Ruslan and Anton: Three Years Free

This past week was a big milestone for our family. We celebrated three years of freedom for Anton and Ruslan. Three years!! It seems like they have been with us for so much longer. It’s a little hard to remember life without them. Three years ago when we brought them out of Romaniv to join our family we committed to them for life. We committed to love them and care for them always. We naively thought we knew them then. Now I think of how much they’ve changed and I can see that we really didn’t know them at all. They had never had the opportunity to truly be known, and I’m incredibly thankful that now they are loved and known and treasured by many, many people.

If you’ve followed our journey for a while you know that life with Ruslan and Anton has not been an easy one. We have had our fair share of struggles along the way. When we committed to them for life we thought we knew what that would look like. We thought they would live with us in our home, like Boris, forever. Well, that dream lasted a year and a half, and then we realized it was 100% not sustainable. Together we have journeyed through times of great joy and great sorrow, great healing and great pain, great suffering and great hope. It has been a massive rollercoaster. BUT- I am happy to report that God has always been with us. He has never left us or our boys and he has always given us exactly what we needed. He has taught us and helped us and we are all better having traveled this path.

The day we took Anton and Ruslan home ❤️

Ruslan is living with Luda, a member of our team, and her teenage son, Nazar. They live in an apartment about 10 minutes away from our village and Ruslan is doing FABULOUSLY well. He is happy and thriving. Since living in the apartment he has grown so much in independence. We are seeing now the man that God created Ruslan to be and we are so proud of him. He brings us lots of laughs and his love for “cappuccinkos” rivals the biggest coffee fanatics’ out there. 😂 Ruslan still struggles a lot with the trauma of his past and life with him is not all butterflies and unicorns, but Luda has great patience and they really are suited so well for life together. God blessed us abundantly when he brought us our dear Luda. What a gift.

Anton is living in the duplex, right outside our back door, with Max, Morgan, and Sasha. Life in the duplex is the best of both worlds for our Antoshka. We learned that he’s not well-suited for life in a big family, and over time it became unsafe for him to live with our family since we have small children in the home. But, he really does best when he is close to us and can see us every day. He’s a mama’s boy and I love him right back, so the duplex is the perfect place for him. Also, the proximity allows Jed and I to be a support when Anton is struggling. Man, I’m so thankful for that home! Anton has also grown and changed so much in the past three years. He is saying more words and we are all learning how he communicates and what he needs in his environment to thrive. He still struggles with anger and aggression, but he is also learning about sadness. He is learning that it’s okay to be sad and not every negative emotion he feels needs to go straight to anger. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to make mistakes. Over and over our team shows him that he is loved no matter what. His road to healing has been a steep one, but we love him dearly and we will not stop walking with him.

Last Sunday, on the anniversary of Ruslan and Anton’s freedom, our family picked them up before church and took them out for coffee. It was the first time it was just the 11 of us since Anton and Ruslan lived with us. I can’t even tell you what a precious time it was. Every time I think of it I get all emotional! We have all come so far together. I just kept looking at their faces and feeling overcome with thankfulness that they are our family. I was reminded of what blessings they are and what an honor it is to love them and be loved by them. When our boys love, they do so without restraint. They have like a sixth sense about people and when they feel that you truly love them you will have a friend for life. They are our precious, precious gifts from God and I so needed that reminder.

Our Boys

Sometimes in the daily grind of life here our focus can shift. We can get caught up in problem-solving, scheduling, budgeting, and team management. Our boys can easily become problems to be taken care of or tasks to completed. We always love them, but their demands and needs are so great that if we aren’t careful they can become our “burdens” when God is inviting us to recognize that they are our blessings. They are so valuable and our lives are forever changed because of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I have had seasons of feeling burdened by the responsibility of our boys. The responsibility for their lives is huge! But that responsibility is an honor- not a burden. My prayer is that our hearts would always remain soft to our boys. That in the good times and the bad we would recognize that they are our blessings- our gifts. They bring us joy. They teach us to love unconditionally. In loving them and caring for them our own weaknesses are brought to light and we have the great privilege of working that stuff out and not being allowed to just sit in that place of weakness and selfishness. As their lives are changed, so our lives are changed. Not one of us remains the same on this journey of bringing the lonely into family. Praise God for that. ❤️

