November-December 1998

Grandma's Brag Book

As a 50-year-old housewife, Bertha Holt adopted eight Korean babies. Forty years and 60,000 adoptions later, she continues to turn the pictures of sad orphans to happy ones.

by Peg Roen

If you ask to see 94-year-old Bertha Holt's brag book, you'd better have time. A lot of time. Bertha, known to everyone in her hometown of Creswell, Oregon, and nearby Eugene as "Grandma," has 190 such albums.

Not your typical Sears portraits, these pictures chronicle the lives of more than 60,000 children adopted through Holt International Children's Services, the organization that Bertha and her late husband, Harry, began in 1956. Today, Holt International, with dozens of centers and programs worldwide, is the largest Christian adoption agency. And no one could be more proud than Grandma.

"You wouldn't believe the number of letters I get every day saying, 'Thank you, Grandma,'" she says, tossing back shining white hair with a laugh. "Parents are quick to brag about their children, and so am I."

At not quite five feet tall, Grandma Holt sparkles as she talks about her heart's passion. There's not a thing she wouldn't do for Holt and its children, including raising money through pledges for her participation in Eugene's Hayward Classic Masters Track and Field Championships, a track meet for the over-35 crowd. With a steady pace and a keen desire to reach the finish line smiling, Bertha has set a world record for her age group (90-94) in the 400-meter race -- a little less than four minutes.

That's no surprise to Grandma's neighbors. They wave to the woman in the red sweat suit as she passes on her daily mile-and-a-quarter jog.

As she tells it, a different sort of finish line keeps her going, one at which her Savior waits to tell her "job well done." Until then, she says, there's a lot of work to be finished. To keep on the right track, Grandma begins her day reading the Bible. "I want to talk to the Lord, and I want him to talk to me," she says. "Before I stopped driving about five months ago, I would pray every time a light signal turned red. I just keep talking to Him."

Certain prayers haven't differed much over the years, particularly those prayers for guidance, such as the one she voiced more than 40 years ago as she and Harry viewed a life-changing film brought to her community by the missionary organization World Vision. The film, shot in post-war Korea, showed the plight of mixed-race children born to Korean mothers. Many were ostracized, abused or abandoned.

"We were devastated," Bertha remembers. "We had so many things in our lives, and those children in the film didn't have anything. They were helpless babies!"

Their pictures haunted her. Although times were lean, she and Harry had found success in the lumber business during their late 40s. They prayed that God would lead them to do his will with that prosperity. Could it be that at ages 50 and 51, with six children of our own ages 9 through 21, that God might want us to provide some of these children with a home full of love? Grandma wondered.

"I looked around and saw my kitchen. Oh! It could feed an army," she says with a squeal. "And the dining room! It could spill over into the library. The living room was plenty big. Suzanne and Linda's room could hold another double bed. The others could hold cots. A beam in the ceiling of the game room could be used to make another room. We could have a dormitory!"

To her surprise, one evening Harry told her he wanted to go to Korea and bring back some orphans. He imagined they could handle eight or 10, maybe 12 babies. "The kitchen can feed an army. And the dining room can spill over into the library..."

Bertha smiled. "I knew it was from the Lord himself," she says.

It took an act of Congress to allow the Holts to adopt eight Korean children and later bring thousands of others to the open arms of their adoptive parents. Susan Cox, director of Public Policy and External Affairs for Holt International Children's Services, says she, for one, is thankful. In the beginning while Grandma Holt was keeping the home fires burning, Harry would return to Korea to bring more children to anxiously awaiting parents in the United States. A trip in 1957 resulted in 278 adoptions at one time. Harry would often take the children most at risk, the ones not expected to make it through the night.

"One day, though," Cox says, "he took a child that wasn't at risk: a 4-year-old girl whose hair had been dyed black to make her look more Korean." She smiles. "The Holts may not have changed the whole world, but they certainly did change mine. They handed me to my parents in 1956. I was #167 to come into the family."

When Harry died in 1964, Bertha was not about to let their dreams die with him. She convinced the board of directors to keep the program for one more year. "If God blessed it," she said, "we'll know he wants us to keep going."

More than 40 years later, Holt not only places Korean children for adoption, but children from 13 other countries as well.

"He's blessed me, too," Grandma says. In her 1997 New Year's postcard, she proclaimed, "I have another exciting year for which I thank God." She lists her travels during 1996, including a 106th round-trip to Korea, and mentions not-so-pleasant reminders of her age: compressed nerves, a fall on the sidewalk, two teeth extractions, new hearing aids.

But none of these hindrances kept her last year from writing 1,550 letters by hand to her family. Nor can it keep her every Thursday from going to her office (complete with daybed for naps). As long as she is able, Bertha says, she'll work to unite every child who needs a home with every parent who longs to love a child. There are too many brag books yet to fill.

Peg Roen, a freelance writer from Denver, Colorado, says her brag book is a bit lighter than Grandma's. But she thanks God daily for her five nieces and two nephews including Amy and Alan, whom God brought to her family through adoption.

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