10 Things I’m Learning

Every day is an adventure around here. You just never know what the day will hold! We are definitely in the trenches right now with our new guys, but are seeing little signs of progress along the way. There were a few weeks in there when I woke each morning with great fear of what the day would hold. I don’t feel that as often anymore. The days (and nights) are still unpredictable, but the better we know our guys and the better they know us, the more tools and relationship backbone we have when the rough moments come. Things are looking up, slowly but surely!

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Things I’m learning right now:

Routine routine routine. Nothing beats a good routine. Our guys thrive on it like nobody’s business. They seem so much more at peace when they know what’s coming next.

Routine routine routine can also turn around and bite you. In other words, a change up in the routine can really throw a wrench in their day. Yikes.

Double (or triple) every recipe, every time. 

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Keep the bedside loaded. Anton sleeps better if all his fidget spinners (even the broken ones) are at his bedside during the night. He just likes to know they’re there.

Time spent on character building is time well spent. When it comes to homeschooling, character training comes first. It is not a waste of time to spend time on character building. Good character is what it’s about! Who cares if our kids are super smart but lack character?!

A load a day keeps the mountain away. One load of laundry a day keeps things manageable. Two a day is even better, but at least one must happen or we drown.

Outsource cooking. Vladik cooks a big ol’ pot of soup every week with his teacher, we pay a neighbor lady to make lunch once a week, and I’m currently teaching Addy to cook dinner one night a week. In a world where most everything has to be made from scratch and I’m feeding 10-13 people 3 times a day, these kitchen respites are saving my life.

Spiritual Disciplines matter. We have no business walking into our day without putting Jesus in His proper place in our lives. We need him for every breath.

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Sleep is overrated. Between Anton’s middle-of-the-night roamings, Boris’ middle-of-the-night screechings, and Evie’s middle-of-the-night feedings I’m learning to hold on to sleep reeeeeeeeal loosely.

All people are precious. People will not know they are precious unless someone tells them and shows them they are precious. It’s easy to say, but harder to live. At times it seems our guys want to make themselves as unloveable as possible, but still, in those moments, we must show them that they are precious and loved. Every time they rage or yell or cry or harm themselves it is communication. In those moments they are crying out “Do you love me? Am I lovable? Do I matter to you?” Ruslan asks in words, “Do you love me, Mama?” Anton asks with his eyes, forehead touching mine, eyes searching. My prayer is that in those moments, no matter how tired I am, no matter how hard my buttons have been pushed, no matter if my feelings have been hurt- my prayer is that my answer will always be “Yes. You are precious and I love you.”

Morning worship time, part of our routine, routine, routine.

 

Five Years!

Happy Ukrainiversary to us! Yesterday marked 5 years since the plane touched down in Kyiv and we began our new life. FIVE YEARS! Momentous. 🙂

So much has changed in the past five years it hardly feels like we are the same people that arrived in Ukraine with 12 suitcases and a guitar. For one thing, we’ve grown from a family of 6 to a family of 11. Wooooooah Nelly!

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Then

 

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Now

Last night we had plans to go out to a restaurant for a traditional Ukrainian meal, but one of our guys was having a rough one so we needed to stay in for the night. After we got the guys to bed we gathered the kids on our bed upstairs and took turns sharing something we each love about our life here in Ukraine. It was a sweet time. Many of your names were mentioned! Along this journey we have met so many wonderful friends from all over the US and around the world.

I shared with our kids a memory of our very first day in Ukraine. It’s a memory that about sums up our first several months here.

When we arrived in Kyiv on November 13, 2013 our dear friend, Olya, came with us from the airport to Zhytomyr to spend the first couple of days with us, to help us get settled a bit. Keep in mind that we knew ZERO language and were basically clueless about everything having to do with life in Ukraine. Sure, we had visited, but let me tell you- visiting another country IS NOT the same as setting up a life there and living there. The morning after we arrived we decided to hop on the bus with our littles in tow and head to the big grocery store to get some necessities. I remember arriving at the store, hopping off the bus and Addy, 9 years old at the time, saying “It doesn’t really seem that different here!” Oh Addy, bless your heart. 😉  We wandered aimlessly through the store, jet-lagged and overwhelmed. Three-year old Seth fell asleep in the grocery cart. We knew we needed diapers…and maybe TP? Why did we not make a list??? The kids were being super loud and all other children in sight were silent…we were stressed and didn’t know what any of the labels on the food meant…

I remember the chaos of figuring out money at the checkout and Jed vowing never to go the store again with all 4 kids. I’m pretty sure that at that time we felt like 4 kids was waaaaaay too many. Little did we know what the future held! Oy.

