Holt is blessed to have thousands of devoted child sponsors, including more than 1,300 families who have consistently sponsored children for more than 20 years. What inspires their commitment to caring for children they’ve never met, even through times of hardship?
by Billie Loewen, Staff Writer
Nearly 30 years ago, Linda and Chris Bell were planning to add one child to their family. They never would have guessed that adding one would inspire them to add 15 more.
After Linda and Chris adopted their daughter Stacy in 1984, they learned that an American family had sponsored Stacy through Holt International while she was in care in Korea.
“We were so thankful for the care that Stacy had received, we wanted to join the sponsorship program,” Linda says. Linda took her children to Holt’s main office, where they looked at the pictures of children in sponsorship, and read each child’s story.
They chose to sponsor a boy from Thailand — the first of nearly 15 children they’ve sponsored over the past 20 years.
Much has changed in the Bell home over the past two decades. Their children are grown now, and they’ve weathered lots of ups and downs. However, one thing has stayed the same. They are still sponsors.
The Bells are among thousands of other families who, despite hardships both economic and otherwise, have maintained their monthly sponsorship commitment to orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children overseas. Of these extraordinary sponsors, the Bells belong to an even more unique group – a group of 1,200 families or individuals who have been giving for more than 20 years. Over 106 Holt sponsors have been giving for more than 30 years. And at present count, Holt’s longest-standing sponsor has supported children for more than 44 years — since 1969.
Alycia Fahr-Zarlons started working for Holt International in 1995. In her time here, she’s taken on roles in international programs, development and event coordination. But most recently, she has served in Holt’s sponsorship department. Earlier this year, Alycia spent several weeks reaching out to sponsors to thank them for their commitment — an action she saw as a simple, natural response to their generosity.
“A common response I received [from sponsors] was a note of surprise, and then a reverse of the thank you,” Alycia says. “Sponsors love to express their appreciation and thank Holt for the services we are providing. But I quickly reminded them that our programs could not exist without their dedicated support.”
Sponsorship is a crucial part of Holt’s work overseas. More than 75 percent of the money Holt raises to support children abroad each year comes from sponsors. Their gift buys food, baby formula, school supplies and uniforms. It supplies the fees to keep children in school. It pays for advanced, life-saving medical care, and loving, home-like care for the most vulnerable children. In many cases, it actually keeps families together — providing the resources struggling parents need to care for their children.
When Alycia speaks with sponsors, they tell her that they love receiving updates on their child in the mail, and posting new photos on their fridge. Sponsors are passionate about the welfare and growth of their child, and find joy from his or her successes.
For many families, their sponsored child becomes an intimate part of their home.
When Colleen and Doug Morris married nearly 40 years ago, they wanted to grow their family. Doug adopted Jolene, Colleen’s 6-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Then, nearly six years later, they adopted their second child through Holt’s Korea program. She was four months old, and they named her Stephanie.
Prior to Stephanie’s homecoming, Colleen and Doug met with adoptive family support groups and spoke to older adoptees in their California community. They attended a presentation about Holt International, where they were inspired by the story of Holt’s founders, Harry and Bertha Holt, who were the first to adopt eight children from Korea.
“As we learned about Holt’s history, we gained complete faith and confidence in their trustworthiness as a non-profit organization,” Colleen says.
Nine months later, their daughter was home.
From that moment, Colleen and Doug’s lives intertwined with Holt in a way that would never be broken, despite tremendous hardships along the way.
Colleen and Doug took their children to Holt family picnics, reunions and presentations. They met Bertha Holt, and were inspired by her humble spirit and dedication to orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children. At one presentation, Colleen and her daughters saw photos of children who needed sponsors. A 13-year-old girl shared the same birthday as Colleen’s mother, and she became their first sponsored child. They hung her photo on their fridge at home.
Colleen and Doug estimate they’ve sponsored more than 25 children throughout the past 30 years, from at least 10 different countries. Their sponsorship extends further than Holt’s electronic data records, which reflect only 15 years of their sponsorship, from 1998 to now.
With each child, Colleen has felt the joy and excitement that comes when a child is placed in a family, or able to return to their own family. At first, Colleen and Doug pasted each sponsored child’s photo to the fridge with magnets. Then, they started filling binders and photo albums with their sponsored children. Once, a child they sponsored was placed in a permanent home near where they lived, and they were able to mail back and forth with the family. Another time, Colleen was at a Holt picnic in the San Francisco Bay Area when she spotted a family holding a picture of one of the children she had sponsored. The family, Colleen learned, would be bringing the little girl into their family soon.
