If You Build It…

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The roof is going up on the next home for our boys and I realize that I haven’t written a lick about it! In fact, if you follow this blog much you may have noticed that I haven’t been actually writing about much of anything at all. It’s been silent here on the blog, but that silence doesn’t reflect what has actually been happening here in Ukraine. It has been busy here, as usual. 🙂

We have room on our property for our current home, plus 2 duplexes. The plan is for each side of each duplex to have space for 4 boys/men from the institution, plus space upstairs for the people who will be their family.

The first duplex is well under way and it is HUGE!!! I’m kinda jealous and wish I was going to live in it! The homes are going to be fabulous. We’ve learned some lessons from our current home setup and have designed to meet those needs in the plans for the duplexes. For instance, the duplexes will have toilets separate from showers, more toilets, a “family space” upstairs for the family who will live in the home and for guests, a separate bedroom for each boy, and a lockable pantry in the kitchen that will also house the refrigerator. The homes will all be fully accessible and up to ADA standards. Not to mention, they’re just going to be flat out GORGEOUS! So many windows, so much natural wood, so much light. So much excitement!!!

We are hoping to keep a steady pace on the build so that the first duplex will be completed in the late spring or early summer. We need another $30,000 to complete the project. In the meantime we are praying about which boys will live in the first homes and figuring out the process for securing guardianship of them. If we take anyone under the age of 18 everything is done differently than if we take adults, so there will be a learning curve there. Also, most of the boys under the age of 18 have parents, so we will need to work alongside them to see what supports could be put in place for reunification, and if that is not possible, than we need to make a plan for how we can work alongside the parents in caring for the boys here at the Homestead. So much to consider! Right now the plan is that one side of the duplex will be for children (under the age of 18) and the other side will be for adults. The current children at the institution are all 13 or 14 years old, but developmentally much younger.

Our focus in choosing boys at this point is pretty much zeroed in on the Isolation Hall. The boys and men there have significant medical needs that will never be addressed properly in the Institution. They are the ones our work has pretty much centered around in the last 5 years with our interns and our volunteer teams, so it makes sense for us to put our attention there, in the beginning. But of course, we are very open to God’s leading in this. We need so much wisdom and clarity!

The elephant in the room of this whole project is the question of who will live in the duplex with the boys?

Yeah, that’s a good question. And the answer right now is…we have no idea.

We are currently working on a job description and ministry description because the time has come to look in earnest for who will join us in this work. We need people who will live in the duplexes with the boys, like we do in our home, and we also need people who will live off-site and come in as daily help to the Wide Awake machine (Romaniv work, administrative help, in-home helpers, Special Wednesday helpers…the list goes on and on). It’s just gotten to the point where if we don’t bring more help in the growth will have to slow, or even stop, and we don’t want that to happen. Our boys need OUT.

Our dream is that a blend of Ukrainians and foreigners would work together to care for our boys. Ukrainians are the obvious choice. They have the language, know the culture, and already live here. But at the same time, we see the benefit of outsiders coming in to join as well. Westerners come in to this with different eyes and a different perspective. Ukrainians have been raised to see people with disabilities in one way, and an outside perspective is just really, really helpful- especially when you’re fighting for change in a culture that, historically, does not accept or recognize our boys as valuable.

Another benefit to outsiders coming in would be friendship for us. 🙂 We have a Ukrainian team that we love so much. They are our family here and I don’t know where we would be without them and their friendship. We also long for friendship with people in our native tongue. We long for relationship with people who understand where we come from and who can understand us fully. It is a deep desire and need for us, personally, if this work and life is to be sustainable for the long haul.

So, here’s to hoping and praying that if we build it…they will come!

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We have no doubt that God has the right people in mind to help on this journey. He has provided the land, the funds to build the home, and the boys to fill it. There’s just no way it’s going to sit empty because of lack of helpers. So, we pray and begin to actively seek out who those helpers might be.

If this strikes a chord with you and you find that it’s something you just can’t let go, can’t forget, let’s talk. It’s certainly not a romantic call, but it’s an important one. I can promise a YES to this work will never leave you bored. Hehe.

To all who have given to help make this duplex a reality- THANK YOU! It’s really happening! Thank you for believing in this dream and in this work. We can’t wait to fill it to the brim with life and love.

