The History of Holt International

In 1956, Harry and Bertha Holt revolutionized the definition of family when they adopted eight children in the wake of the Korean War.

They pioneered international adoption, and founded Holt International. But long before that, they were child sponsors — driven by their faith, compassion, generosity and desire to do what they could to make the world a better place.

Explore each decade of Holt’s incredible history of helping children and families:


December 16, 1954

The beginning of Holt International

Harry and Bertha Holt view a World Vision video that depicts the plight of Korean War orphans and it inspires them to provide monthly sponsorship.

May 30, 1955

Harry Holt leaves for Korea

Harry Holt leaves for Seoul, Korea, to care for children left orphaned or abandoned in the wake of the Korean War.

August 12, 1955

President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Holt Bill into law

After a lobbying effort by Bertha Holt, a bill is passed allowing Harry and Bertha Holt to adopt eight children from South Korea.

copy of senate bill for the relief of korean war orphans

October 14, 1955

Holt children arrive in the United States

After the “Holt Bill” passes, the eight children adopted by Harry and Bertha Holt arrive in Oregon.

March 21, 1956

Harry Holt leaves for Korea to set up the Holt Adoption Program with David Kim

Feeling led by God to help more children in Korea, Harry Holt travels back to Seoul to unite children with families through international adoption.

July 23, 1957

First Holt picnic

The first Holt picnic is held at Harry and Bertha Holt’s home in Creswell, Oregon, attended by more than 500 families and children brought together through the Holt Adoption Program.

Holt staff at the first Holt picnic in 1957



Ilsan Center is built

Concerned about the children who weren’t adopted, especially those with profound medical and developmental conditions, the Holts build a long-term care facility near the village of Ilsan in South Korea.

April 28, 1964

Harry Holt passes away in Korea

After suffering a heart attack, Harry Holt passes away, leaving behind his wife and family, and the children in Korea whose lives he touched.

March 1, 1966

Bertha Holt recognized as American Mother of the Year

At the presentation, Bertha Holt sits beside Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Bertha Holt with Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the American Mother of the Year presentation, 1966.
Bertha Holt with Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the American Mother of the Year presentation, 1966



Holt begins work in Vietnam

Holt first serves families and children in Vietnam through a USAID-funded nutrition program, later developing an international adoption program to help find permanent homes for the more than 25,000 children then living in Vietnam’s orphanages. In 1973, Holt introduces foster care for children in the country’s orphanages, providing loving, individual attention to nurture their development while they await permanent placement.



Holt begins work in Thailand

In the mid-1970s, Holt establishes a partner agency in Thailand, called the Holt Sahathai Foundation (HSF), or “United Hearts Foundation.” In 1976, HSF begins providing support services to struggling families, thus enabling them to care for their children. That same year, HSF becomes the first organization to implement foster care in Thailand, providing children with a loving home while they await adoption or to rejoin their families, once stable.

April 5, 1975

Saigon falls to the North

Holt evacuates exactly 409 children from Saigon in what has now famously become known as the “Vietnam Babylift.” Holt’s flight — one of several agency-arranged “babylifts” at the end of the war — comes two days after President Gerald Ford announces that all Vietnamese children currently identified for adoption to U.S. families would be airlifted out of Vietnam.


Holt begins work in the Philippines

In 1976, Holt helps establish a partner agency in the Philippines — the Kaisahang Buhay Foundation (KBF), or “Working Together Foundation,” in Manila. Through the years, KBF has grown to become a recognized leader in child welfare services, serving homeless and at-risk children from birth to 18 years of age. Like all of Holt’s partners, KBF strives to help children remain or reunite with their birth families before pursuing adoption.

October 1, 1979

Bharatiya Semaj Seva Kendra (BSSK) opens in India

Holt helps establish BSSK to provide services and residential care for homeless children in Pune, India. At BSSK, Holt adapts the model of attentive, affectionate care that Harry Holt helped establish in Korea, reducing infant mortality to almost zero.



Holt begins work in Guatemala

In 1986, Holt begins caring for orphaned and vulnerable children in Guatemala through a partnership with a local child welfare agency, Asociación para la Integración Familiar (APIF). Through 2010, Holt helped more than 150 Guatemalan children join adoptive families in the U.S. and supported APIF’s efforts to reunite another 500 children with their birth families.


United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is drafted

In 1989, Holt representatives help draft the Convention, which states that childhood is separate from adulthood, lasts until age 18 and is a special, protected time in which children must be allowed to grow, learn, play, develop and flourish with dignity. The Convention is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history and has helped create stronger safeguards to protect children from violence and exploitation.

