From Darkness Into Light

One month ago the most miraculous thing happened.  I didn’t realize that basically I’d been holding my breath since January.  I didn’t realize it until one month ago when our team finally breathed a collective sigh of relief.  

He made it.  He survived.  He made it out. His family took him out forever, never to return.  

Our baby Ben was saved.  


I think we all hoped with all of our hearts that it would happen, but until I watched Ben’s mommy and grandma walk him out of the Isolation Hall, down the sidewalk, and actually get into the van with him, I’m not sure I believed it would really happen.  It was just too good to be true.  FREEDOM!!!!

Ben is at home with his loving daddy and mommy and two brothers.  He is doing amazing.  He is a survivor and he beat the odds.  And now he has a future!  It’s what we want for every single one of our boys.  It’s the perfect end to a beautiful love story…actually I guess it’s the perfect beginning, because only now does Ben’s life truly begin.  


Freedom. It’s what we want for every single boy and man within the walls of the institution.  That’s why we moved here.  That’s why we purchased the land.  That’s why Jed spoke in Switzerland yesterday and in Germany today.  Many, many people need to know about our boys because it will take many, many people to help set them all free.  

Almost all of our boys are trapped in the cycle of institutions forever unless we get them out into group homes.  They are too old to be adopted or their parents still maintain their rights.  They are stuck. 

BUT Stephan.  Stephan is not stuck.  He is one of the very few who is available for adoption.  His fate doesn’t have to be the same as the others.  He could have the freedom and love that Ben now knows- and he could have it soon!  All that is needed is one loving family to step forward and claim their son.  


Stephan is such a tiny little love.  He’s thirteen years old but about the size of our 6 year old, Seth.  If you didn’t know his age you’d swear he’s 6 or 7.  Years of neglect, physical and emotional, have stunted his growth.  He loves to eat, and eats well, but he’s still so tiny.

I’ll tell you what, Stephan is all boy!  There is nothing he likes more than to be spun around and around and to sit on a walker or in a wheelchair and be pushed FAST.  The faster the better for our boy.  He loves to play rough and he loves tickles.  See, the thing is, our sweet Stephan is blind.  To be in darkness in that place, oh my heart can’t even comprehend.  The institution is a rush to all of your senses.  The smells, the sounds, the sights, all of it rushes you like a freight train upon entering, but when I think about hearing and smelling all of that and not being able to see?  Yeah, I get a little panicky just thinking of it, and I’m a grown woman!  No person should have to sleep one night there, let alone spend years there in darkness.  It’s just too much.  Too much.  Someone please get him out of there. 


I’ve been wanting to hardcore advocate for Stephen for a long time.  There was just one major detail that kept me from it.  We knew that he was blind, but then several nannies told us that he was also deaf!  This was news to us because deafness was not in his medical file.  Yet several insisted that yes, he was deaf.  I did not believe it, but I needed to be 100% sure before I could ask a family to come for him and be confident on that very big detail.

You might be thinking “How could you NOT know if a child is deaf or not?  Wouldn’t it be obvious?”  In a typically developing child in a safe environment, yes I guess it would be fairly easy to detect if there was a problem, but at our institution it is not.  I told you before that the your senses are assaulted upon entering, right?  I don’t even know how to fully explain to you what it is like there.  It is loud: screeches, screams, some laughter, crying, yelling.  During the day the noise is just about constant. And then there is the lack of stimulus.  There is just nothing there.  Unless the interns or a team is there, the Isolation Hall is just pure nothingness.  No books, no toys, no music, nothing.  Years of pure nothingness, lack of stimuli, has left our boys with many inappropriate behaviors and responses.  Pure nothingness leads them to self-harming behaviors and autistic-type behaviors.  Now imagine that nothingness coupled with darkness?  Yeah, horrible.  Stephan, like many of the other boys, does not respond appropriately much of the time.  He has learned to tune out the world around him.  It’s survival.  


