The Grandma Who Changed The World
Rounding a turn on a country road a few miles from the little town of Creswell, OR, it’s easy to drive past the home of Bertha Holt. Just a simple farm house, rather old, very small—it’s hard to believe that a person who has changed the world lived there. Political leaders and royalty around the world have honored Bertha Holt and given her elegant gifts, but the gifts she wore daily were the multicolored bead rings made by grandchildren.
Bertha Holt exemplified unpretentiousness and practicality, yet, in her unassuming way, she brought about profound change affecting millions of people. She never set out to change the world, but her example and simple convictions moved nations. Generations of adopted children represent the product of her simple act of obeying God’s leading in her life. To homeless children and adoptive families around the world she was simply “Grandma Holt.”
She was also known as the “jogging Grandma” for her running a mile nearly every day. In 1996 she even set (and may still hold) the world record for the 400 meter run in her age category. She was on her daily exercise walk when she suffered a stroke on the morning of July 24.
She also was known for her practice of daily Bible reading and prayer. She maintained the daily discipline of reading through the Bible every year. In addition she prayed for a long list of children, family and organizational needs everyday.
Grandma was never daunted by projects of any size. Whether it was getting copies of photos to send to a family or getting legislation passed, she took them on one task at a time.
Bertha Holt’s History
On Dec. 31, 1927, she married Harry Holt, a wheat farmer from South Dakota.
Harry and Bertha started their married lives together near Firesteel, S.D., where they “custom farmed.” Not yet owning land, they farmed land owned by others for a portion of the crops he raised. The couple lived in a “cook shack,” a very small house on wheels.
Often working together, Bertha recalled tossing sacks of wheat onto a truck even when she was seven months pregnant. In a few years they purchased their own land, and Harry built a house where their first four children were born.
But conditions worsened. Drought, dust storms and grasshoppers destroyed most of the farmers’ crops. With the Great Depression, farms all around began to fail. Harry maintained the family’s livelihood by adding a flour mill to his equipment. With his tractor he also mined lignite coal that lay a few feet below the surface of the ground. Bertha also earned some extra money by serving as a midwife. During the birth of one of their children, she instructed Harry on how to serve as her midwife.
Eventually people couldn’t afford to buy Harry’s coal, so the Holts decided to start over in a new place. Harry had heard that Oregon’s Willamette River Valley had a mild climate and fertile soil and was surrounded by forested hills. In 1937 they let their house and farm go back to the state for taxes owed, packed up a car and shipped the rest of their belongings, including Harry’s tractor, by rail.
Relatives in the area helped the family as they took up residence near Creswell, Ore. Harry, who had never borrowed money and didn’t want to start, grudgingly borrowed $1,200 to buy a house. He worked hard and paid it back within a year.
Harry learned quickly, and using his tractor and castoff parts of old sawmills, he started his own lumber business. His trustworthy countenance and hardworking nature allowed him to harvest trees with only a promise to pay for them out of the sale of the lumber. His business prospered, and soon he owned a sawmill with 53 hired workers.
Bertha gave birth to two more children, making the Holts a family with six children—a son and five daughters. They built a new large house as Harry continued to prosper and expand his businesses into farming and commercial fishing. The latter enabled them to own a large boat in which they toured the inland passage to Alaska. The trips to Alaska remain some of the family’s fondest memories.
But Harry’s determination and persistent hard work cost him dearly. In 1950 while considering the purchase of timber on a steep hillside, he was stricken with a severe heart attack. Harry and Bertha faced the reality that he would die.
As a nurse, Bertha understood Harry’s desperate condition. Alone one evening as she thought of the blood flowing through Harry’s arteries, she remembered the blood of Jesus Christ. The Son of God had died so that all who believe in Him could have everlasting life. Though they had grown up in the church, Harry and Bertha realized that they never truly had committed their lives to the Lord.
Together, the Holts sought a personal relationship with God. They also asked God to give them some work, some way of serving Him. A few years later they got an answer.
In December 1954 Harry and Bertha Holt saw a documentary film showing children in Korean orphanages following the Korean War. The Holts sent money to help clothe and feed them. But haunted by the children’s sad faces, Harry and Bertha came to an inspired realization: Those children needed families, and the Holts themselves could be the parents for some of those children.
Separately, they came to identical conclusions: they should adopt eight of the Korean children. A friend did a little research to see how they could go about accomplishing the adoption. The answer: It was impossible… “unless you can get both Houses of Congress to agree and pass a law.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” said Bertha matter-of-factly. On faith, Harry left for Korea while Bertha stayed home with their six birth children. She took care of the farm, wrote letters to congressmen and rallied friends to help her campaign for a law allowing them adopt eight children. Congress passed the “Holt bill” in just two months.
In October 1955 Harry returned with their eight children.