November 1, 1989

Holt helps to establish the Vathsalya Charitable Trust

By helping to establish the Vathsalya Charitable Trust, Holt is able to provide services and residential care to homeless children in Bangalore, India. Today, the child welfare organizations Holt helped to establish in India continue to grow and diversify their services, and remain a significant part of Holt’s history and legacy.



Holt begins work in Romania

After the fall of communism in 1989, the former Eastern Bloc country of Romania opens its doors to outsiders — including to its 650 state orphanages where more than 100,000 children are found living in horrifying conditions. In 1990, Holt is among the first organizations to come to the aid of Romania’s institutionalized children, developing a range of USAID-funded child and family welfare programs throughout the 1990s.


Holt begins finding families for children from China

In 1992, Holt facilitates its first international adoption from China to the United States. In the years since, Holt has become a leading agency in finding families for children from China, particularly children with special needs and older children. To date, Holt has placed more children with special needs than any other agency. In the late 1990s, Holt also begins allying with the government of China to develop model foster care programs — providing family-like alternatives for children in institutional care. In the ensuing years, Holt replicates this model for children throughout China.

adoptive mother with daughter adopted from china


Holt delegates help draft The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption

When nations gather in the early 1990s to draft The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, delegates representing the U.S. include Holt President Emeritus David Kim and Holt Vice President of Policy & External Affairs Susan Cox.


Holt begins work in Mongolia

In 1999, Holt begins to serve homeless children in Ulaanbaatar through a partnership with the Mongolian NGO, the Naidvar Center. Holt also establishes ties with the National Children’s Sanitorium (NCS), Mongolia’s primary government care center for orphaned and abandoned children under the age of 4. Together, NCS and Holt develop the Rainbow Special Baby Care Unit to give at-risk infants and toddlers the proper nutrition, medical care and nurturing they need to recover and thrive.


Nanchang baby care unit opens in China

Holt helps the Nanchang orphanage open a special baby care unit to improve the feeding and care of premature babies and babies with special needs — reducing the overall mortality rate of children entering the orphanage.


July 24, 2000

Bertha Holt passes away

Bertha Holt — affectionately known as “Grandma Holt” — passes away at age 96 at her home in Creswell, Oregon. A co-founder of Holt International, she leaves behind a legacy of love, faithfulness and tireless advocacy for orphaned and vulnerable children around the world. 

Bertha Holt's legacy of love pink hanbok photo


Holt helps develop the ILEA program in the Philippines

The Independent Living & Educational Assistance (ILEA) program empowers young adults who grow up in orphanages to achieve independence and self-reliance. While some ILEA scholars have worked toward a high school diploma and then opened their own businesses, nearly half have graduated from vocational courses or completed four-year university degrees.


Holt begins work in Uganda

In 2001, Holt begins working with the indigenous NGO Action for Children (AFC) to help serve vulnerable families and children in Uganda, particularly those affected by HIV/AIDS. The partnership immediately expands AFC’s ability to reach, counsel and assist children. With the primary goal to keep children within their extended family – and off the streets or out of institutions — Holt and AFC begin developing services that empower struggling families to support their children.

children outside in Uganda


Holt begins work in Haiti

Holt begins our work in Haiti in 2003 — partnering with the humanitarian organization Hope for Haiti Foundation, centered at the Fontana Children’s Village north of Port-au-Prince.


Holt continues work in Cambodia

Holt has intermittently served children and families in Cambodia since the late 1990s — and consistently since 2005. With international adoption to the U.S. closed since 2001, Holt concentrates efforts in Cambodia on helping children join families via in-country adoption, reuniting children with their birth families and strengthening families at risk of separation.

March 1, 2007

Holt’s Longchuan project is initiated in China

Through the Longchuan project, Holt expands services to children and families at risk due to poverty or HIV/AIDS. The project works in partnership with local schools and teachers with the goal of helping children remain with their families and continue their education.


Holt begins work in Ethiopia

In 2007, Holt establishes an international adoption program in Ethiopia to help orphaned and vulnerable children join loving, permanent families. Holt also begins exploring ways to help strengthen families at risk of separation. In 2008, Holt introduces a family strengthening program to help struggling families in Ethiopia grow strong and self-reliant, and able to provide for their children.


January 12, 2010

Massive 7.0 earthquake strikes Haiti

When the quake hit, many children in care at our partnering care center Holt Fontana Village were already matched with adoptive families in the U.S. In the aftermath, Holt helps arrange for these children to travel to the United States on humanitarian parole visas.

April 14, 2011

Holt International celebrates 55 years with a conference in Washington, D.C.