 

The Best Kind of Story+ A Birthday Wish

It’s story time. And this is the best kind of story. This is the kind of story in which all looks hopeless and then, at the last second, hope arrives and the helpless one is saved. This is the kind of story where life is lost, and then life is found. It’s the kind of story where love wins over fear. It’s a story of miracles.

Several years ago, in the Eastern United States, Nate and Jen saw a documentary that would change their lives forever. They saw a film about orphans with special needs in Bulgaria. The film showed how the children were mistreated in institutions and the results of a very broken system. After that film they knew they had to do something. They were moved to action. (My kind of people!)

Nate and Jen’s hearts were turned toward adoption and they went on to adopt a little boy from Bulgaria and then a little boy from China. But they weren’t done yet. Or rather, God wasn’t done with them yet. 🙂

In the summer of 2018 they began the process to adopt another little boy. This little boy was in southern Ukraine. In fact, he was in the very orphanage that God used to turn our hearts to Ukraine back in 2010. Nate and Jen fell in love with this boy and were moving forward to make him their son, but then, while they were still working on documents on the US side, the little boy died in Ukraine.

I can’t imagine the heartbreak. To make the decision to adopt a child is no small thing. You have to be ALL IN. And then to find out the child died without knowing the love of a family that you desperately wanted to give. It’s just so so terrible.

In their grief, Nate and Jen understood that they had love to give, and that many other children in Ukraine waited for families, so they decided to continue the adoption process. Much to our joy and surprise, they chose to adopt “Kayden”, one of our boys!

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Kayden was in pretty bad shape at the time he was chosen and we knew he needed to be adopted in order to survive. He just wasn’t/isn’t strong enough to live many more years in an institution. So we waited eagerly for the time when the documents would finally be completed on the US side and Nate and Jen could come to Ukraine to meet Kayden.

Earlier this summer the moment arrived! One Friday morning  in July they were driven out to the institution and got to meet their boy and begin the in-country adoption process. They got to spend a few hours with Kayden, and then of course they got to meet all our other loves who are equally as precious and equally as desperate for love and attention.

We had plans to meet up that night for dinner in the city, so they texted me when they arrived that evening at their hotel room. We chatted a bit about their day and then, out of curiosity, they asked if any of the other boys were adoptable, because they had heard none were. I clarified that yes, just one more boy was available for adoption, “Aaron” and I sent them this video so they would know who I was talking about:

Their reply “We love him.”

Nate and Jen spent the weekend with our boys and grew to love them more and more- not just Kayden, but all of them. They are a pretty lovable bunch, if I do say so myself. And then at the end of a whirlwind few days they were headed back to the US to wait for a court date.

On their way home they messaged me to let me know that they were praying about coming back after this adoption to take home Aaron too. Aaron, that one boy, the boy in the video, the last boy who is available for adoption at the institution. They knew that his time was short, as he ages out in December, and they just couldn’t fathom leaving him behind.

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Guys, my heart skipped a beat or five when I read that message. Seriously? Hold up. Back up. They were thinking about adopting Aaron? Let me just tell you, I love Aaron deeply. I adore him. I see him for the precious little boy that he is deep inside, but I can tell you that not many see that. He is despised by nannies. He is bullied by other boys. He is about as far from an orphanage favorite as you can get. My faith has been so very small over the years that I have hardly advocated for him. For several years I knew he was available but I left advocacy for him on the back burner, instead advocating for all the others- the ones who seemed that they would be “easier”, the ones I could get decent pictures of, the ones I could write glowing reports about. I hate that I did that, but I want to be honest.

As much as Jed and I love Aaron, I had almost zero faith that anyone else would love him as much as we do. I halfheartedly advocated for him, but my deepest fear was that I would write as honestly as possible about him, but then a family would arrive to adopt him and be instantly scared off by his behaviors. The boy is loud. He is highly sensory seeking. I really do believe that he will change within the safety of family, but I can’t make any promises at all. I knew a family would have to take him as he is, and I just had no hope that anyone would.

But God. God promises to be a Father to the fatherless and He.Keeps.His.Promises. When our faith is small, that is when His glory shines brightest. Lest I should think that any of this has anything to do with how well I advocate or how catchy our blog is or how many followers we have to “like” our posts. This work is God’s work and these boys are His and we are simply his vessels. Thank God that His ways are higher and his timing is perfect.