A few weeks ago I was sitting on a bed with our Vitya, cuddling him to sleep because he had a horrible toothache. Stephan came and was sitting at the other end of the bed.  I sat quietly and just observed him, hoping to get my questions answered about his hearing.  I called his name, no response.  He sat quietly twirling his sock in front of his face, twirling and twirling.  Then a nanny came in and saw that his socks were off.  “Stephan, why are your socks off?  Give me your foot” He stuck his foot out.  “Now give me your other foot.”  He stuck out his other foot.  She wasn’t touching his feet, she was only speaking, and he listened and obeyed.  Question answered.  He hears.  I told that nanny what others had said about him being deaf.  Her reply “Maybe he doesn’t want to listen all the time, but of course he hears!”  Haha.  Sounds like a typical kiddo to me! 



Stephan is potty-trained and goes to the toilet independently.  He does not self-harm, nor have I ever seen him harm others. He doesn’t really interact with the other boys at all.  He could learn to feed himself, but at this time he’s not interested in learning. He can walk and run, but he does not speak. he spends all of his days standing under the window or sitting in the kitchen waiting for the next meal.  He spins and twirls to get his sensory needs met and he adores going outside. But, his quality of life is very poor and will remain that way until he is free.

I believe with all of my heart that there is a family out there for our sweet boy.  He has SO MUCH potential!!!  Please don’t be scared off by his age.  He’s like a toddler in behavior, and like a first grader in size, yet in a little over two years he will age out and his chance to be adopted will be gone forever.  He has waited too long in unsafe darkness.

Would you please pass on Stephan’s face to others?  Would you please consider him for your own family?  Maybe you have said that you hope to adopt some day but have never considered a special needs adoption.  Would you consider it now?  Would you at least promise to pray and ask God how He would like you to respond?  We always said we would not consider special-needs adoption…uh yeah…never say never.  Ha! 

This boy lives in a very bad place and he needs out yesterday.  I know that I know that the family who chooses him will be so blessed to see him blossom before their very eyes.  He is an absolute treasure. 


I am happy to answer any questions you may have about Stephan.  Just comment here or email me at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org 

Also, our Stephan has a $10,000 adoption grant through Reece’s Rainbow!!!  That removes a HUGE barrier to his adoption.  Please share him far and wide and let’s find this boy a family! 

All About Vladik: One Year Free

Two days ago we celebrated one year of freedom for our sweet Vladik.  Our miracle boy spent the day at a Hungarian water park (long story…for another post) discovering his great love for enormous water slides.  He ran and played and splashed, yelling “Mom, look!  Dad, watch me!” He watched his brothers and sisters do things he was nervous to do, then conquered his fears and tried for himself.  He ate ice cream and pizza and laughed and asked “Blue slide again?”  

He truly lived.  


On one hand I can hardly believe a whole year has passed since Vladik came out of Romaniv forever, but mostly it feels like a lifetime ago.  When I go to Romaniv these days I can hardly picture him there.  He is truly a different child.  

It’s interesting because if you ask anyone who visited Romaniv and met Vladik there they would all tell you how happy he was.  He was always laughing and smiling.  ALWAYS.  But now that we truly know him we can see his behavior then for what it really was.  Yes, he was smiling, and yes he laughed a lot, but he was also afraid- ALL THE TIME.  His body showed his fear in the way he held himself; his shoulders scrunched up, his head down, full-on protection mode at every moment. His laugh seemed happy, but now we know that laugh as the nervous, afraid laugh that shows up when he is unsure. If you asked him for a hug he would sort of back up toward you and lean a shoulder in. You could see he was compliant but he didn’t feel comfortable and he didn’t enjoy it.  He was afraid of physical contact and always on guard.  He had a bright countenance that I believe came from the Lord, but it was just a dim flicker compared to how he shines now.  

The boy we knew at Romaniv was a shadow of the boy we know now.  And the boy we know now is amazing.  