Participants from around the world gather in Washington, D.C. (April 14-16) to celebrate 55 years of intercountry adoption at the International Forum, sponsored by Holt International and Adoptees for Children. The conference looks at international adoption and child welfare through the unprecedented lens of adult adoptees.

September 1, 2011

Holt takes over operation of the Peace House in China

A special medical foster home in China, the Peace House provides a nurturing care environment and medically trained caregivers to provide critical pre- and post-operative care for children receiving corrective or lifesaving surgery.

Donor holding child with cleft lip at Peace House in China


Holt begins our child nutrition program

To help address nutrition and feeding issues among children in orphanage care — especially among children with special needs — Holt develops the Holt International Child Nutrition Program and begins training caregivers in best health, hygiene, nutrition and feeding practices. Today, Holt’s nutrition programs serve children in both orphanage care and family strengthening programs in countries where we work around the world.

May 1, 2014

Holt assumes management of the Sunny Ridge Family Center in Illinois

Today, Holt’s branch office in Illinois continues to provide both domestic and international adoption services to families in Illinois and has expanded its services to families in Wisconsin.

September 1, 2014

Holt joins a pilot adoption program for children with special needs in Vietnam

Holt is one of two U.S. agencies chosen to participate in a pilot adoption program for children with special needs in Vietnam. With this announcement, a 6-year moratorium on adoptions from Vietnam to the U.S. comes to an official end.

October 2015

Holt helps open the Mother and Child Health Center in Ethiopia

In a rural region of Ethiopia served only by a small clinic, Holt donors and the local community come together to build a full-service maternal-child hospital. For the first time, 250,000 people have access to advanced medical care.

October 2016

Holt begins supporting the Red Stone School for children in Mongolia

Before the Red Stone School opened, children often worked alongside their parents in the Ulaanbaatar city garbage dump, searching for food or recyclables. At the Holt sponsor- and donor-supported Red Stone School, children receive a safe, warm environment to learn, clean uniforms and nourishing daily meals. For many of these children, the meal they eat at school is the only meal they eat each day.


Holt receives grants to develop family-like care alternatives for children living in institutions in Cambodia

Through research and community collaboration funded by Save the Children, USAID and GHR Foundation grants, Holt begins working to develop a model of services that keeps thousands of children out of institutions and in more nurturing, family-like care. Services include foster care, family reunification and kinship care, and in-country adoption.

January 25, 2018

David Kim passes away

David Kim passes away in Eugene, Oregon, at the age of 86. He was Holt’s first employee, hired by Harry Holt, and dedicated his life to serving children.


Holt resumes work in Colombia

As the war in Colombia comes to an end, Holt reestablishes a Colombia adoption program to help find families for children in greatest need — many of them older children and sibling groups. At the same time, Holt begins working alongside local partners in Colombia to strengthen families at risk of separation and care for orphaned and vulnerable children.

mother smiling with two boys

April 1, 2019

Holt merges with World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP) 

Holt and WACAP now operate under the name Holt International Children’s Services, and are able to help more orphaned and vulnerable children around the world by combining resources and knowledge.

May 17, 2019

Molly Holt passes away in Korea

Molly Holt, daughter of Holt founders Harry and Bertha Holt, passes away at age 83. Molly spent 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.


Holt resumes international adoptions from Hong Kong

After many years, Holt reestablishes an international adoption program in Hong Kong to help find families for children with special needs.


Holt begins finding families for children from Taiwan

The Taiwan program is Holt’s third adoption program in the China region, including Hong Kong and mainland China.


Holt resumes international adoptions from Bulgaria

To help find families for children from Bulgaria, Holt resumes our partnership with Vesta, a licensed agency with more than 20 years of experience advocating for children — especially children with special needs and older children who have been waiting a long time for a family.



Holt helps children and families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic

In early 2020, as COVID begins to spread in China, Holt sponsors and donors provide emergency supplies to children living in orphanages. As COVID becomes a global pandemic, Holt sponsors and donors provide everything from food, clothing and school supplies to safe shelter, counseling, medical care, cash transfers and more for over 288,400 children and families in our programs worldwide.

March 2021

Holt helps the first child in Cambodia join a family via in-country adoption

With grant funding, Holt’s social work team in Cambodia helps to develop three care alternatives for children growing up in institutional care — kinship care, foster care and for the first time, a formal, ethical system of domestic adoption.

mother and daughter

May 17, 2021

Holt begins international adoptions from South Africa

With this announcement, Holt becomes one of three U.S. adoption agencies approved to place children from South Africa with eligible families in the U.S. As everywhere Holt has adoption programs, Holt works alongside a local partner in South Africa — Wandisa — to thoroughly explore the possibility of family reunification before pursuing adoption for a child.

boy standing in front of his family

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