We got home from the store with as much as we could carry and, after unpacking the bags, realized we still had no idea what to cook for dinner. I think we ended up eating a lot of oatmeal in those early days. Ha! We learned much through trial and error, and still do. But it’s actually quite encouraging to think back and realize how stupid we were then! Hehe.

Now, five years later, we can fondly look back at those beginnings and praise God for ALL the amazing things he has done. When we arrived in Ukraine the dreams we had in our heart were not even legal. There was no legal mechanism for the deinstitutionalization of adults. We had no idea that two weeks after we arrived a revolution would begin. And as Ukraine endeavors to move toward the EU, our dream of deinstitutionalization is now a mandate. What are the odds? God is crazy good like that.

God had so many beautiful gifts waiting for us in Ukraine. Four of those gifts are currently downstairs drinking tea. 🙂 We had no idea when we first visited Romaniv that we were meeting 4 of our sons. Oh, and if you would have told me 5 years ago that we would have another baby, and that she would be born here in Ukraine, well, I probably would have spit out my coffee. Woooooooah, that was a doozy of a surprise. But, I love how God knows exactly what we need and when we need it. Our Evie blesses our hearts and brings us joy and healing every single day.

It’s funny to imagine that most of our team members were teenagers when we first moved to Ukraine. Kids! I absolutely love the team He is building here. I’m thankful that our guys are surrounded daily by people who don’t just tolerate them, but love them, champion them, and challenge them.

The days are long and often hard, but the years are quick. The greatest gift that God has given to me in these past 5 years is the gift of learning to lay myself down. Daily I’m confronted with my own weakness and my own brokenness. As we serve the broken hearts, broken minds, broken bodies here in our home, I’m confronted with my selfishness and general ickiness of heart. I thank God that He is moving the hearts of our family from charity to compassion. He is changing us all, from the inside out.

So, here’s to 5 more years of saying YES to the next thing. Thank you to each of you who have prayed for us, encouraged us, supported us. We could never walk this journey alone. Thank you for joining us in YES!

BeLOVE[d]

Photo highlights:

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My Littles, our first week in Ukraine

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Our first Christmas

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Boris and me, back in the day

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2014

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Christmas #2!

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Vladik’s Day of Freedom! 2015

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The day we got the keys to the Wide Awake Homestead! 2016

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A biiiiiiiig work in progress

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Wide Awake Homestead! 2017

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Boris’ Day of Freedom! 2017

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Welcome to the world Evie Joy 2018

 

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Ruslan and Anton’s Day of Freedom! 2018

‘s

 

The Lonely

Yesterday we got Anton and Ruslan’s medical histories from the institution. Oh my heart. Twenty plus years of their life, summed up in doctor’s chicken scratches on paper yellowed from time. We know the basics of how they spent the last 20 years. They sat on benches inside in the winter, and sat on benches outside in the summer. End of story. The medical files are the only hints we have of any significant life events outside bench- sitting.  They are our glimpse of our boys’ past- those, and a photo of each boy from time gone by.

My heart leapt and sank when I saw the photos. My babies! Oh my dear ones, I’m so sorry you had to wait so long. I’m so sorry you had no mama to comfort you, no papa to guide you. I’m so sorry you endured such abuse and neglect when you could not defend yourselves. You were so young, so small. My heart is broken for the little boy left at Romaniv alone and afraid.

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Ruslan, age 10

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Anton, age 16

Our life here is a full one; full of responsibilities and full of people. But our life here is also a lonely one. Our lives are completely absorbed with the care of people whom the society has thrown away. Our time, energy and love is wrapped up in people who are not accepted in this country. Our work is isolating. Couple that with language barriers and cultural difference, and then add the distance from loved ones…sometimes the loneliness of this life threatens to overwhelm.

The other night I was rocking Evie to sleep in a quiet, dark room. My thoughts were wandering and all of a sudden I was completely overwhelmed by loneliness. It washed over me like a giant ocean wave. I’d never felt anything like it. Evie wasn’t asleep, but I had to leave the room, lest my mind wander to a verrrrrrry dark place. I wept as I longed for family and friends far away. I lamented my lonely and often isolated existence in my Ukrainian village. I wished for the peer relationships with other moms that are non-existent at this time of my life when I need them so badly. If there ever was a “woe is me” moment- that was it. Not.pretty. Yikes.

