If you know of Holt International, you probably know about the organization’s sterling reputation as a pioneer for global child adoptions. And indeed, Holt holds claim to a legacy involving child adoption services in nations spread across the Pacific Rim, the African continent, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America.
More recent chapters of that legacy also include innovative educational and economic strategies for strengthening families overseas, global disaster relief, pre- and postnatal care in impoverished nations, world-class orphan care that includes foster care training for families, nutrition programs, and child medical services in far-reaching countries.
Harry and Bertha Holt—the founders of one of the world’s largest nonprofit child welfare organizations—were inspired to launch their heroic efforts from their family farm in Creswell in 1956. It was an era caught in the twisting tailwinds of the Korean War, when thousands of Korean orphans were left abandoned and dying on a war-torn peninsula an ocean away. It was a time when there were no mechanisms or precedents for nation-to-nation adoptions.
At the urging of his wife, Harry boarded a plane for the first time ever and headed west over the Pacific Ocean on a child-saving mission. He was dressed in farmer’s coveralls. He spoke no Korean. He had no real game plan. But he was a determined man.
He returned home with eight Korean orphans and promptly adopted them into his family. The adoptions fostered the establishment of Holt International and propelled Bertha Holt to successfully advocate national legislation that cleared the way for future nation-to-nation adoptions; her achievement survives to this day. Her lifelong political efforts also established Holt as a clarion voice in all manner of international child-welfare services, providing caretaking, legal, and organizational guidelines for assisting vulnerable children across the globe.
As Holt International turns 60, the organization can boast facilitating more than 40,000 international adoptions. Those adoptions have touched more than 60,000 families, and the total international adoptions made possible because of the Holts’ pioneering groundwork and unflagging advocacy on behalf of abandoned children everywhere stands in the hundreds of thousands.
Susan Soonkeun Cox, one of Holt’s administrative leaders, knows well the circumstances faced by children adopted overseas into foreign families. She was Korean adoptee No. 167, a 5-year-old among the earliest groups of children brought to the U.S. by Harry Holt in the late 1950s. Cox was adopted into a family in Brownsville, and later was the first Holt adoptee to work at Holt. Her perspective on international adoption and child welfare has been powerfully shaped by personal experience.
“In many ways,” says Cox, “adoption first began as a response of parents who wanted children. Now, we firmly believe that adoption is about finding families for children—not children for families. Adoption really has to be child-centered.”
“One of the things I see at Holt is how dedicated we are to children with special needs,” she adds. “I see other organizations that are eager to help perfect, ‘blue ribbon’ babies—children free of visible challenges. Or I hear the notion that any family is good enough for these orphans, or that any family is better than no family. We find that appalling!”
The organization’s key values, says Cox, strongly reflect the values and character of Bertha Holt. Cox remembers “Granma Holt” as a heroic leader, a fearless, salt-of-the earth woman who displayed powerful convictions and courage in challenging the status quo. “Granma would not let people or barriers stand in the way of what she believed needed to happen,” says Cox.
There’s a particular line that often gets quoted as a reflection of Granma Holt’s core belief:
All children are beautiful when they are loved. ~ Bertha Holt
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