BeLOVE[d]


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Vlad the Worker Man

When we adopted Vlad we really had no idea what to expect for his future. He could say a handful of words, but they were pretty difficult to understand. His behaviors were VERY institutional. He would screech and scream in public, he flapped his arms and made strange sounds. He had zero concept of appropriate social norms and personal space. He was a little bit like a wild animal, to be honest. But he was curious and he wanted to learn, so we started to teach him. 

The day we adopted Vlad

Over the past 6 years, Vlad has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. He can read and write in Ukrainian and he is fluent in Ukrainian and in English. He’s grown from a 15-year-old who wore size 8 boys’ clothes into a 21-year-old man who is taller than me and still growing! He is responsible and smart and never forgets a face. Vlad is a miracle. 

One of the dreams we have for our boys is that they would each grow into their full potential. That they would be allowed, in this space of healing and love, to fully become the men they were created to be. For Vlad, we saw his great potential for growth, and an impossible dream began to grow in our hearts. We began to dream that Vlad would one day have a job. 

Vlad is a hard worker around the house and once he understands a task, he completes it in a timely fashion. We knew he would make a great employee, but the barrier to employment was a cultural one. People like Vlad, with significant intellectual and physical disabilities do not work here in Ukraine, in general. I mean, it would be extremely rare to see someone like our boys out in about in public, let alone working at a public establishment. You just never ever see it! But still, we dreamed of a future in which Vlad could work and grow in his independence. 

Then we met Dima. Dima owns an electrical supply store in Zhytomyr. Jed met him through the construction of the duplex. They did some business together and discovered that they had mutual friends. Dima had even visited Romaniv once! Jed and Dima developed a friendship and Dima became interested in our work. He came out to visit a few times and began to more fully understand what we are doing here. Then he told us he wanted to help. Jed heard those words and decided to not hold back. 😉 “You want to really help? Would you consider giving Vlad a job in your shop?” Without hesitation, Dima said that yes, he would be happy to give Vlad work. Oh.my.word. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Vlad as happy as he was the day he learned he was going to be a “worker man”, as he put it. 😆

Vlad and Dima on his first day of work

On May 11th Vlad began to work in Dima’s shop. For the first couple of days Tanya, our special ed teacher, joined him to help coach him on appropriate behavior in the workplace, and to help Dima find the best tasks for Vlad. He started out working twice a week for a couple of hours at a time, and now works 3 days a week for 4 hours each day. He is one happy dude. Vlad mostly works in the back of the store, bringing inventory from storage to the front and helping with counting inventory and such. Dima told me this week that he has to check up to make sure Vlad doesn’t make mistakes, but that he has progressed a lot in his abilities over the past couple of months. They are so patient there and truly want to help Vlad to be successful in his work. It’s become a bit of a mission for the store employees. It seems like they all feel joy and pride in the sense of purpose the work brings to Vlad’s life.

Vlad at work

This month Vlad became an official, documented employee. I can’t emphasize enough what a miracle that is. It just doesn’t happen! We are so proud of Vlad and so thankful to Dima and his staff for making this happen for our guy. Vlad is growing in independence and maturity and having an occupation is a priceless gift in Vlad’s life.

Yesterday we celebrated Vlad’s 21st birthday. He’s an adult. He has a job, responsibility, a paycheck. I think back to the little tiny 15-year-old we adopted and marvel at all God has done. He has brought the right people into Vlad’s life at just the right time. We are so thankful and so proud.

Who is Wide Awake/Dim Hidnostiy?

Last week our friends from Hands of Hope in Indiana were visiting us and it was such a great time together! They are some of the partners who have been with us the longest and it is always a joy to see the work through their eyes. Last year they weren’t able to visit because of COVID, so it had been 2 full years since their last visit. Things have really changed in the last two years! One side of the duplex is already a home, the other side is nearly finished, Max and Morgan moved here, we brought Sasha out of the institution, and several other team members and friends with special needs have been added to the crew. It’s an exciting time here in Ukraine, but sometimes I forget that. I get hung up in the dishes and laundry and parenting. When people come and point out how things have grown I gain a new appreciation for how far God has brought us.