I share that story not to bring pity on myself or to fill my inbox with messages from concerned friends, but to share what I am learning from it.

The feelings of loneliness I have are only the tip-tip-top of the iceberg of the loneliness our guys lived with their whole lives. In Anton, Ruslan and Boris we are seeing the effects of how 30 years of utter aloneness and helplessness shape a person. The effects are devastating. In my own loneliness, which greatly pales in comparison to the life they have known, God is granting me greater empathy and compassion for the boys I love so dearly.

I may feel alone, but-

I am surrounded by my family who love and care for me. They were abandoned by their family.

I chose this life that I’m living, and the sacrifices that come with it. They had absolutely no choice or agency in their situation. They were completely helpless. 

I have always been taught, and have always known that I was loved by God first, and also by many people. They had no one to teach them or comfort them. 

I have hope. I know that this work, this life is exactly what God has asked me to do and I trust that He will give me the grace to do it. They had no reason to hope. They lived in hell and were prisoners, innocent of any crime.

I do believe and trust that God comforted them while they were in the institution. I believe that He fathered them in ways we could not see. His word says that He is a Father to the fatherless, so I know it has to be true. At the same time, there is the reality that they were abused and neglected in every way- for decades. I can’t explain that paradox. I know both sides to be true and I guess I just won’t be able to make sense of it this side of eternity.

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Boris, age unknown

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Baby Vladik

Jean Vanier, a great man who has spent his life living with and loving people with intellectual disabilities, said “To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unloveable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain.”

Ruslan, Anton, Boris, Vladik. I weep over the many years they had to taste that loneliness. I look at the pictures of them as little ones and wonder at what could have been, had they not waited so long.

In Ukraine alone, there are thousands of children and adults who are helpless and alone in institutions. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Do you have room at your table for one more? Do you have love in your heart to give? Could you reach out and give of yourself so that one more soul could know the love of a family? No child, no adult should be alone and if you have the ability to help, then by all means- do it. It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. If all that is standing in your way is your desire for your own comfort, then it’s time for something to change.

Adoption is messy and uncomfortable and hard. Let’s be honest, it’s so much easier to not adopt. Like 500% easier. But this life isn’t about doing what’s easier. It’s about chasing hard after Jesus and running the race full-on till the race is complete. If you are alive, then your race is not complete. If running hard after Jesus means laying down your life so that another may truly live, then just go ahead and do it. If adoption is meant to be your YES and you are still saying NO, please reconsider. Someone is waiting for your yes, and the sooner you can get to that someone the better. If adoption isn’t supposed to be a part of your race, that’s perfectly okay! Just figure out what your YES is and get busy doing it.

In this month of November, this National Adoption Month, please consider again if adoption should be your YES. Consider again how you can make space in your heart and home for the lonely. Consider laying down your life so that others may live. Say YES!

BeLOVE[d]

Deinstitutionalization is no Joke.

It’s been about a month since I last wrote here. We’ve been a family of 11 for about 6 weeks now and finding time to come up for air these days is quite the challenge. 🙂 The past 6 weeks have contained some of the highest highs and the lowest lows I have ever experienced. Alllllllll the feels. All of ’em. Deinstitutionalization is no joke.

The more we know our guys, the more we grieve over the many wasted years, the many abuses and the neglect. And the more we know them the deeper we grieve for the ones left behind.

Ruslan, Anton, Boris- they are not children. They are men, each with more than 20 years spent wasting away, locked away, hidden away. The tragedy of it makes my heart ache. They have spent their whole lives living in fear, treated like animals, when all along they were worth so much more.

Sometimes I look at them and I see them at face value: men who spent their lives in a mental institution. They have B.O. They don’t close the door when they use the bathroom. They don’t wash their hands without a reminder EVERY TIME. Anton spits when he is angry and has been aggressive at times. Boris still hits himself waaaaaaay too much. They don’t sleep well (which means we don’t sleep well). They have major anxiety about just about everything. They are food-obsessed. Ruslan asks the same questions approximately 258 times per day. They wipe their noses on their pillows. Anton will wander off and has no awareness of cars or strangers. Boris will wet himself as a way of manipulating us or the situation. Ruslan has a tennis ball that he obsessively searches for in the night- just to make sure it’s still there.

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And on and on. So much brokenness. So many tears (cried by me, because they never cry,  they only laugh when they should cry).

