There is a story that originated with author Loren Eiseley that's been adapted many times over the years. It goes something like this: One day, after a storm, an old man walking on the beach saw a young woman reaching down to the sand, picking up starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
"Young lady," he asked, "Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"
"The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die."
"But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference."
The young woman listened, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, saying, "It made a difference for that one."
Amanda de Lange has devoted her life to saving "starfish." The 51-year-old South African woman has, for the better part of a decade, lived in China where she founded and runs the Starfish Children's Services, an organization that arranges surgeries for orphaned children and helps them become "adoption-ready." She takes the sickest babies and makes them whole.
And now Amanda is dying.
Amanda would prefer nobody spend time crying over this fact. She has a very aggressive form of cancer and, as of this writing, is in hospice care in Nashville. Starfish families have been making pilgrimages of thousands of miles to see her and say their goodbyes, bringing along many of the 81 adopted children who have passed through Starfish's door -- and in many cases, wouldn't be alive if not for Amanda.
Amanda took the sickest babies from Chinese orphanages and brought them back to life. She fed them, held them, nurtured them. She convinced the world's top doctors and surgeons to come help them, to restore them, to fix their damaged hearts and cleft palates. And then she saved them again by creating a new, temporary family for them -- a small army of devoted volunteers who comforted the babies through their nightmares, soothed them when they seized, taught them how to love and be loved. She then helped her Starfish babies find their forever families. She saved them, loved them and then sent them on their way -- pure and simple and never easy.
And now Amanda is dying. But tears? No place for them, please, she says. She would prefer that everyone celebrate her life and continue her work -- God's work, she says.
Amanda, an imposing woman who stands at just over six feet, has big beautiful eyes that see right through you. She loves her fingernails long and painted in vibrant colors -- something you notice because she talks so much with her hands. She's the take-charge general who can wrestle her way through bureaucratic red tape to get the job done. Nothing stops her when she is set in motion. Her faith guides her and even as she faces death, she is clearly at peace.
The only hesitation she may have had in deciding to forgo additional treatment for her cancer was her babies. In a July 9 letter to the Starfish community, she concluded with:
"To the babies of Starfish, I want you to know that I have given it my best effort, my all. My life has been to care for and love you. Wherever you go in your lives I wish you the very best. May you always be drawn to those in need and may you never forget that at a very critical time in your life there was someone there at the door to welcome you into the house. Be the change you want to see in the world."
Long-time friend Ali Johnson, recalled how Amanda fell into this line of work. She was teaching English in Xi'an and spending time at the city orphanage as a volunteer. Amanda desperately wished she could do more to help the children. A friend rhetorically asked, if she were allowed, would she ever want to start her own orphanage? She responded with a resounding, "Yes!" She got a call that week from that same friend telling her the orphanage wanted to work with her and let her take an unlimited amount of babies who needed special medical care. Three months later, after all the legal papers were signed, she went to the orphanage and picked out six babies and took them home.
"She laughed at her own ambition," recalled Johnson, "A single lady taking care of six malnourished babies, some needing to be fed with a dropper, all on her own."
Amanda knew she couldn't stop at just six so she hired some help and from there it just grew and grew. "She hired more help so she could go and get more and more babies," Johnson recalleed. At one point, Amanda operated her orphanage out of three large apartments -- housing up to 50 babies, with 26 nannies and volunteers coming and going all the time.
Donna Harper's son Josiah James is one of those Starfish babies. Josiah was five months old when Amanda spotted him lying seriously sick in his orphanage crib. He had a severe bilateral cleft lip and cleft palate and, as Amanda later told Donna, there was something about the baby that just "tugged on my heart." Amanda negotiated with the orphanage officials to bring the baby home with her. He wound up being hospitalized for 10 days in intensive care. In the months that followed, Amanda arranged to have his cleft lip and palate repaired by visiting surgical teams.
Donna will always remember what Amanda said to her on the day she came to Starfish to pick up her son. It was, "I know my place. I am to love them, nurture them and care for them. I am to then give them up so that they may experience the love of a family.” Donna added, "I will forever be grateful for Amanda de Lange. I am so thankful that she was in tune to the voice of our Heavenly Father when he said, 'Look there at that young one in the crib. He needs your help.'"
Sharon Hughes of British Columbia credits Amanda for not only saving her son River’s life when he was three weeks old and needed help eating, but also with "showing him how to love, and be loved and providing him a home." Her son, born cleft-affected, "had a very special family" -– that of one of the volunteers -- which allowed him to "just be a child instead of an orphan." River's lip and palette were also repaired thanks to Amanda's efforts.
Amanda joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Zimbabwe when she was 19 and later served a voluntary mission for the Church there and in South Africa. She was educated at Brigham Young University and subsequently taught English first in Taiwan and then in mainland China -- which is where she began volunteering with Chinese orphans. “I was at BYU, I’d been single, I was 33, the marriage thing wasn’t happening, so I said to the Heavenly Father: ‘I want to lead an interesting life,’ and he answered my prayers. Look at the things I’ve done,” she said.
When asked what her obituary should include, she had this to say: "We’ve taken care of 168 [foster] kids, we’ve had almost 250 surgeries and 81 adoptions and that, my friend, pretty much sums up my life. Because other than that, what is really important? You boil it down and that’s the triumph of my life.”
We'd like to add her final message to her Starfish babies: Be the change you want to see in the world.
Amy Page Christiansen, a Nashville-based freelance writer, contributed to this post.
[UPDATE]: Amanda de Lange passed away on Saturday July 14, 2012.
Check out the slideshow below of orphans who found new families through Starfish Children's Services.