Last year I introduced our team on social media, but I’m not sure I ever did it here. I thought it’s high time you had a clearer picture of who’s who around these parts. I’ll also share our Org. Chart with you so you can see where everyone’s fits into the puzzle. I’ll intro the Ukrainian side of the team in this post, and then next time I’ll intro the American side. Let’s introduce you to our team!

CEO

Jed. I know he wouldn’t want to go first, but when you look at the chart it just makes sense. Jed is my husband and we founded Wide Awake International together in 2013. He is the visionary and our leader. Jed’s background in non-profit management has been a huge asset to our team. I’m partial, but I think he’s the cat’s pajamas.

Care Team

Kim. The Care Team is led by me, Kim. I’m hoping to sooner, rather than later pass that leadership role off to someone else. But for now, it’s me. I’m responsible for our daytime assistants, our live-in assistants, and the overall well-being of our boys and the people who care for them. I’m an RN, so medical supervision of the boys falls under me as well.
Max and Morgan. I’m writing about them together, mostly because I really love this photo. 😆 Max and Morgan are the house parents in Side B of the duplex, “Hope Home B”. They moved here in January from the US and are living in the Hope Home with Anton and Sasha. I can’t even express to you how thankful we are that God brought them to us. They are committed, loving, patient, and wise. They bring all of us so much joy and inspire us to do better.
Tonya. Tonya joined our team when we moved Anton our of our home. We were in desperate need of someone to be with Anton on the weekends during that super rough time. Tonya stepped in and she truly is God’s gift to us. She just has a way with the boys that they respond to so well. She’s “The Anton Whisperer”. For reals. We love our Tonya so much. Tonya works as a daytime assistant 4 days a week.
Luda. We are so thankful Luda has joined our team!! Luda came to us just this past January. She and her son, Nazar, moved in with Ruslan. At this point they are committed to living with Ruslan till the end of the year and it’s going great. Ruslan is thriving with Luda and she does a wonderful job with him. Luda also joined our team as a daytime assistant and works 4 days a week with our boys. She, like Tonya, has a wonderful, peaceful way with our boys and they all love her.
Oleg. Our team would literally fall apart if it weren’t for Oleg. 😂 He is not only a daytime assistant, but a friend, a spiritual support, our team driver, handyman, and favorite of everyone. What a wonderful gift. Oleg has been a part of our team for nearly three years now and we hope he stays with us forever. He has been through it all with us, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We are thankful for his commitment and for his heart. We love our Oleg.

Services- The Multidisciplinary “M” Team

Lesya. Lesya is our psychologist and the leader of the “M Team”- our therapy team. Lesya began as a volunteer with Wide Awake more than 6 years ago. That led to her doing the internship and then completing her degree in psychology. Lesya helps with the boys, for sure, but her main role at this time is helping her team to do their jobs well. She supports them, helps them to grow and reach their goals, and also really helps us work with our boys in the area of emotional health and growth. Lesya always wants to do her best and her desire to grow and change is a wonderful inspiration to the rest of us.
Mira. Mira also began as a volunteer more than 6 years ago. I feel like she’s grown up with us, and now she’s married and expecting a baby! Mira was in our first intern cohort and this year she will finish her degree in Physical and Occupational Therapy. She is the leader of our weekly work at Romaniv and does a really wonderful job with that. Mira also helps us work through challenging behaviors with our boys. She’s the resident “Behavior Specialist” and we are so thankful for her wisdom and creativity!
Masha. Masha is our sunshine. Her laugh is contagious and she brings joy to all she does. Masha began as a volunteer 5 years ago and then completed our internship. She has just finished her first year of university and is studying to become a speech therapist. We are so excited that she’s discovered a love for this work because we really need that specialty! I know Masha will do wonderful at it.
Tanya. We met Tanya our first summer in Ukraine and she quickly became a volunteer. After completing the internship she went on to get her degree in Special Education. Tanya is our teacher and she is a wonderful one at that. She has a passion for her work and goes above and beyond to do things well. She is also in charge of our volunteers and works hard to build relationships with the moms of our friends with disabilities. We are so extremely thankful for all she does! There’s no way we would be where we are today if Tanya wasn’t with us.
Maxim. We finally have our Max back! Max also began as a volunteer 6 years ago (catching a theme here?) and then completed the internship. Just last month Max graduated from university with a degree in Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy. Wahoo! He moved back to our city and is now beginning to work as a part of the team again. We missed him while he was gone and are so excited to have him back. Our boys and our team really need what Max has to offer.