Last week, at an especially hard moment, I looked at Jed and asked “How can we ever expect anyone to want to do this work with us? It’s just.so.hard.” And then Jed calmly reminded me that God loves our guys more than we ever could and this is HIS work. Any time we try to pick up the weight of this and carry it by ourselves we collapse under the weight of it. We have to daily, sometimes hourly, hand the weight of this work back over to Jesus.

Yes, the more we know them the more we grieve.

But, also, the more we know them the more we love them.

Ruslan sings himself to sleep every night. He sings about whatever is on his mind and it’s hilarious. He sings about the friends who will come over the next day, or about a girl he thinks is pretty 🙂 or about Jesus. And Anton!  Guys, Anton is talking. Like a lot! When he was in the institution I only ever really heard him say one word. If you asked him who loved him he would answer “God”. Now he talks so much. He talks in bed, on the toilet, in the bath, at the table. Mostly he talks to himself, but when you ask him a question he will often answer, and a lot times we can understand him!  It’s absolutely incredible to watch him explode with language. We hoped for that, but I’m not sure we really expected it to happen! Boris is growing and changing all the time. He understands English and I pretty much only speak to him in English now. He is so smart! Watching the three of them during worship at church is good for the soul. They all love music and each dance in their own way. It’s so funny and cute and soul-filling.

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When we lay ourselves down and choose to view our guys through Jesus’ eyes, with eyes of compassion, we can look past the effects of a life of trauma and see the little boy inside who just wants to know he is safe.

Our sweet Anton can get quite stressed in his new life. He spent the last 20+ years sitting on a bench, so it makes sense that he would get overwhelmed. Now we can see the signs: red cheeks and neck and lots of talking. He can get a bit aggressive when he is overwhelmed and that really scared me. My mind started racing “What have we done???” Then one day we realized that Anton is a 30 year old sized two year old. He really is!  He is developmentally stuck at about age 2 or 3- he’s just a big dude, so looks can be deceiving. Now we know when he has a tantrum we just need to treat him at his developmental age and all will be well, eventually.  Our sweet buddy, we love him so much. Now if he’d just sleep a little more…

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The kids are still doing well. Vlad has been reverting into some old behaviors, so that’s tricky, but I guess was to be expected. Yesterday we went to lunch and the three older guys stayed at home with Kenny and one of our interns. We asked the kids each how they are doing, what are some of the joys and struggles of having our new additions home. By and large, table manners were the biggest complaint (ha!) and hearing Anton talk was the biggest joy. I was happy with those answers. We can work on table manners!

The days are full, and often hard, but we also have a lot of moments of laughter. Most of all, we have love. So, we’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other. 🙂

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Ruslan and Anton: The Skinny

Well, we’re two and a half weeks into life with Anton and Ruslan, our new additions, and I stole away for a few minutes to update you all on how it’s going. I know many of you have prayed for us and journeyed alongside us for many years and now the answer to our prayers are sitting downstairs on the couch watching cartoons. 🙂 Crazy, right?

“How’s it going with the new guys?” That’s the question everyone’s been asking, and a question that is impossible to describe with just one word. In general, I think Ruslan and Anton are doing really well. We didn’t know them as well as we knew Boris before he came to live with us, so we really had no idea what to expect. Although, we have learned with Boris that it doesn’t matter how well you know someone in an institutional setting. Once you get them out and into family life you really never know what they will be like. Boris is much different than I expected. So, we knew that we could not predict how Ruslan and Anton would adapt to “life on the outside”. So far I’m pleasantly surprised.

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At their first wedding!

Physical.  Ruslan and Anton both seem to be in pretty good health. There are some digestive issues that we have to work out, and some concerning results of lab work we had done, but most of that will probably resolve itself in time.  One of Ruslan’s feet has a pretty major issue that would probably require therapy and maybe surgery to fix. He walks with a very big limp and it looks so painful to watch him do stairs. 😦 But, he runs and jumps and dances with the best of them. When we are out and about and are going to be walking more than just a little bit we make sure to bring a wheelchair for him. Anton is a pretty big guy, who we’re learning, benefits from PLENTY of exercise. He was waking up all night long hootin’ and hollerin’ and waking the whole house with loud laughter, but that is happening less and less. He still wakes up pretty early, but 6:00 is much better than 3:00!!!  He’s on the right track. 🙂

Emotional.  As you can imagine, our guys are in need of a great amount of healing. We know that their paths to healing may be very long, so we need to be patient. They both lived at Romaniv for more than 20 years and we don’t know where they were before that. They have been neglected and abused in every way you can imagine, and beyond what you can imagine. Pain like that doesn’t heal overnight.