Passport photo 2015

Passport photo 2016


He is funny and loves to make his siblings laugh. He comes up to me several times a day with his arms open as wide as possible, asking for a hug. He adores Bluebell, our puppy, and could play with her for hours. He likes ice cream and potatoes and pizza and soup. He’s a daredevil and wants everything faster and higher and louder. His bike is his most prized possession. He and Seth are still thick as thieves and when they get too quiet I know something is up…typical brothers.😉 He speaks English and Ukrainian and a mish-mash of the two that can only be described as “Vladik speak”. Oh, and he pretty much never stops talking.  Motor.Mouth.

We think Vladik is doing miraculously well.  His transition to our family has been amazingly smooth.  BUT 15 years of institutionalization, 11 of those in a bad place, can not be erased in one year.  We have so many wonderful moments, and we also have so many difficult moments.  Parenting a child who has lived a lifetime of trauma is no joke.  It requires constant reassurance and truckloads of patience (of which I am guilty of running short).  Just when you think you’ve conquered a certain behavior or fear something triggers and you go ’round the mountain again…and again.  

Put your arms down. No beeping. We’re going home soon. Put your arms down.  No beeping. If you want to talk to someone just say “hi”, you don’t need to make strange noises to get attention. No beeping. Put your arms down. And on and on…

It’s no secret that extra struggles come with the fact that we are back in Ukraine.  Most every other internationally adopted child I know leaves their institutional life and it is over and gone for good; new life, new memories, old life gone forever.  That will never be Vladik’s reality.  Romaniv has stayed and will stay a part of his life.  It is our life.  As much as we would love for him to, he doesn’t ever get to fully forget. We will never ever take him to Romaniv again, and we tell him that all the time, but he knows we go there and he hears us talk of it daily. Some people might think it’s cruel of us to bring him back here where he is constantly reminded of his past.  We know that.  We know, and our only response is “God said so.”  Just like our other children have an unusual life because of what God has called our family to, so it is with Vladik.  And just like we trust that God is caring for our other children and giving them what they need, so it is with Vladik.  When we chose to say yes to adopting Vladik we knew this would be his reality and still we knew that we knew God was saying to make him our son.  So we did.  

Annnnnd God is making a way for our boy, even here in Ukraine.  He is surrounded by our team who knew him when he was an orphan and know him now.  In their eyes he is a celebrity.  He is what we dream of for all of our boys, in the flesh.  His presence in our church here in Ukraine brings hope and refreshment to those who work tirelessly on behalf of the ones Vladik left behind.  He brings joy wherever he goes.  :) 


A local private school welcomed all our kids with open arms, including Vladik.  He gets to do PE, music, and art with the fifth grade, while having individual lessons the rest of the day.  I get to make his lesson plans and our dear friend has agreed to teach him.  She loves Vladik and sees him for the beautiful soul that he is.  Their lessons start next month and I can’t wait to see how he thrives.  So far the kids at the school have been kind and accepting of Vladik.  We are thankful. 

He gets to attend a weekly class at Mission to Ukraine where he will be treasured and valued.  Full circle. 


The other day we were visiting a beautiful basilica in Budapest.  We decided to pay the fee and go see the inside of the building. We approached the cashier and when he saw Vladik he smiled so warmly.  He almost pushed us into the church, “You don’t pay!  Please, please go for free” he exclaimed with a kind pat on Vladik’s back, and a look of tenderness in his eyes. I could see there was no pity there, only love. Oh man, the tears were flowing.  That man, he saw the beauty of our boy.  There was no look of disgust, no disdain, no mouth-hanging-open staring.  There was love.  For me that moment was a gift from God.  It felt like God was whispering over us “See, I see your boy, and I’m watching over him.” 

Vladik’s healing is a long road, but he is definitely well on his way.  He is absolutely flourishing and growing and LIVING.  We will never ever be the same because he is our son.  He is our gift and I pray we never take him for granted. 