I am just so deeply grateful to God for keeping His promise. And I’m so deeply grateful to Nate and Jen for seeing our boys with eyes wide open and not allowing fear to hold them back. I just almost can’t believe it’s actually going to happen!

Right now they are in the process of making necessary changes to documents so that they can bring both Kayden and Aaron home. Once they get them home there will be no more adoptable boys at the institution. Each one who has the possibility for adoption will be adopted. It is well with my soul.

As you can imagine, deciding to add another child to an adoption adds quite a bit of expense. So you can guess what I’m going to say next. 🙂 Would you help me support this family and their huge step of obedience?

Tomorrow I turn 40 (yes, I know, the big 4-0) and I can’t imagine any better gift than to see this family, who are adopting the FINAL TWO BOYS, be supported. I don’t want them to have to worry about money at all. Would you consider giving a tax-deductible donation to their adoption fund in honor of me turning old?

You can give your tax-deductible donation here. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your prayers, support and advocacy. Two more boys are about to know freedom and the love of a family. THANK YOU GOD!!!!

The One Left Behind

Today our precious “Kayden” met his adoptive family. That means that Aaron is the only boy available for adoption at the institution- and he ages out at the end of this year! SEVEN of our boys have been advocated for and are now living in families. SEVEN boys who were once lost are now found.

Aaron is the only one left behind who has the chance for a family. I wrote this post a couple of years ago. Will you please help me share Aaron’s face? He is so in need of the love of a mama and daddy. 

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Today I want to help you get to know our precious Aaron.

I haven’t done much advocating specifically for him.  Out of all of our boys who are available for adoption you probably know him the least.  That’s my fault.  My faith has been small.

This is the thing: some kids are really easy to write about.  Every picture you take of them is adorable and people can’t get enough of their cuteness.  Maybe they smile all the time and our cameras seem to find them on every visit.  I can’t keep cuteness like that to myself!  It just wouldn’t be right!  😉

Other kids are more difficult to write about.  Maybe they don’t photograph well, or maybe they just never sit still long enough for anyone to capture more than a blur of movement. Maybe their behaviors are really difficult to manage and it’s hard to know what to say.  Maybe there aren’t many cute stories to share…maybe none of their history is known so it’s hard to paint a whole picture.

Aaron is one who has been difficult to write about.  I haven’t quite known what to say.

One of my biggest concerns with advocacy is that I want to be very, very certain that I am writing with honesty. I have nightmares about adoptive families arriving at the institution, meeting their child for the first time and saying to me “You didn’t tell me this!”  I know that adoptive families can never truly understand what our boys are like, or what Romaniv is until they arrive and see it firsthand: smell the smells, hear the sounds, feel the pain.  But I’d like them to at least feel that I was honest in my description of the son they have fought so hard to rescue.

Because of that, it’s more difficult to advocate well for a child like Aaron.

He’s so difficult to photograph. His behaviors are extremely tricky to manage.  He is not liked by many of the orphanage staff. His quality of life is so poor, I can’t even accurately describe it.  He is loud. When we first met he was like a wild animal: a sensory-seeking boy in a sensory-deprived environment.  His life is pure nothingness so he searches for sensory input however he can get it.  If that means he has to literally climb up a team member’s body to get their attention, he’ll do it.  He absolutely LOVES water, but never gets access to it, so we have spent many a visit with one team member’s sole task being to keep Aaron from ripping the sink apart in his desperate attempt to feel the water.

He needs so much more than he is getting- in every single area of his life.

But the thing is, all the reasons that make advocacy difficult are the reasons why Aaron needs a voice maybe more than any of the other boys who are available to be adopted.

It’s almost impossible to get a good picture of him.  But I think he is absolutely beautiful.

He is loud and he screams and he has no words.  I hear the plea of a baby boy asking for his mommy.  I hear a sweet little boy whose voice is never heard.  I hear a child crying to be rescued.

He is a wild man who drives the nannies absolutely crazy with his quest for sensory input.  I see a little boy who is desperate for a big backyard and a dog and a hose on a sunny day.  I see a sweet soul who needs to be able to swing for hours on end, feel the wind in his face and the grass under his toes.  

