes live all over the globe," de Lange said. "They are in the United States, Netherlands, Norway, France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and China."

De Lange lives in the Starfish building. She pays the rent and buys the orphan's food, medicine, milk and clothes with donations from strangers, "medical angels" and loyal friends.

Medical teams who visit China donate their expertise and time helping to correct cleft palates, heart defects and the effects of spina bifida.

She isn't at all unhappy at the sacrifices her life demands. She's actually amazed at what she's been able to do.

"My learning curve was enormous," de Lange said. "I was not medically or financially trained and I didn't know where to go or what to do."

She spent her early days taking care of six babies, all younger than four months, changing diapers, feeding them (sometimes with an eyedropper) and washing their clothes.

"I feel I have been prepared for this since I was 9 years old and my parents were divorced," de Lange said. "I have had really difficult experiences that made me strong and through the years there was so much adversity that when I got to this point and the orphanage was started I could withstand anything. It is a very difficult job and I feel that there are really ugly parts to it. Often you need to be able to withstand things that would make you feel like giving up. Having such tenacity is an integral part of the work. I do not know where I get the physical strength to work 18-hour days.

"Looking back, I can see the hand of the Lord very clearly guiding me. So while I may never get a master's degree, my detour in China has forever changed my life and the lives of dozens of disabled and abandoned Chinese babies and toddlers."

The future is daunting. It's estimated there are 143 million orphans in the world who need help, food and families.

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De Lange can't care for them all but she'll keep doing what she can. She hopes others will pitch in.

"I think that it is the duty of every person who believes in Christ to do something for the orphans. Some do not take this commandment very seriously. There are so many orphans in need of help. Find a way to help those children who can be found all around the world. As for me, the most useful donation is cash. It allows me to buy the things we need in China and also to pay for the surgeries to save the children's lives."

To learn more and see some of the children, visit thestarfishfosterhome.org.

e-mail: haddoc@desnews.com