“It was a surprise and a blessing,” Colleen said about her experience at the picnic. “It’s always interesting to learn what has happened in the lives of our sponsored children.”
In 1983, Colleen joined Holt International’s board of directors, and served for 8 and a half years.
In 2008, the recession hit Colleen Morris’ family hard. Really hard. She and her husband Doug were nearing retirement, social security and Medicare benefits when Doug, a custom cabinetmaker with 45 years of experience, found himself in two years of plaguing unemployment. In 2009, Colleen took a job as a word processor for an engineering company in Redding, California. Still, the couple risked losing everything. So they packed their possessions into boxes, completed a short sale on their home, and moved into their fifth-wheel camper.
Colleen and Doug Morris are among more than 1.3 million Americans who lost their homes because of economic hardship in the four years following the start of the recession. During times of financial strain, the trend is to give up three things first: entertainment, luxuries and charity.
Although the Morrises could give up luxury items and expensive entertainment, one item on that list was indispensible. Despite the loss of their jobs, home and health, they’ve continued to send money for children they’ve never met, in countries they’ve never visited. These are their Holt-sponsored kids — children who, without support, may not see the inside of a classroom, consistent meals, or the love of a family.
“I’ve often wondered what it is that compels folks to maintain such a steady level of dedication for such a long period of time,” Alycia says. “They continue to sponsor through many transitions in their own personal lives — such as marriages, children, college expenses, job losses and changes, medical challenges and retirement. It boils down to simple and honest affirmations of their willingness to make sacrifices so that children and families in need may benefit.”
For Colleen and Doug Morris, the rationale for sponsoring despite economic hardship is also quite simple. “It’s a priority,” Colleen says.
Linda’s family feels a similar commitment — one bolstered by personally seeing the outcome of sponsorship. Four years after Linda and her family started sponsoring their first child, they learned that a family in nearby Portland was bringing him home.
“We were able to meet when they came down to the Holt picnic in Eugene,” Linda says. “He still had the pictures and crafts that we had sent to him. It was wonderful to see him in person after having his little picture on our refrigerator and praying for him for all those years.”
Then, a few years ago, Linda opened her Facebook to find a message from a young woman in New Jersey. She racked her brain at the familiar face, and then it came to her. It was a young girl they had sponsored as a toddler living in Vietnam. She was later placed with a family in the U.S.
“She had just graduated from college and was going through a box at her parents’ home and found a letter and pictures I sent when she came home,” Linda said. “She wanted to thank us for being a part of her life.”
Although Holt sponsorship is temporary for a child, for the sponsor, it is an ongoing commitment; when one child leaves sponsorship, their sponsor is automatically assigned another child who needs their help. Unlike many sponsorship programs, in which one family will sponsor the same child until they reach adulthood, Holt sponsors support a child only until the day his or her family has become self-reliant — or, in some cases, when the child finds a stable, loving family through adoption. In these instances, Holt sponsors get to share in the joy a child feels when they are placed in a forever family.
Of the children Linda’s family has sponsored over the past 20 years, some have found forever families in the U.S., and others were able to stay in their birth families with the support of their sponsor. In 1991, the Bells adopted their second child through Holt. Later, they adopted their third child.
“God has blessed us with so much to be thankful for in America,” Linda says. “It feels good to know that we are helping in this way.”
When Alycia speaks to sponsors, many share their stories of how they learned of Holt, when they first met their adopted child, and memories of travel overseas. Many share memories of Bertha Holt, having come to know her on a personal level. “Most of all, they are proud of the successes of their beautiful children, grandchildren and sponsored children,” Alycia says. “Not every story was glorious. Some were difficult and challenging because life is not a commodity.”
Alycia says most sponsors have faced hardships through their many years of sponsoring, but through it all, they remain committed to Holt and the children they support.
“Our long-term sponsors have shown us that they are unwavering in support, are willing to endure hardships and make sacrifices, and are willing to invest their hard-earned resources, trusting that Holt will remain accountable, transparent and ethical while carrying out programs,” Alycia said.
Many years have now passed since the day that Colleen and Doug’s daughters helped choose their first sponsored child. Their children are now grown, and having children of their own. Many of the records from Colleen and Doug’s sponsored children are in boxes in their storage unit to save room in their fifth wheel. Still, there is the face of a new child on their fridge. He’s 10, and their first sponsored child from Mongolia.