God has given us a very special love for our boys that goes beyond reason.  It’s a supernatural love that could only come from him.  He gave us mommy and daddy love that sees the beauty of our boys, even when they do things that would not be considered beautiful, or even cute. He gave this love to us so that we would have the umph and the passion and the drive to fight for them.  He gave us voices so that we could speak for the voiceless. He made us totally biased, because our boys need people who are on their side and are completely biased for them.

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I am biased in my love for Aaron.  It’s true!

So today I speak for Aaron and I tell you that he is a treasure. He has boundless energy and so much curiosity. He wants to learn and soak in all that life has to offer. And this most precious treasure is desperate for a family.  His situation is dire.  He is unwanted and disliked and abused…and soon his time will run out. I want to talk all about the ways I believe he would change in a family, but I need to tell you how he is right now, because I can’t know he will or won’t change. A family that chooses him needs to come in with eyes wide open and love him just as he is.

See my boy.  Please see him.  Imagine if he was rescued and brought into a family where he could get love and care.  No doubt it will be a difficult road to walk, and the adoptive family will need to be prepared to devote a lot of time to Aaron, but oh my, it will be so worth it! To watch him come to life would be an absolute miracle to behold.  The parents who get that privilege are blessed indeed. I know from experience.  🙂

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God knew Aaron before he was even born.  He saw him in his mother’s womb and formed him there.  He created him for purpose and destiny.  He is as valuable as you.  He is as valuable as me.  He is as worth it as my Ezra, my Seth, my Vladik.  He is someone’s son- they just don’t know it yet.  He shouldn’t be spending his summers sleeping on a mattress to avoid attention and abuse.  He should be running in the sprinkler and going down slides and eating Popsicles.  Why not?  He’s just a little boy.  A little boy in a desperate situation.

So, please pray and please share.  Please pause and ask the Lord how you should respond to Aaron.  Don’t dismiss him because he sounds difficult, please.  He is made in the image of God and he will bring blessing and joy to some lucky family’s home.  Maybe yours?

 

 

You can read more about Aaron and donate toward the cost of his adoption here. Interested families are welcome to contact me with questions at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org

My Joy

I remember the first time Jed and I ever visited Romaniv. It was in the spring of 2012 and we were in Ukraine just checking out what God had for us here. We thought we wanted to work with institutionalized people here, but we had never even been here! We knew zero language, pretty much zero about the culture and had never stepped foot in an institution. We were clueless, but we just wanted to follow Jesus and we knew He had something for us in Ukraine.

I remember we walked into Romaniv and were instantly surrounded by men. They were grabbing my hair, stroking our arms, taking our hands. The smells and sounds were completely overwhelming. But I distinctly remember catching Jed’s eye though the mob and both of us having this sense like “Yep, this is it. This is where we’re supposed to be.” We didn’t necessarily know that Romaniv was the place for us to be, but we definitely knew that we were supposed to be in close proximity and close relationship with the vulnerable and the broken.

Fast-forward 7 years and here we are, livin’ the dream in our Ukrainian village. 🙂

For the past couple of years my focus has had to be less and less on Romaniv, and the boys in the institution, and more and more here, at the Homestead with the boys in our home. I went to Romaniv at least once a week from the time we moved here until the fall of 2017 when I was more advanced in my (surprise!) pregnancy with Evie and it just didn’t feel safe to be there with a big belly. Plus, the terrible roads made my uterus very unhappy. 😉 I have visited some, over the past two years, but it has been infrequent and the visits have been too short for my liking.

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Then after Evie was born I still really couldn’t be at Romaniv because she was nursing and I couldn’t leave her for long enough periods of time to get there and back and to be able to have any time with the boys. We had Boris with us too, and I was simply needed at home. Then enter Ruslan and Anton and our lives were turned completely on their heads. Suffice to say, We’ve been rather busy. Oy.

During that time while I’ve been absent our awesome interns and our wonderful Vika have been serving as faithfully as ever, loving and serving the boys. Of course Jed has gone too, as time has allowed.

We always knew that the more boys we brought here, to the Homestead, the more our attention would need to shift toward home. There is just no way to be in both places at once. But man, we have missed our boys. We knew they were being well-loved by our team, but we have missed our friends.