Operations

Masha. Masha has become an indispensable jack-of-all-trades on our team. What would we do without Masha? She started as a volunteer back in the day and then after completing the internship she came on as our social worker/HR/document-chaser. Masha helps with the legal processes that keeps Dim Hidnostiy, the Ukrainian arm of Wide Awake, running. She works as a translator when we have visitors, does payroll, and makes the work schedule. And so much more!! Seriously. We are so thankful for all Masha does. She is organized and efficient and that girl knows how to get things done. 💪
Ruslan. See that ginormous duplex in the background? Ruslan made that happen. He is the building project manager and is rocking it. Rus finds the best prices and purchases all the building materials. He keeps the builders on target and keeps us in the budget. As Jed’s wife, I’m so thankful we have Ruslan, because before, Jed was doing all that! Ruslan has high standards and is a man of inegrity. We’re so grateful to have him on the team.

Development

Jed, Masha, and I are all working together on development. I do the communications in English, and Masha runs our Ukrainian social media. At some point we’ll need more help in development, but for now we’re making it work with the three of us.

I hope that helps you understand who’s who over here! Next time I’ll introduce you to our Board of Directors in the US. If you have any questions, let me know!

Moments for the Newsletter

When crazy, outlandish, or gross things happen around here we often joke about them being “the things that don’t make it into the newsletter.” I mean, our life has plenty of semi-gross elements in it, and if I were to document all of those normal, every day moments for you, I’m pretty sure everyone would immediately unsubscribe- and I wouldn’t blame you one bit. There’s only so many poopy conversations one newsletter can handle. But the other night was just too good. It was a little over-the-top, even for us. I think you need to hear about it.

Tuesday was a scorcher. We had all been lamenting the fact that the rain would never let up, and then all of a sudden we traded in rain for stifling heat. But, like I mentioned last week in the newsletter, our friends at Hands of Hope bought us a pool, so the heat has been manageable, as long as you don’t try to go into our upstairs bedrooms. #suffocation

It was nearing dinnertime and all of a sudden our power went out. Now, that’s not all that uncommon. We lose power every so often, and more often in the summer time. There’s no rhyme or reason to it and no one to call when it happens. We just have to plod through until it comes back on. It happens with the internet too. It just goes away sometimes and there’s not a thing to be done. That unpredictability comes with Ukrainian village life. It is what it is. The duplex must be on a different power grid than us or something (I’m so not an electrician…😜) because often when we lose power, they don’t. or vice versa. Anyway, this time we all lost it. In fact, our whole street lost it, and the cell service also went down. It wouldn’t really have been a big deal except that it was time to start making dinner for 15 people and the duplex has no gas stove. So that meant we were all going to need to use the two gas burners on our stove for cooking. Plus it was blazing hot inside and out and we had just gone grocery shopping the day before, so our fridges were stocked with perishables galore. In moments like that I can be heard threatening my children with all manners of punishment if they even so much as consider opening the fridge. Not a finger!