The Big School Question

It’s that time of year again!  School is on the brain.  School uniforms can be seen in every shop, little tents can be seen on the sidewalks selling school supplies at a discount. Here we goooooooo!

School is about to start and the Johnson family has (yet again) the big question looming over our heads: “What will we do about school???” I gotta tell you, I’m am SO OVER asking that question.  I’m over it! I have to admit to being a bit jealous of everyone who stays in one place and without much thought or debate knows exactly where their children will go to school each year.  I’ll admit to being a bit jealous of everyone who knows what to expect and what supplies to buy how to communicate with the teachers and what is expected of them and their children.  But, pity party over.  I realize that we will never be those people.  Time to suck it up and move on.  :) 

Uniform shopping!


There are several variables that make schooling a big challenge here.  First of all, we seem to be the only foreigners with kids around here.  If there are others they must be hiding because no one knows about them and no one has ever seen them.  Because our kids are, seemingly, the only foreigners and are not fluent in Ukrainian the schools have no idea what to do with them.  ESL type programs are nonexistent here, because everyone is from here! I know that kids learn quickly, and will eventually catch up, but it’s not like Addy can just enter 6th grade here and on day 1 write an essay in Ukrainain.  There’s just no way!  Addy and Ez will absolutely need help and assignment modification, but if schools have never done that or considered that before, then their answer is usually just to put the kids in first grade over and over so that they don’t fail.  Hava will be fine because she’ll do first grade, and Seth will be fine in preschool/kinder, but we are pretty adamant this time around that the schools find some way for Addy and Ez to be with their peers.  

There are four schooling options available to us:

1.  Local Public School.  PROS: Free, great opportunity for social integration, taught 100% in Ukrainian, opportunity to go to school with neighbors. CONS: Big class sizes, no ability to modify assignments for our kids, our kids would go to the village school which does not have a good reputation, a public school would not accept Vladik. 

We sent Addy and Ezra to our neighborhood public school for a semester in 2014.  It was a fine experience.  They both did first grade and all went fine.  It wasn’t amazing, but it was okay.  I would be very hesitant to send them to public school in the upper grades. They are just not equipped to work with us.

2.  Local Christian School. PROS: Great opportunity for social integration, taught 100% in Ukrainian, opportunity to get to know other Christian families, smaller class sizes.  CONS: No desire to modify assignments for our kids, unsure if they would accept Vladik, they have a waiting list right now, so most likely we wouldn’t get in anyway. 

We sent Addy and Ezra to this school for a semester in 2014 and it was just okay.  They wanted them to continue to repeat first grade until they were fluent in Ukrainian…so yeah, probably that’s not the best option for us.  NO WAY are we making them repeat first grade again.  NOPE. 

3.  Home School. PROS: We know how to do it.  :) No language barrier or cultural barriers, they will not fall behind in study content and English reading and writing, more time together as a family, more time to be involved in ministry as a family.  CONS: Social isolation (NO ONE homeschools here), far less exposure to Ukrainian language.

My heart longs for this option.  I love homeschooling my kids and and I believe in homeschooling 100%.  It is cozy and wonderful and would be BY FAR the easiest option for us.  But, we know that we know that is not the option God has for us. If we call Ukraine our home, then we must give our children opportunities to be a part of Ukraine.  They will be absolutely isolated if we homeschool, and in a very closed culture we must provide them with opportunities to be with other children and develop language skills. We are already the oddity everywhere we go.  We can’t just keep our kids at home.  We just know we can’t.

3.  Local Ukrainian Private School.  PROS: Great opportunity for social integration, taught 100% in Ukrainian, smaller class sizes, a desire to integrate our kids and modify assignments for them, open to Vladik.  CONS: We don’t really know anyone there so it’s starting all over.  