That’s why I’m so so happy to say that I’ve recently been freed up to go regularly with our interns Romaniv! Vika has been overseeing the interns for the past three years and has been a wonderful leader and mentor for them. But over the past several months she has taken more and more of the lead on caring for Preston and at this point it is better for her and for him if she is able to focus solely on caring for him until his adoptive parents arrive. We want her to be able to give her best to Preston and not feel pulled in too many directions. So, for the time being, I get the privilege of working with our interns!

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Every other week I will go with them and spend the whole day with them as they work with the boys in the Isolation Hall. My role is basically to support them in any way I can. I’ll make sure they have everything they need, help liaison between them and administration, and mostly just be a supportive presence so that they know they are not alone in this difficult work. I’ve already gone twice with them and I’m JUST SO HAPPY!!!!

I’m so THANKFUL to get to spend time with the boys I love.

I’m so THANKFUL that Jed is behind this and is supporting me in this time away.

I’m so THANKFUL that Evie is a trooper and loves her brothers and sisters and daddy so much that she is okay without Mommy for a day.

A part of me that has had to lie dormant for a while is being brought back to life and it feels good and right to be there. Of course Romaniv is never going to be a comfy place or a ” nice” place to be, but it is one of the few places here in Ukraine where I feel completely myself. If you really think about it, the friendships we have there with our boys, some of the nannies, and administration are some of our oldest relationships here in Ukraine! We knew our boys before we knew our team! Sitting with them and just being with them, without distraction, without laundry to tend to or phone calls to make or meals to cook is a gift and I am not taking it for granted.

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Another gift that comes with going regularly to Romaniv is that the visits renew my empathy and compassion for the guys living in our home. When I am reminded, face to face, of where our guys came from I can see with fresh eyes just how far they’ve come. When I come home from a day at Romaniv I’m so full of gratitude that Vladik, Boris, Ruslan and Anton are safe at home and not back in that place. It also renews my purpose and passion to get the others out as soon as possible.

So, expect to see more of our Romaniv boys in this space in the coming months. I bet you’ve missed them too!

Eight Months In

We’re coming up on 8 months with Anton and Ruslan and I feel like we’re slowly starting to come up for air. Caring for our guys is still pretty much all-consuming, but we have gotten in to a bit of a rhythm, and things are looking up!

Sometimes it feels like their progress is so minuscule, but then we look back and remember things we had to do a few months ago just to keep the peace around here and we see how far the guys have come. Very far!

Anton. Six months ago we were barely sleeping because Anton was up all hours of the night wandering the halls. I remember we used to have to turn off all the water to the house and unscrew all the downstairs lightbulbs before we went to bed every night because Anton would get up and try to take a bath at 3 in the morning, or shriek and hoot and holler at 2am so that we would get him up and feed him. We had to remove all options in order for him to be able to turn his brain off enough to rest and fall asleep. At one point Jed was sleeping on a couch in front of his door to remove the option of nighttime wanderings. Those were the days…yikes.

Now I can happily report that Anton goes to bed easily and doesn’t get up until at least 6:30 every morning. (knock on a biiiiiiig ol’ piece of wood 🙂 ) His sleep success is thanks to a strict evening routine that we dare not stray from, and blessed medication. The combo of the two saved our lives.

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He’s saying a lot of words, and more and more often he says them at the appropriate times! He used to only really speak when he was angry, but now that’s not always the case. There are so many words in there and sometimes he’ll shock us with a “See you tomorrow!” (in Ukrainian of course) or something like that.

Anton gets stressed pretty easily, and when he doesn’t feel good, physically, he gets really worked up. In times of stress he is aggressive toward others, so that is a big bummer. I hate those times because I know he is just repeating what he’s seen his whole life and it’s not the real Anton. When he is in an aggressive mood it just becomes a matter of keeping him separate from everyone else and that is exhausting. I hope and pray that someday Anton will be able to express his emotions in ways that are less painful to others. We are doing all we can to help him learn a new way.

When Anton feels good and is at ease he is so joyful, sweet and fun-loving. He loves big bear hugs, dancing, toy cars and fidget-spinners. He enjoys stirring things in the kitchen and will gladly eat anything and everything you put in front of him. He has started to say “I love you” on occasion and this week he said “Mama” for the first time. Melt my heart.

