In Memory Of Molly Holt

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. 

A memorial picture of Molly Holt.

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.

Molly Holt as a young nurse with children in Korea.
Molly Holt as a young nurse with children in Korea.

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

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22 Replies to “In Memory Of Molly Holt”

  1. Sharing the sorrow for this truly great woman! We have a special needs Korean daughter & she has blessed our lives. Thank you Molly for your love and service for humanity! Rest In Peace! You have blessed us all.

  2. My Husband & I adopted our 2 children through Holt Int. Childrens Serv. In the 80’s. I met Molly in 2015 at Ilsan. I was visiting our exchange daughter and wanted to visit Ilsan. It was the highlight of my trip to meet Molly and Dr. Cho. I am so sad to read this today, but know many children were cared for and loved by Molly Holt. Rest in Eternal Peace Molly.

  3. We celebrate her life and her selfless devotion to the children! It’s very humbling to even be allowed in the shadow of such greatness!!

  4. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to meet Molly while on a trip to visit my daughter who was teaching English there. She was adopted through Holt in 1983. My daughter took me to Ilsan by train to visit and your. I will never forget that experience. Molly will forever be in our hearts.

  5. just around 10 days ago on the 9th of May I visited her in the hospital where also Linda her sister was. We spoke about the many whom she has influenced their lives. Hearing now that she has passed into the glory of God I and all of us loose a dear friend but knowing that we will meet again in heaven.
    For family and friends that the Lord will strengthen you and us in our loss

  6. We met Molly in 2003 when we adopted our son from Holt. We were able to thank her for the gift of our precious son whom we dearly love. She took us out for lunch to a beautiful buffet. Our son is now almost 17. God bless Molly. She has heard “well done though good and faithful servant!” Kevin D.

  7. Our family is praying for all of Molly’s family, friends, colleagues and all the residents especially who love her. We are praying for the entire Holt International family as we mourn our loss, and celebrate her life and her place in heaven now. God Bless Holt. Our family is grateful for all the work of Holt and especially for our 17 year old daughter, Grace who turns 18 tomorrow and was born in Taegu Korea and has brought us such joy.

  8. So sad to get this news. Molly will be reminded for her open home and for her kindly personality. She was a true Jesus disciple. Our family are thankful for what she has done and for the love she showed us when we worked in Holt Ilsan town for one year.
    Our thoughts and praying are for everyone at Holt Ilsan who is now in grief. We will pray that Holt Ilsan will be driven further in the spirit Holt started the work in Ilsan; to be led by the word of God and Jesus love.

  9. Molly’s total being was devoted to God, the children and her family. She fiercely defended the rights of children to have the best care possible. Dear Molly, thank you and bless you.

  10. It took me 49 yrs to make the motherland trip and after that decided to volunteer at Holt Ilsan. I’m so glad I made the trip and was able to spend a month and a half with Molly and the special residents. I will always cherish those special days with my “second mom”.

  11. No tube El placer de conocerla, pero se que ahora está en lo brazos del padre celestial, y se que aquí a dejado un gran vacío pero también un hermoso legado para seguir brindando amor a tanto angeles que necesitan de cada uno de nosotros y que en cada unos de ellos nos encontraremos cara a cara con el rostro de Jesús. Descanso eterno a Molly y resignación a sus familiares.

  12. I want to thank you Molly for your love for our Korean children. I can’t wait to meet you in heaven. Our daughter adopted through Holt at age 5 months, now 25, had a chance to meet and sit on Bertha Holts lap where she prayed for her… thank you to Molly and all the Holt family for all you do to love and adore these little children??

  13. I had the great blessing and honor to have spent time with Molly Holt on (likely) two occasions. The first time was when I was a three year old orphan at Ilsan. The second time was when I served as a volunteer at Ilsan after the adoption of our Korean daughter through Holt. While I don’t remember the first occasion, I definitely remember the second.

    I don’t believe I have ever met anyone else with as much passionate vision, tireless work ethic, and genuine love of people… all people. It is with moist eyes as I imagine Molly so deservingly hearing the King say, thank you for feeding me when I was hungry, thank you for giving me something to drink when I was thirsty, for taking me in when I was a stranger, for clothing me, for nursing me through sickness…

  14. As a child who was considered unadoptable in the 70’s, I owe the Holt family for my life and the gift of vision, their dedication, committment and spiritual foundation which made sure no children are ever left behind or forgotten.

  15. Molly Holt is special to our family because she is the one who carried our son John from Korea off the plane in San Francisco into our arms in April 1975. Thank you Molly and thank you Holt!

  16. Besides all Molly Holt has done, she is special to our family. Molly is the one who carried our son John from Korea off the plane in San Francisco into our arms. This was in April 1975. Thank you Molly and thank you Holt.

  17. I arrived at Ilsan in February 1974 and was adopted along with my older sister in June of that year. I now wonder if Molly knew of us- surely she must have. What a long life of service she led- just an incredible human being. God bless Molly Holt and her family.

  18. Molly left huge impression on my heart, she believed in every child, who struggle to live, with prayer they live with God‘s blessing.
    I don’t know why Molly told me that I was her great inspiration that kept her going, saving many children as possible and placing many children as possible in homes with family of their own.
    I say she has the greatest impression and inspiration for us all to follow her example and have that Unlimited love through Christ like the life she lived. With tears I say this, I love you Molly,
    You are remembered.
    God bless Molly and the whole Holt family Organizations and many hands Who have worked side-by-side with her, made it possible for so many children, over 4 decades, placing children with so much hope of their potential with physically levitation or those that are healthy or weak.
    Molly put her prayer strength in each one of those children that was placed in the home of their own to thrive.

  19. My husband and I met Molly when we volunteered for a week at the Ilsan Center back in 2016 for our honeymoon. We found Molly to be sweet spirited and kind. It was an honor to meet and work with her.

  20. During one of her visits to Oregon in the 1970’s, our family had the opportunity to house Molly overnight in our home. She was there to give a speech about in our church about her work in South Korea. We had previously adopted a sister through Holt Adoption Agency, as had several families in our small town. Was quite an honor to meet and speak with her.

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