This is the obvious choice for us at this point.  :)

We met with the director of the private school this last week and the meeting was super positive.  She was full of energy, and right away it was obvious that the director and the teachers were excited to have our kids.  It was like they were excited to accept the challenge, which is a huge blessing to us.  We don’t want to feel like our kids are a burden to the school.  They are open to putting Addy and Ezra with their peers which is a HUGE blessing to us!  Maybe the most miraculous moment in the meeting was their reaction to Vladik.  There was not one moment when they debated if they would accept Vladik into the school.  They looked at him and were like “Okay, now let’s  decide where we should place Vladik.”  Not “if”, but “where”.  Miraculous.  We were almost positive that by bringing Vladik back to Ukraine that we were basically deciding he would never get more education at a school, because Special Ed does not exist here. What a big surprise and blessing that they are willing to take him, and WANT to take him.  YAY!!!  


At this point it looks like Addy will be in 5th class, Ezra will be in 4th class, Hava will be in 1st class, Seth will be in kindergarten, and Vladik…we’re still up in the air about him.  He will need a one-on-one who will help him in the classroom, and then take him out part of the time for individual instruction.  The school needs to find and hire a teacher for him, and then they will need to figure out which classroom is the best fit for him.  If you could pray that they find the best person for him that would be great!  It needs to be someone who will treasure Vladik and love him for who he is, yet not be afraid to push him to meet his full potential.  

They are basically having us fill out a form that says Addy and Ezra have special needs, as well as Vladik.  This will enable the school to legally modify their assignments and give them their grades based on modified work.  We explained to the staff that our desire for our kids is language acquisition and social integration.  We don’t really care about their grades.  Seriously, grades are the least of our worries!  It is a battle to get educators here to realize that for Addy and Ezra this is not a problem of intellect, but completely a problem of language.  They are smart!  They do amazing at school!  They just don’t have the level of Ukrainian they need to be able to function like the other students. They don’t need to be in second grade at 10 and 12 years of age, they need to be with their peers where they are socially motivated to reach their potential. 

I have no idea how it will all pan out, but at least for now we have a plan and a school that is welcoming us with open arms. The learning curve will be outrageously steep, especially for Addy, Ezra, and Havalah.  We’ll also need to figure out how they can get content and practice in English language stuff without burning them out…yikes. I’m super nervous for them, well for all of us, but trusting God that He will give them everything they need.  

I’ll keep you posted as we go! 

A Week in Photos: August 7th

I think I’ll try to get back into posting photos of our daily life here.  I know lots of people (besides just the grandmas) are interested in our daily life, and posting weekly pics forces me to get on here and share even if I don’t feel like I have a heckuvalot to say.  :) 

The kids are adjusting pretty well to life back in Ukraine.  Seth acts as though we never left.  Ha!  He easily picked back up with little friends from church.  Ukrainian life with all the walking and more naturally active life suits him just fine.  Hava, Addy, and Ezra are all doing fine.  School hasn’t started yet, and we still haven’t nailed down exactly where they will go and which grade everyone will be in, so they’re still in our family/church bubble.  Things may get a bit more dicey once we get closer to beginning school…we’ll see.  I’m nervous about it, but what’s new?  Today all is well, so I’ll just be content with that. Vladik is doing great.  He was pretty emotional and regressed quite a bit in our first week here, but he seems to be coming back to his old self.  I could do a whole post on that…maybe I will!  

Bluebell is adjusting to Ukrainian life as well!  It’s killing her to not be able to just run and run and run.  But, we have LOADS of stray dogs in our neighborhood so she has to be on the leash at all times.  We take her for several walks a day, but I know she misses her freedom.  Soon!  Bluebell will LOVE village life!  We are so glad we brought her.  I see the kids going to her for comfort and joy often throughout the day.  What a blessing.  I could do a whole post on that as well!  Maybe I will! ;) 

On Sunday night a bunch of our church family came out to the new property to check it out and to pray.  It was awesome!  We felt so loved, and it was massively encouraging to see so many people from church interested and engaged in what God is doing.  It was a beautiful time. 