Ruslan. To be honest, it’s hard for me to write about Ruslan because I’m unsure how much to share. Whenever I share about our boys I want to respect their dignity and respect their privacy. It’s so important for me not to overshare their personal struggles. At the same time, I always want to be honest about this process. It does none of us any good for me to pretend all is unicorns and rainbows when they so clearly are not. This is stinkin’ hard work for us, our team, and our boys every.single.day. Most of all for our boys. Learning to become a human after 20+ years of living like an animal is not an easy process to go through. They need our empathy and our compassion, but they also need our strength. They need to have a standard to rise to, expectations to meet. They need to know we believe in them and we want more for them because we love them!

Ruslan’s trauma presents itself as high anxiety and a need to be in control of everything. At Romaniv his world was small. The stressors were crazy HUGE, but there were few of them. His main priority there was keeping himself safe and keeping himself fed. Here in the real world, the wider world, there are many, many things outside of his control. There are so many more things for him to obsess about and be anxious about. If it’s not one thing it’s another.  He wants desperately to control his environment, but when you live in a house with 10 other people you just can’t control every single detail. That is outrageously hard for Ruslan. Sometimes it seems like it’s only getting harder, only getting worse, but he has actually made some great strides in the past few months. A few months ago he was was having daily meltdowns and those really only happen on rare occasions now. You can see him ramping up for a meltdown, and then most of the time he can wind himself down. Not always, but most of the time. I’m so thankful for that!

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When Ruslan is relaxed and at peace he is hilarious. He has a great sense of humor and a compassionate heart. He really loves Evie and is mostly gentle with her. He loves to sing, and worship time at church is his most favorite thing EVER. The anxiety ridden Ruslan who acts out in fear holds back the real Ruslan. The anxious Ruslan is also extremely hard to live with. It breaks my heart because I want things to be different. So, we will continue to fight for him. We will fight to get him all the help we can so that he can live his life to the fullest.

We have waited a bit to see how things would play out with a highly structured day and several months of safety and now we have an accurate baseline for Ruslan. We are ready to seek out psychiatric care for our guy and see how we can best help him move forward. If you would pray with us for wisdom in this we would really appreciate it.

Health. As far as medical stuff goes for both guys, we’ve been slowly but surely getting things taken care of. Fridays have become our “medical day”, so Kenny and I try to tackle the different medical appointments on Fridays. We’re focused on dental stuff right now and that’s super fun since Kenny and I both HATE going to the dentist. I’m not sure how much moral support we provide, but we do our best. Hehe. Anton has one problematic tooth that should be fixed next week and Ruslan has a whole mouthful of problems. I’m not sure he’ll have any teeth left when we get finished. Poor guy. 🙁 I’m guessing we’ll be exploring the world of dentures or implants in the near future. Anton has some physical symptoms that I don’t have answers for yet, but all in all I think they are both in pretty good health at the moment. Step by step we’re getting there!

I have to say that there is no way we could do any of this without our amazing team. Kenny and Oleg are with us Monday through Friday, bathing our guys, shaving them, taking them on bike rides, teaching them how to make tea, keeping them safe, talking them off the ledge, teaching them how to be men, loving them, comforting them, supporting us and all in all just being awesome. This really would be impossible without their help. We would have burned out months ago.

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Masha, Masha, and Lesya are also absolutely essential to the success of this home. “Harry Potter Masha” 😉 comes to our home three times a week. She plans and organizes the guys’ schedule for the week and is learning to implement the plans that Olya, our wonderful OT, recommends. Masha’s work makes it so that we aren’t just spinning our wheels with the guys, but we are hopefully moving toward specific developmental goals. “Second Masha” and Lesya each come once a week and provide great additional support to our guys and the rest of the team. I love our team and can’t express how thankful I am that God brought each of them to our family.

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So, there’s a bit of an update on our two newest family members. If you have any questions about Anton or Ruslan, or the process of deinstitutionalization don’t hesitate to ask! My hope and dream for writing this out is that someone reading it will also feel called to this deep, difficult, and beautiful work. We need help and I know God will call the right people to join us. I also write this so that those of you who pray will know better how to pray for our family and our team.

To all of you who pray, support, encourage and love us from afar, thank you! We can’t tell you how much we need it and appreciate it. Thank you for partnering with us on this journey. We couldn’t do it without you!

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