“Where’s Lyosha?” Jennifer Mitchell asks her daughter Masha.
“I think he’s with chickens,” Masha says with a soft Ukrainian lilt, blonde ponytail swinging as she turns.
Jennifer steps outside and surveys the muddy barnyard, undaunted by puddles as she cruises past the family’s old Case tractor. She finds Lyosha—one of her three adopted children—hunched near the chicken coop, watering a Silkie rooster named Cheeseburger.
“There you are!” she says. “We found you.”
Found indeed. Lyosha is one of countless former orphans from around the country and world who have found homes and loving families in Jennifer’s small hometown. Just south of Eugene in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Creswell—with its roughly 5,400 residents—has a long legacy of orphan care, beginning with the very roots of international adoption.
It all started with one Creswell family’s desire to alleviate the suffering of children orphaned by war.
Harry and Bertha Holt moved to Creswell from South Dakota in 1937. Harry opened Holt Lumber Co. and farmed on Howe Lane, eventually helped by his and Bertha’s six children.
“People respected our family for our Christian values,” says Suzanne Holt Peterson, the fifth-born and still a Creswell resident at 76. “Our father was honest and dependable.”
A heart attack forced Harry to retire from his lumber business in 1952. By 1954, he had found a new mission.
After seeing a film on the plight of children orphaned by the Korean War, Harry and Bertha were inspired to help. Sending money felt inadequate, so the Holts—already in their 50s—decided to adopt not one or two Korean orphans, but eight.
At the time, federal law prohibited the adoption of more than two foreign-born children, so the Holts—assisted by Oregon politicians—lobbied both houses of Congress to change federal law.
In 1955, Congress passed the Bill for Relief of Certain War Orphans. Soon after, the Holts fulfilled their dream, adopting four boys and four girls from South Korea. Ranging in age from infancy to 3, the children brought the number of Holt children to 14.
“One thing that was instilled at a very early age from my parents was, yes, they told us we were adopted, but they also instilled the fact that being adopted is just like being born to that family,” says Robert Holt, who arrived in the United States the day before his third birthday. “You are absolutely 100% their son or daughter.”
Robert, now a 67-year-old retiree, recalls “droves of media always hitting” the Holt farmhouse, especially around milestones such as a new school year. He still has vintage copies of Look and Life magazines that feature his famous family.
In 1956, the Holts founded what would become Holt International—“a Christian organization committed to a world where every child has a loving and secure home,” according to its mission statement. Since its early inception, the Eugene-based agency has placed nearly 40,000 children from Asia, South America and Eastern Europe with adoptive families in the United States.
Holt also offers domestic adoption services, family preservation efforts, child homelessness prevention and sponsorship opportunities, altogether affecting hundreds of thousands of children around the globe.
Harry died of a heart attack in 1964, but Bertha—known around town as “Grandma Holt”—remained heavily involved in the agency’s work until she died in 2000.
Former Creswell Mayor Dave Stram remembers Grandma Holt’s inspiring virtue and boundless energy. In her 90s, she set a record for the women’s 400-meter dash in her age group.
“I felt like I was in the presence of a saint,” Dave says, recalling the first time he visited Grandma Holt. “She had no pretense about her at all.”
In 1995, Dave and his wife, Jocelyn, adopted their daughter Kayla from Thailand through Holt International. They are one of many Creswell families carrying on the Holt legacy.
While working as a volunteer on a construction crew with Jennifer Mitchell and her family, Creswell resident and nurse Karissa Rea was impressed by the Ukrainian kids’ work ethic and care for others. She and Jennifer discussed the Ukrainian orphan crisis and how Karissa and her husband, David, could help.
“They started showing me pictures, saying there are still kids who need to be hosted for the summer,” Karissa says, referring to a program by which vetted families temporarily host children from overseas orphanages—usually for summer or Christmas breaks—allowing them to experience life in a loving family, access quality medical care, learn English and possibly meet their future families.
When a group of four siblings from Ukraine needed a host family for 10 weeks last year, the Reas—who live with their two young children in a three-bedroom house—were determined to help.
Karissa posted in social media groups for Creswell residents, asking community members to help her family make it possible to host the kids.
“There were so many people who responded and said, ‘Here’s what I have,’” says Karissa, a 33-year-old Montana transplant.
People in the community helped the Reas find a second refrigerator and a bunkbed. The town librarian set up summer library accounts for each hosted child. Nearby farmers taught the siblings how to make fresh-pressed apple cider, and the Mitchells—with two Ukrainian-speaking children—helped ease the transition.
“I think it’s easier for small towns like Creswell to help these kids out,” Karissa says. “I think when people here see what you’re doing—taking on something bigger—I think it opens their eyes to their ability to help too.”
Cresswell has many child-related initiatives and charities. Every summer, community members come together for “Party in the Park” to provide stocked backpacks for kids in need. Creslane Elementary has a program for homeless students, and its Intergenerational Reading Collaboration pairs community members with emerging readers. Creswell’s Church of Christ provides socks, shoes and other items to Creswell’s neediest students. The church’s Hope Restored Project—a local take on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition—brings community members together each year to refurbish houses for families with school-age children.
From her family’s small acreage, Jennifer Mitchell dreams of helping more orphans through an organized farm program. She and her husband, Clete, 42, started a pilot program to teach life skills to local adoptees and foster kids through working with livestock.
“Our small town allows families to slow down, care about others and take the time to help those in need,” Jennifer says.
Then, like a modern-day Grandma Holt, she heads out to the fields and the world, her children trailing close behind.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of Ruralite magazine, spotlights Heroes Among Us, sharing the unique stories of volunteers and difference-makers in communities across the Northwest and West. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust—a private, nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest. Holt International, a Murdock grantee, has served the cause of children and families for more than six decades.