A friend from church, Andriy, brought his camera along and took some cool pics while we were all out at the property.  I love them!!!  There are SO MANY super old things left at the house.  Like serious antiques.  It will be so fun to use them in decorating.  EEK!  I’m horrible at that kind of thing.  I need Fixer-Uppers International!!! Seriously though, our house would be so super fun for someone who is good at that kind of thing.  It’s like a museum!  


We have a small team here this week from the UK Vineyard, and one friend from Ventura Vineyard. Oh man, we love those guys so much.  They’re mostly here to help the Ukrainian Vineyard pastors, but a couple of the team members are Speech and Language Pathologists and they came just to support our interns at Romaniv.  They have all been such an encouragement to us.  They also makes us laugh a ton, so that’s a big bonus.  We are so thankful for their love for Ukraine and her people, and their love for us.  We don’t want them to leeeeeeeeave!!!!  (I don’t have pics of them all, but you get the idea.  They rock.) Thank you Jim, Jeremy, Josh, Sophie, and Ali!  :)

And, of course we have our boys.  Our sweeties.  Our urgency to get them out grows more every day.  It’s hard to trust God’s timing, but we really don’t want to push ahead on our own.  We are certain to fall flat on our faces if we get ahead of ourselves.  So, one foot in front of the other we say yes.  And in the meantime we try to give them all the love we can while they wait. 

Meanwhile, Back in Ukraine…

We made it!  We’ve been back in Ukraine for almost a week now, and all is well.  We hit the ground running.  I guess I’m learning that that’s kind of our style.  We don’t really know how to ease into anything.  :) The travel was great (minus a four hour stint in a Kyiv parking lot due to a busted belt on the van…but that’s another story).  Our puppy made it with us safe and sound too, for all the curious animal-lovers out there. No one left behind! 

It’s great to be back with our team, with our friends, with our church. It’s a relief to know that our family is all together and we’re going to stay that way indefinitely.  No more trying to live on both sides of the ocean at once.  It may take a while for my heart to settle into that fact.  Whew! 

The big, huge news is that on Monday we purchased the Wide Awake property!!!  It’s official! 


The property is in a nearby village called “Ivanivka”. We chose Ivanivka because it’s super close to Zhytomyr, but with plenty of awesome land for sale.  We will be within a community and close to the city, but with space to grow and garden, and space for our boys to enjoy nature and peace without being isolated.  Our team and friends can easily take the city bus to Ivanivka, and our property is not far off the main road, so it’s easily accessible, since most of our friends don’t have cars.
The property itself is a little under 2 acres.  There is an old house at the front of the property, and our family will live in that house after we do some renovating.  It’s not a house that would ever be ideal for our boys, but it will suit our family just fine.  There are established gardens behind the house, several mature fruit trees, and a big grassy field where we plan to build two more small houses that will be home to 4 boys each.  The back of the property is bordered by huge trees.  It’s just beautiful! There are several small outer buildings on the property that have had various uses over the years.  We’ll keep some of them and tear down others. 



The plan of attack, after deciding on a contractor and work crew, is to tackle plumbing, kitchen, and heating.  The floors have to be taken out to do the heating, and right now there is no indoor bathroom or kitchen, so those three things have to be done before our family can move in.  Once we are in we will begin work on an addition to the back of the house.  The addition will be home to the first four boys who come out of the institution! 

So, we’ve got our work cut out for us!  The house is old, but structurally sound.  The property has great potential, but a lot must be done before anyone lives there.  It can be a bit (or a lot) daunting when we think of how much needs to be done fairly quickly, so it’s imperative that we just put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. Yikes.  In the meantime we’re renting an apartment that we lived in during our first year in Ukraine. 


We are so thankful to each one of you who gave to make this property a reality.  Thank you for your generosity.  Thank you for believing in the vision.  Thank you for loving our boys and for loving us.  Thank you for your YES!  


For more pics of the land check out this link: https://wideawakefamily.com/2016/05/17/wide-awake-property/