Holt: Giving Hope to Homeless

CFM’s Ali Santore recently traveled in Asia with the Holt International Children’s Services. Few people realize, and I myself was unaware before my recent trip to Asia, that the roots of international adoption grew out of a farm in Creswell, Oregon.

In December 1954, Harry and Bertha Holt of Creswell saw a documentary film showing children in Korean orphanages following the Korean War. Unbeknownst to the Holts at the time, the screening of the documentary would inspire them to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of homeless children worldwide.

The Holts were dismayed at the conditions these children were forced to live in. Haunted by the children’s sad faces, they came to an inspired realization: those children needed families, and the Holts themselves could be the parents for some of those children.

The Holts ran into a roadblock, however, when they learned that there were no laws allowing or governing intercountry adoption. Intercountry adoption was unheard of at the time, and domestic adoptions usually were processed in secret. It would be up to the Holts to pass a bill through the U.S. Congress before they were allowed to continue on their mission.

The “Holt Bill” establishing intercountry adoption was passed by the U.S. Congress in two months. Harry Holt immediately traveled to Korea to bring back the eight Korean children the Holts would be adding to their family.

But their plight did not stop there. Holt International Children’s Services has brought more than 40,000 homeless and disabled children into permanent homes. Holt continues to flourish and operate in more than 12 countries today.

Travelling with Holt in Asia

I had the pleasure of traveling to China and South Korea to visit Holt’s programs and orphanages last month. As a mother, I prepared myself for the heartbreaking images and realities I knew I would face on the trip. While it is unfathomable for most families in the United States to consider abandoning their children, China’s one-child policy, and the deep cultural resistance to diversity and disabilities in South Korea, make child abandonment heart-wrenchingly commonplace.

What I saw was indeed heartbreaking, but also awe-inspiring; smiling faces of children eager to give hugs and hunt out the M&Ms I had brought in my pockets. Adorable school aged children flashing the peace symbol and toothless grins at the camera. It was as if the innocence of childhood transcended the heartbreaking beginnings each one had experienced.

I saw that the kids were genuinely bonded to their caregivers in the orphanage and many had already been matched with families for adoption. While my heart absolutely ached to think of the unimaginable reality these children were living in, I was heartened and impressed by Holt’s model of the “group home” where six children lived within the orphanage in an apartment style complex with “mom” and “dad” caregivers.

Child abandonment continues

Though I was impressed by the safe and warm surroundings the children were living in, I was appalled to think of China’s rising star within the global community. How could a country that is considered to be a global economic powerhouse and revered as one of the most economically prosperous in the world be so lacking in its basic services to children and families? As well as the purveyor of a population control policy that is both an egregious affront to personal liberty and the direct cause for the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of infants?

No matter how much economic prosperity China may achieve, little is being done to address the political and social roots of child abandonment. No degree of technological innovation will combat the lack of access to programs like free or affordable childcare, a consuming preoccupation with population control, or the cultural attitudes and pervasive stigma toward orphans, adoption, widows, single and unwed mothers that fuels the seemingly acceptable practice of child abandonment.

Luckily, from a farm in Creswell to a multi-country child welfare conglomerate, Harry and Bertha Holt’s mission lives on through Holt and those toothless smiles their organization is helping to grow wider every day. While the Chinese government may be willing to turn a blind eye, there are those out there, like the Holts and those that work in their legacy, who will continue the fight to ensure that every child has the opportunity to grow up in a loving home.

I feel blessed to have had the privilege of taking this trip and sharing time with these wonderful children and those who love them. My awe for the people who dedicate their lives and hearts to abandoned children around the world continues to weigh heavily on my mind; especially when I came home and felt my little daughter throw her arms around my neck. I could feel myself holding her a little tighter and feeling an overwhelming appreciation for those tiny arms and the cheerful voice telling me “it’s time to go home, mommy.” It is my hope that all of the children I met will someday be able to say the same thing.

(Note: Holt International Children’s Services is a pro-bono client of CFM.)