Another thing is that we have wells for water, and when we lose electricity we lose our well pumps, so that means we lose running water. I think that’s the hardest part of power outages. Lugging in water for dishes and toilet flushing for a family as big as ours is no small feat. Not to mention that Anton’s evening routine includes about 2 hours of sitting in the bath and if he doesn’t have that time it’s not pretty at all. Anton needs his bath and we all need Anton to be in the bath. He doesn’t understand lack of running water, so we knew we needed to do whatever we could to make sure bath time still happened, rather than risking his wrath if it didn’t. 😂

Our neighbor told us she heard a rumor that the power was going to be out for two days, so right away Morgan and I went into problem-solving mode. It’s kind of our sweet spot. Haha. Morgan started lugging water up from the well and filling all her pots so we could start to heat them on our stove, and then proceeded to carry buckets and buckets of the well water across the property to start filling the bath for Anton. Our friend Betsy is visiting from Indiana and she had the brain child to buy pizza for everyone so we wouldn’t have to cook. Great idea! I got on the phone to call or order online and realized our cell service was down. It’s kind of hard to order pizza without a phone, so we decided I would need to go find cell service so I could place our order. I drove down the highway a bit to find a signal, quickly ordered the pizza and then drove back home.

Our water fetching and pizza ordering was running like a well-oiled machine, and then we heard that a certain man-child, who shall remain nameless, decided to wait till there was no running water to have a massive poop blowout. We’re not talking about a little baby blowout. We’re talking adult diaper blowout. Those are intimidating in the best of circumstances, but in the blazing heat with no way to wash, they can bring a grown man to tears. So that happened. Welcome to our life. Always so romantic. 😆 Laugh or cry, folks. Laugh or cry.

About an hour after ordering pizza we decided Jed better take a phone and drive down to get cell service because the pizza delivery people can never find our house without calling us. So, he went down the highway to await their call while Morgan and I kept working on filling the bath for Anton. The goal was to get Anton fed and into the bath before the pizza arrived since he can’t have pizza and would be more than a little upset to see us eating something he’s not allowed to have. (Not that I blame him. Pizza is a wonderful creation.) We had searched and found a flashlight, since we had forgotten the duplex bathroom has no windows and it wouldn’t do to have Anton in the bath in a pitch dark room…🤷‍♀️

Jed was just arriving home with the pizza and Morgan was just walking into the duplex with the final bucket of water, sweat pouring off of her, when low and behold, the power came back on. The look on her face was absolutely priceless. It was cruel of me to laugh, but I couldn’t help it. Of course the power came back on right after the tub was filled and the pizza was ordered and delivered and the blowout poopy diaper was dealt with. Of course. Because that’s just how life works around here! But oh my word, we had some big laughs about it, and I have to say that our problem-solving skills were on point. We were in the zone, gettin’ things done.

Things like that happen all the time around here. Sometimes it feels like a whole day was wasted, just fighting fires. But, it’s all just a part of daily life. Living life with our boys in a little village in Ukraine is never ever boring. Sometimes it’s so bad you have to laugh, and sometimes it’s so good you can’t help but cry. 😆

Also, yesterday I just wanted to drive down the road and it was blocked by cows. #thisukrainianlife

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All About Sasha and Life in the Duplex

If you follow our team’s social media accounts or if you’re subscribed to our newsletter you already heard the wonderful news that Sasha is home! I’m finally getting around to writing about it in this space. Two weeks ago we got to bust him out of the institution for good. It was a long road of documents and jumping through too many hoops, but that’s all behind us, and our Sasha is now safe and sound in his forever home. We are so relieved and thankful. Thank you for all the prayer support along the way.

Sasha lived with his mother for his first 11 years and then was removed from her care and placed in the institution. I remember the day he arrived at Romaniv. He was so beautiful! He looked so innocent, so full of life. We were all devastated to see such a precious soul sent to such a dark place. He was affectionate, sought out eye contact, and could even sing songs; it was obvious that he had been loved. We knew his innocence wouldn’t last long, and sure enough, over the following months and years, we watched him quickly decline and turn into a shell of his former self.

