January 08, 2007 12:00 PM

Laura Moore, 45

Lilburn, Ga.

On a sunny November afternoon, Laura Moore opens her front door in time to catch daughter Katie sprinting up the leaf-strewn lawn of their Lilburn, Ga., home. “Hi, sweet pea!” says Moore, grinning as she envelops the 8-year-old in a bear hug; Katie chatters, rapid-fire, as she shows off an orange T-shirt she got at school for field day. “Watching her so happy,” Moore says later, “is a blessing.”

And something of a miracle. Just over two and a half years ago, when Moore, 45, and husband Mike, 47, took Katie in as a foster daughter, she was near death, suffering from a digestive-system disorder so severe that most of her nutrition came through an intravenous tube. Seeing her through not one but two rare five-organ transplants, the Moores then undertook her recovery, requiring months of round-the-clock care. “People ask, ‘How can you do that?'” says Laura, who, with Mike, adopted Katie in October. “My answer is, ‘How can you not try?'”

Now, Moore spends her days encouraging other families to help kids like Katie—with conditions from cerebral palsy to diabetes to paralysis—by opening their homes and hearts. As founder and volunteer head of the nonprofit Dream House for Medically Fragile Children, she equips and trains dozens of foster and adoptive families to care for kids who would otherwise languish alone in hospitals or nursing homes. “She’s serving the most difficult of the difficult children to serve,” says Normer Adams of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, “and asking, ‘Why can’t they live in a home like other children?'”

Moore first posed that question when, as a nurse running an Atlanta hospital’s pediatric unit, she perceived a painful dilemma: Medical breakthroughs were helping save more lives, but the survivors required so much specialized care that parents often couldn’t bear the burden. “One mother pounded her fist on the counter, saying, ‘I can’t deal with this,'” Moore recalls. “And she was gone.” One boy Moore befriended was a quadriplegic on a ventilator—the result of a shooting at 14. With no relatives to care for him, he spent four years on her unit, so depressed he tried to bribe Moore with candy to disconnect his ventilator. “If I were a dog,” she recalls him saying, “you would treat me better and put me to sleep.”

Determined to help, Moore devised a solution: a program to recruit foster families to care for seriously ill kids. Aware that such placements frequently fail because the foster parents are ill-trained for the child’s needs, Moore developed workshops offering instruction in everything from managing medication to how feeding tubes work. When government and healthcare bureaucrats said legal hurdles made her scheme impossible, it just motivated Moore, an energetic dynamo with a ready smile. “I love it when people tell me I can’t do something,” she says. “That fuels my fire.”

Appealing to friends and church acquaintances, she raised a few thousand dollars to launch her organization. With $220,000 more in private donations, she created a prototype facility called Dream House—a cheery, 8,000-sq.-ft. home to house a single family caring for as many as six medically fragile foster children. In late 2003, Moore and Mike, a marketing director, sold their own three-bedroom home and moved in—along with biological children Hayden, now 19, and Anna, 17—as the pilot foster family.

By the time Katie—the first of 12 children the Moores would take in for varying periods of time—arrived, she had been through four other homes and had short-gut syndrome, a life-threatening deformity of the small intestine. “The doctors told me it was end-of-life care,” says Moore. Abused and angry, Katie threw violent tantrums. To calm her, Moore would wrap her in a blanket and snuggle with her in a rocking chair. “Katie,” she would say, “we’ll get through this together.”

When Katie’s health stabilized, she qualified for a transplant to replace her stomach, large and small intestines, spleen and pancreas. In January 2005, Laura flew with her to Miami for the surgery, which went so well that she was ready for discharge two weeks later. Then, crisis: A blood-flow problem caused failure in all five organs. As Moore, heartbroken, watched Katie slip away, she recalls, “I said, ‘Honey, if it’s time to go to heaven, it’s okay. You can go.'”

Still, she begged doctors to put Katie back on the transplant list. Amazingly, within six hours another donor was found and, two months after her second surgery, Katie was home in Lilburn. Now on seven different medications to fight rejection of her new organs, she climbs trees and trades Pokéemon cards with pals. Though her long-term prognosis is uncertain, “the door is open for a long life,” says Dr. Gennaro Selvaggi, one of her surgeons at the University of Miami. Adds dad Mike: “She has tremendous life in her.”

And deep compassion. As the Moores have taken in other kids, says Laura, “Katie is the welcoming committee” for newcomers—who have included, among others, a boy, 15, mentally handicapped from shaken-baby syndrome, and a girl, 8, with diabetic seizures. “You don’t love these children lightly,” says Moore. “It’s a mind, body and soul commitment.”

That understanding has led Moore to assist people like Dorrett Goulbourne, of Lithonia, Ga., who learned how to administer medications at Moore’s group’s parent-training workshop. That has helped her care for two foster sons—a 10-year-old with severe paralysis and a 7-year-old with cerebral palsy. “Without this,” she says, “I don’t know where I would have turned.” Nor do Ken and Judy Hammett of Stone Mountain, Ga., who have been foster parents to 21 kids and have three adopted children, all with cerebral palsy and other disabling conditions (a fourth died in December from complications of hydrocephalus). With Moore’s help, the Hammetts, in their 60s, have gotten a wheelchair stair lift and help making a bathroom handicapped accessible. Says Judy: “Laura doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘can’t.'”

Moore’s next dream: building homes on a donated site in Conyers, Ga., where she envisions a community of foster families caring for medically fragile kids (see box). Not long ago, Moore brought her own family to see the site, and no one was more excited than Katie. “She had a heyday on the dirt and rocks,” says Moore, “and I’ll never forget what she said: ‘I want to live here with all the little children—and I’m going to teach them how to live.'”

Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. For more information on Moore’s work, go to http://www.dreamhouseforkids.org.

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