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Brent Johnson, his wife (center), his two daughters and Lin Lin, a former foster care child from China who used to live with the Johnson family in the United States.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Father of six has helped about 1,000 disadvantaged children over 20 years of charity work

When Brent Johnson first arrived in Shanxi province in 1990 to study Chinese culture and history, it proved the start of a close bond with orphaned and disabled children there.

Then a junior at the University of South Carolina, he was enrolled at Shanxi University on a one-year student exchange program, during which he met his future wife, Serena, a fellow American who shares his affection for China.

Their deep concern for poor people meant their dates were often spent at welfare institutes.

Johnson was impressed by his year in China, and after returning to South Carolina to finish his medical degree, he and his wife decided to move to China in 1998 to start voluntary work with orphans.

Since then, they have been dedicated to helping sick and disadvantaged children, and have traveled to many parts of northern China, including Beijing and the provinces of Heilongjiang, Shandong and Hebei, to carry out charity work.

Johnson"s ties with orphans in Shanxi date back to April 2004, when he approached Geng Kaiwen, the dean of the Taiyuan Social (Children) Welfare Institute, during a gathering in Beijing.

He offered to fund treatment for the institute"s disabled children through the China Care Foundation, a charity aimed at saving the lives of medically fragile orphaned children.

Although touched by the doctor"s sincerity, Geng hesitated because Johnson was a foreigner.

However, Johnson did not give up. He went to Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi, and gave Geng a persuasive presentation. He also invited Geng to visit the foundation in Beijing.

Seeing how the China Care Foundation operated eased Geng"s concerns, and he was moved by Johnson"s proposal to send sick children to the capital for treatment and return them to Shanxi after recovery.

"Many children didn"t get the treatment they needed in time due to a lack of funds and the outdated conditions in our institute," Geng said.

"Johnson"s proposal would address our problems and help those in need in a broader way."

During a business trip to Taiyuan in 2005, Johnson needed to catch a late flight to Beijing, and Geng suggested they have dinner together. Considering the tight time and budget, he bought the American a simple bowl of rice noodles.

Touched by Geng"s frugal behavior, Johnson decided to nail down the funding agreement with the Taiyuan institute there and then.

In addition to providing manpower, funding and technology, Johnson also founded a project in Taiyuan to create a cozy environment for children to recover after treatment and help find new permanent homes for orphans.

Dang Xiaohua, born in 1992, had congenital scoliosis and was told she would not live to see her 18th birthday, as the surgery she needed was expensive and risky. As a result, she cut herself off from others.

When he became aware of Dang"s situation, Johnson contacted a hospital in the United States and paid for the surgery, which cost more than 400,000 yuan ($59,500).

He also managed to arrange her adoption by an American family before she turned 14, the age limit for adoption.

When Dang returned to Taiyuan 18 months later, Johnson said she had become an outgoing teenager who always had a smile on her face.

Johnson has changed the lives of many disabled orphans.

He has helped an estimated 1,000 orphans in Taiyuan since 2004, including several hundred who received free surgeries. He also raised 800,000 yuan to improve living conditions at the Taiyuan Social Welfare Institute.

His kindness has not only warmed orphans" hearts, but also touched the people around him. Geng said he remembers Johnson"s words, "Every life needs to be treated with respect, even if he is a disabled newborn."

Johnson, now 49 and a father of six, returned to the US in mid-July after nearly 20 years of charity work. It was difficult for his friends in China to say goodbye.

Lu Lu, a former colleague who witnessed Johnson"s commitment to charity in China, said she can still recall the first time they met 11 years ago.

"Johnson told me in Chinese that it was his hobby to help people, especially disabled orphans," she recalled. "He set a great example for Chinese charity workers, and built an all-Chinese team to continue his work.

"We hope to inherit his spirit and sow the seeds of love across the country," Lu added.