Sasha’s first day at Romaniv

A couple years ago a social worker asked us to help find a home for Sasha, and since we knew we were creating forever homes for people just like him, it seemed obvious that he should be the first boy to come live in the duplex as soon as it was ready. Jed started on documents, Max and Morgan picked up and moved their whole lives to Ukraine, and the duplex was made into an absolutely beautiful home, all so Sasha could know love and be free. And FINALLY it is a reality. As I’m writing this he’s on his way to a swimming pool for the first time. He loves water, so I’m guessing he’s going to be pretty excited. 😊

Because Sasha’s history is different from the rest of our boys, having lived with his mother for so many years and having obviously known love at some point, we were hopeful he would have an easier period of adaptation. And so far he has! Also, he is just now 15, and the difference between taking a 15 year old out of an institution and a 30 year old is not small. His brain is more pliable. He is more flexible. He seems to learn more quickly. Yes, we are in for a marathon, not a sprint, but the head start of him being younger is a pretty big deal.

Taking Sasha home!

When Sasha first came to us he was afraid of everything. He resisted any transition to a different activity or a different location in the house. He was afraid to lay down to sleep and paced in his room till all hours of the night. On the first night, it took three of us to change his diaper because he was just so afraid. He didn’t really want to be touched. But he has already grown so much! It’s pretty miraculous how ready he was to be loved and cared for. He is so affectionate. He loves hugs and kisses and when he is sad he wants to be held and comforted. He is feeding himself- slowly, but safely. He smiles and has started to make some sounds. He is easily overstimulated and is pretty food-obsessed, but overall, he is really doing amazingly well. I think his development is going to explode over the next several months. It’s so fun to watch him open up and show more and more of himself.

Sasha is under the legal guardianship of Jed, but he lives in the duplex with Max, Morgan, and Anton. Max and Morgan could not be a better fit for Sasha. They love him so much and from day one they gave their hearts away to him. It’s clear that Sasha cares for them and feels safe with them. It’s just so beautiful!!! They are so attuned to Anton and Sasha and their moods, their needs. Max and Morgan are all in and they are doing a fantastic job. It’s a really wonderful thing to be able to trust them completely with the boys’ care. We are nearby if they need us, or if they have questions, but we don’t worry for one second about the boys because we know they are in capable, loving hands. I really can’t express how thankful we are that God brought Max and Morgan to us. What a gift!

Probably the biggest struggle we’ve been working through since Sasha came home is with Anton and his emotions about it all. Anton has big, big feelings, and any negative emotion is expressed with anger. It’s his go-to and he really hasn’t ever known another way. He’s had tons of transition over this past year and we expected that adding Sasha to the mix would be difficult for him. Sure enough, last week he really struggled with anger and aggression. Max and Morgan were super attentive and patient, we changed our schedule of assistants to give Anton more stability, and it seems like he has begun to turn the corner. Over the weekend he even showed some sadness with tears and crying. That’s something we haven’t really ever seen with Anton. It was super encouraging to see him working through sadness with tears instead of anger and aggression. If you remember, please pray for our Anton. He doesn’t want to hurt others, I really believe that. He just grew up his whole life in an environment where anger and aggression were the main modes of communication. Learning a new way takes time, but we won’t give up on our boy. He is learning. Please pray for Max and Morgan too. They really want to keep Sasha safe, and constantly being on the lookout for Anton’s mood shifts can be really exhausting. Pray for them for peace, wisdom, and perseverance. This work is certainly not easy. Worth it? Yes. But easy? Noooooooo. 😳

Lately, I’ve been struck by how wonderful it is to have the gift of time with our boys. We are in no rush for them to meet some sort of developmental milestones. Of course, we want to encourage them to meet their full potentials and we want them to have as much independence as they are capable of, but we are in no rush. We have the rest of their lives to help them learn. The most important thing is that they are safe and they are loved. As long as they are safe and loved- and they know it, then we have met our goal. My favorite thing is to look out into the backyard and see Anton on the swing, Sasha playing with a ball (or eating grass…🙃 ), and Bmo just enjoying sitting out in the sun. They are free! They are loved! They are valued and surrounded by people who truly know them and see them as individuals worth fighting for. Life with our boys is a gift. Sometimes it’s really hard, but a lot of times it’s really beautiful. What an honor to be the ones who get to show them love. What an honor to be the ones with whom they feel safe and at home. We are blessed to have our boys and I really can’t imagine a life without them.

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