The Holts’ adoption was revolutionary. Intercountry adoption had been done previously, but it was virtually unheard of at that time. The social work establishment of that time discouraged it. The common practice was to carefully match children by color and background which helped conceal the adoption.
In contrast, the Holts’ openness showed the world that adoption is not a badge of shame but a sign of honor and love. Their example proved that a family’s love can transcend the barriers of nationality and race, that love and commitment are the most important bonds in a family.
The Korean War Baby first visit in 1994.
The International Adoption Organization
The Holt Agency began as a family project, financed almost entirely by the wealth Harry and Bertha had accrued through their lumber business. They developed principles of temporary child care that continue to be effective models today.
But in the midst of this work, Harry died in 1964. Many thought that without Harry the Holt agency simply should fold up.
But Grandma said, “This work was always God’s work. If He wants it to continue, it will.” It was a simple statement of her unshakable faith in God which was a vital part of Holt International’s continuation. When she arrived at the Ilsan Center for Harry’s burial, her strength and faith lifted everyone around her. The staff and children turned to Grandma for the courage to go ahead.
Today Holt International Children’s Services and a network of “partner agencies” continue the Holts work in many countries. The Holt organization has grown into a world renowned agency, having served children and families in many countries including: Bangladesh, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, Ukraine, United States and Vietnam. Today Holt serves children in 12 of these countries.
“All children are beautiful when they’re loved,” said Bertha.
She and husband Harry built the Holt agency upon their belief that children need the love and belonging of a family. Through the years Grandma Holt and the Holt agency have made it their mission to help children to have permanent families, either by returning them to rehabilitated families or by placing them with adoptive families.
Their work has elevated the status of homeless and disabled children around the world.
Grandma Holt’s Legacy
Through the years Grandma’s leadership with Holt International Children’s Services has been characterized by a simple desire to follow God’s direction and dependence upon God’s provision. Though she has been comfortable allowing others to run the day-to-day work, her faith and prayers led Holt to grow and meet the needs of an increasing number of homeless children.
Always an advocate for homeless children, she worked to see them placed with permanent families. Grandma was especially concerned about children with special needs. She often provided personal help for the disabled children and adults at Holt’s Ilsan Center in Korea. She even helped design many of the buildings to meet their special needs.
Her love for children was expansive. At gatherings of Holt adoptive families, you’d see her including all children in the photos—birth children, adopted children. It didn’t matter.
When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Grandma Holt said “as that lady who loved the Lord.” Certainly her faith was her hallmark. But so was her passion for the needs of children. Her love that has changed the lives of children around the world, and today, thousands of adoptees enjoy the legacy of love that Bertha and her husband pioneered.
Through the 55 years of Adoption History of Korean children from the Republic of Korea, also known as South Korea, the reasons that babies and children were given up for adoption have changed and some have remained the same. For every story another one may be found to be almost exactly opposite. Even the attempts to SURVEY are NOT complete or really telling the “Whole” story. Some surveys extrapolate (learned that word recently) from a group of (11) KADs, YES, ELEVEN- no more, and come up with ridiculous mathematical suppositions that amaze even I. How eleven adoptees can be used to represent almost 200,000 is just AMAZING MATH. But I digress.
Yet even the Evan B. Donaldson’s Adoption Institute recent 2009 survey “Beyond Culture Camp” had less than 200 KADs join their survey with 80% of the participants in their survey were Female. If you try to say that “Well, the ratio of male to female KADs must be the SAME, you would NOT BE RIGHT.
It must be noted that in one ten year period (1995-2005) male to female ratio was 1 to 2. I have the proof from Korean Government figures. Women KAD’s do seem to be more interested in getting involved.
It was an important work though NOT representative of ALL KADs. Period. I encourage every KAD especially to take part in SURVEYS.
There is for sure a Bell curve of Wonderful to Horrible stories on the extremes, yet I the Korean War Baby, would say that the majority of KADs (Korean ADoptees) are somewhere in the middle. In a perfect world there would be NO Need for adoption but again, we do not, and as the Korean government’s reversal policy on Family planning and the subsequent skyrocketing costs of Abortion goes up 3-6 times just weeks ago…more babies will be born, overwhelming the “demand” from Korean couple who want mainly SECRET adoptions because of the SHAME of not being able to have a NATURAL child.
The ANTI-ADOPTION ASSOCIATES led by REV. KIM DoHyun of KoRoot, suggest that if they just STOP Sending babies to other countries THEN the Korean people will SUDDENLY just HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF THEIR ‘OWN’. Uh huh.
“And you want to do WHAT?!? Where DO the children GO, you know the Left-Over Unwanted children?”
I, the Old Guy Adoptee does not accept that
reasoning and challenge any FOUR of the AAA’s to public debate on “The best way to change the hearts of the Korean People.” Soon The Korean War Baby will present his own solutions, (a Hint)-Multi-tiered approach that will take another period of time...
Yusuf Islam-(Cat Stevens)
“Where do the children play?”