After 50 years, Korea’s first adoptees return to give thanks
The story goes back to 1954, when Bertha and Harry Holt, an evangelical couple from rural Oregon, attended a fundraising event in Eugene hosted by Bob Pierce, the president of the Christian relief and development organization World Vision.
At the meeting, the couple was asked to support the group’s missionary efforts in Korea by sponsoring war orphans for $10 per month.
After watching a documentary on children in Korean orphanages, the couple decided to adopt eight war orphans.
In October 1955, Harry and eight children arrived at Portland International Airport with the first documented Korean orphans in the United States.
A year later, the couple returned to Korea, where they founded Holt’s Children’s Service. When Harry Holt died in 1964, Bertha continued to expand the service until she died in 2000 at the age of 96. Both Holts are buried in Ilsan.
Three of the eight children who were adopted - Steven, Wanda and Joe - also died. The rest, Robert Holt, Marry Last, Christine Russell, Helen Stampe and Betty Blackenship, all in their early 50s, settled in Portland. They recently joined their big sister Molly, one of Holt’s biological daughters and the head of Holt Children’s Services, to celebrate 50 years of Holt’s foundation.
By the end of the 1960s, Holt International Children’s Services was sending Korean orphans to Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Germany.
On a recent Saturday afternoon and Molly’s 70th birthday, the siblings got together in the backyard of the Holts’ Ilsan guesthouse, a home for the disabled (healthy babies are kept in separate homes until their adoption is finalized).
Molly came to Korea in her early twenties at her father’s request, after finishing nursing school. Ever since, she became the godmother of Korean orphans.
“Many Koreans still view overseas adoption negatively,” she says. “They say it’s a human export. But the children ended up with some wonderful family, which is still the best solution to orphans’ problems.”
Christine, the second-youngest child of the family, agrees. She is one of the “GI babies,” born to an American soldier and Korean mother during the war.
The Korean War left a large number of biracial children in orphanages ― Christine was one of them. She grew up in an orphanage in Ilsan until she was adopted by the Holt family. After she married, the Holt foundation invited her and her husband on a “couple’s tour,” a program to help the adoptee’s partners understand their spouses’ alienating experiences. After watching the babies being escorted to their foster parents for the first time, Christine’s husband told her that he finally knew what she had been through.
“When I was young, an army chaplain found me on a side of a rice paddy after the war,” Christine said. “He took me home, but my hair was so blonde that he suggested that my biological mother send me to the United States. He didn’t think I would survive in the village. She said no the first time. But later, she decided I would have a happier life in the U.S.”
When she turned 19, Christine came back to Korea to look for her biological mother. What she found out, though, was that her mother had died a few years ago.
“It was difficult,” she said, sobbing. “The villagers told me she had died from a broken heart.”
Helen, Christine’s older sister, is an executive assistant at Oregon University. She is on her sixth visit to Korea.
A few days before, she had visited a care home for unwed mothers in Daejeon to talk to the women about the possibility of giving their babies up for overseas adoption.
Robert, the only male sibling among the surviving members of the Holt family, took time off from his part-time jobs to visit Korea with his wife, Brenda. The couple, who lives in Eugene, seem more at home with seasonal football games and hiking around Mount Hood than scarfing down a plate of japchae (clear noodles).
“Korea to me is less than a motherland,” Robert said. “I’ve lived in Oregon for 50 years. To me, this is more of a vacation.”
Mary adopted three Filipino children. Betty, the youngest child between Harry and Bertha, is the only full-blooded Korean in the family.
“I thank the Koreans [who supported the Holt Foundation] who have always cared for the children like us who had to leave the country when we didn’t have enough of everything,” Mary says.
Lee Jong-yun, a president of Holt Children’s Services, says the Holt’s children were between the ages of 3 to 7 when they left Korea in 1955.
“It’s still a mystery how Harry and Bertha came to be at that meeting hosted by Bob Pierce in the evening of 1954,” he says. “The couple must have been busy raising their own children on a farm near a small town of Creswell, Oregon. They were in their late 50s when they decided to adopt the children. If it wasn’t for them, who knows when overseas adoption would have begun in Korea?”
There are others who fondly remember the family. Choi Jun-young, a business consultant who grew up in an orphanage in Busan, has good memories of her time as a child who grew up under the care of Holt’s assistance.
“Harry was such a charismatic father figure,” she said. “He made sure that nobody was messing around with their kids. When he yelled, it was so loud that everyone ran away.”
by Park Soo-mee