It is with profound sadness that we share the heartbreaking news that Molly Holt, daughter of Holt founders Harry and Bertha Holt, passed away early in the morning on May 17 in Korea. She was 83 years old.
In South Korea, Molly was known by many names, from the Mother Teresa of Korea to the Mother of all Korea’s Orphans. Although she devoted her life to caring and advocating for children and adults with medical, developmental and physical needs in Korea, she leaves a legacy that is felt around the world.
Born on November 24, 1935 in Firesteel, South Dakota, Molly was the second eldest daughter of Harry and Bertha Holt, who pioneered international adoption in the mid-1950s and later founded Holt International. Molly attended high school in Creswell, Oregon, and later graduated from both the University of Oregon and Sacred Heart Hospital, where she earned a nursing degree in 1956.
The summer of that same year, Molly traveled for the first time to South Korea — fresh out of nursing school, and ready to help her father care for children left orphaned and abandoned in the wake of the Korean War. A devout Christian like her parents, Molly had a vision for her future while in Korea. “I felt that this was where the Lord would have me be for the rest of my life,” she later said.
Molly would go on to spend most of her adult life at the Ilsan Center in Korea, a nurturing, long-term care home that her parents built in the early 1960s for children and adults with special medical, developmental and physical needs. As a nurse and foster mother to the residents of Ilsan, Molly worked to ensure they received the specialized care they needed to reach their potential and live as independently as possible.
Through her tireless advocacy, Molly also made it possible for many children in care at Ilsan to join loving, permanent families through adoption. Today, hundreds of families adopt children with special needs every year from countries around the world. But long before it was common, Molly actively sought families for the children who others considered “unadoptable.” Like her parents before her, Molly helped change the culture of adoption by showing that every child is equally worthy of love and acceptance, and that every child deserves to be part of a family.
Only a few times in her life did Molly leave the Ilsan Center for extended periods, and only to pursue additional training so that she could better meet the needs of the children and adult residents of Ilsan. She studied at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, attended Korean language school and Multnomah School of the Bible, did post-graduate work in special education at the University of Oregon, and in December 1991 she earned a master’s degree in special education and rehabilitation from the University of Northern Colorado.
Throughout her life, she received many honors, including a presidential award, the National Order of Civil Merit from Korea in 1981, World Vision’s Bob Pierce award in 1984 and in 2009, for her lifetime of dedication to orphans and people with disabilities, she received the Royal Order of Merit from the king of Norway.
Diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2013, Molly nevertheless remained steadfast in her commitment to the children and adult residents of the Ilsan Center. Despite her declining health, she said that she would devote her remaining life “to the things that she loves with her whole heart.” Molly never married or had children, but to the residents of Ilsan — many of whom are now in their 50s and 60s — Molly was their only family. They called her “Unee,” or big sister, a name that Molly cherished.
“Molly Holt moved so many with her tireless and admirable efforts, especially for those children with mental and physical disabilities,” says Stephen Noerper, senior director of the Korea Society and senior advisor to the United Nations. “As a brother of adopted, special needs siblings, I salute and admire her legacy of service. She offered six decades of tireless devotion, stood as a credit to her brave parents, and touched, formed and grew many through her compassion. The Korea Society and the entire community of those bent on international friendship and support extend deepest condolences to her family and friends and the entire Holt organization. To Molly Holt’s nobility, spirit and service, all tribute and our love and heartfelt prayers.”
Of Molly’s passing, Lee HongKoo, former prime minister of the Republic of Korea, wrote, “The contribution of Molly Holt to humanity and humanism … is a historic achievement. The modern history of Korea will record her achievement with gratitude and admiration. Many of us in Korea join the Holt adoptee community in recording our love and farewell.”
“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Molly Holt,” says Oregon senator Ron Wyden. “Although she lived most of her life in Korea, all of us in Oregon consider her an exceptional Oregonian. Molly leaves a legacy of caring and compassion that will endure for generations to come. Her devotion to orphaned children in Korea and around the world touched the lives of thousands of children and families and changed the hearts and minds of many more for the better.”
Steve Stirling, president and CEO of MAP International, lived at the Ilsan Center in Korea before he was adopted in 1966, at the age of 11. “I thank God for Molly for faithfully serving those in need through Holt and living in Ilsan to care for disabled residents,” he says. “While we will miss you now, I will rejoice when we unite for eternity in Heaven with our Lord and Savior Jesus. So long for now until we meet again in our forever home.”
Please pray for Molly’s family and for the many people who have loved her that they might find peace and comfort in their memories.
Services for Molly were held on May 21 at Holt Ilsan Center of Korea. Molly’s family requests that gifts be made in her honor to the Molly Holt Fund for Children With Special Needs. If you would like to share memories or photos of Molly Holt, please email them to email@example.com.