Ruslan is a pretty anxious guy. He is verbal, so that helps a lot in easing his anxiety. When we are out and about he always wants to know where home is and when we’ll go back there. He always needs to make sure everyone is present and accounted for, and hey, I’ll take any help I can get in that department! Haha.  I remember when Vladik first came to us he was the same way regarding asking about home and needing to know which direction home was located. Ruslan is also a pleaser and wants to make sure we are happy with him. He needs lots of affirmation. He loves to help around the house and one sweet thing is that out of all four of our boys from Romaniv, Ruslan is the only one who shows interest in Evie. He talks to her, strokes her little hands, and has even picked her up a couple times! Yikes! 🙂 It’s really beautiful to watch him interact with her.

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Anton is often in his own world and takes a lot more intentionality to reach. He is happy to sit and play with his spinner for hours on end, so we have to work to keep him active. He’s the happiest, most content guy who has begun to laugh A LOT. His laugh is so jolly! We are learning that Anton is sensitive to noises and he gets pretty easily agitated by Boris’ many vocalizations. So, we have to make sure to give him space in those times because he can get a little aggressive. He’s just repeating what he knows, so we have empathy for him, but he also knows it’s wrong to hit, so he’s learning the not-so-fun world of good ol’ fashioned consequences (ie. missing out on a treat, or sitting in a chair for a few minutes without his spinner). Anton has a lot of insecurities about food so we are working hard on eating slowly, not hovering around the kitchen every moment of the day 😉 , and eating appropriate amounts. He doesn’t speak often so it’s hard to know what’s going on in that brain of his!

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Integration into Family Life.  This is the fun one. Ruslan and Anton are doing really great integrating into family life. Ruslan already told me he wants to learn to speak English. I bet he will too! He is so stinkin’ smart. Ruslan likes to join in on anything and everything that is going on in the house. He loves to be a part of the group. Anton is happy to join in too, but just needs more help to do it. They both love music and playing ball outside. They enjoy going on walks and, of course, going anywhere in the car.

As a whole, I would say our kids are adjusting pretty well to having Anton and Ruslan in the family. We’re dealing with the normal meltdowns that come with a major life change- there’s no escaping that. But in general, I’m super impressed with our kids and their adaptability. They are heroes.

It’s been a pretty huge adjustment for Jed and me. Our hands are now extremely full(er) :). Anton and Ruslan are doing well, but they also require a lot of attention. We’re trying to nip institutional behaviors and teach new behaviors to replace the not-so-pleasant ones. That requires a lot of time. Teaching hygiene, manners, appropriate interpersonal interactions, safety…we are starting from the ground up and it’s pretty intense. Vlad and Seth have experienced some regression since their arrival, so we are working through that as well. And then there’s Boris…yeah, he doesn’t love sharing attention AT ALL, so he’s pretty challenging at the moment. Basically, in this phase of life, from the moment we get up in the morning till the moment we lay our heads down at night we have to be “on”. There are just a lot of moving parts around here and a lot people needing different levels of supervision and interaction. It’s a lot. More than ever we are aware of our deep need to abide in Christ. There is no way we can do this without His help.

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Evidence of the one time we took EVERYBODY grocery shopping. Not quite sure why we attempted that…hehe

Monday, Wednesdays and Friday we have one of our Wide Awake interns here helping us, and then Monday through Friday Kenny is here with us during the day as well. We’re working with the interns to develop an educational plan for the boys (Boris included), but it’s slow going. Right now they are still adjusting to life outside of Romaniv, and we’re okay with that. The interns and Kenny help us keep everyone engaged, active, and safe as they learn about the world around them.

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At the car wash with Kenny

That’s a glimpse into our life at the moment! It’s a bit insane and there’s definitely never a dull moment. Lots of laundry. Lots of cooking. Lots of noises. Lots of correcting and guiding. But also, lots of laughter. Lots of new experiences. Lots of love and memory making. It’s a raw kind of life. The good moments are so very good, and the bad moments are kind of horrible. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns- definitely not romantic. But, it’s the life we have chosen and our yes to the Lord. It is beautiful in it’s own way. We are learning about our own weakness and humanness and learning what it means to lay our lives down. Jesus is so faithful to meet us right where we are when we need Him most. I’m so thankful for that. I really am thankful for the opportunity to see my great need for Jesus every single day.

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Jed took the guys to the Black Sea!  

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Both guys love working out in the woodshop with Jed

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Thank you for loving our big ol’ messy family. We are so thankful for your love and support. Please, when you think of us, pray for us. We appreciate it so much!