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/

On Leaving 

How to begin?  We head back to Ukraine in 12 days.  What the what??????


My last blog post was June 3rd. I have known I needed to write, but it felt like there was too much in there to adequately put into words.  Also, I realized that at some point over the past couple of years I started censoring myself.  I’m not sure exactly why.  I think a big reason is because the more I grew to know and love our Ukrainian friends in Zhytomyr, and the more time we spent away from our beloved friends and family in the US, the more I have wanted to make sure nothing I say is misinterpreted by anyone on either side of the ocean. 

That’s the struggle of this cross-cultural life.  Everywhere you go you are missing one person and glad to see another. Every time you go you are sad to leave one place but excited to reach another.  

All those feelings could be taken the wrong way, misinterpreted, hurtful…if you are the one being left you may feel rejected because we are excited to see the other.  When we are excited to leave Ukraine and get to the US I’m afraid it will appear that we don’t like Ukraine.  When we are excited to leave the US to get back to our life in Ukraine I’m afraid it will appear that we don’t appreciate the US and are “above” our old life. Ugh.  The people-pleaser in me does not have a clue how to navigate that, let alone write about it.  So I go silent. Sorry for that.

It’s just a fact that living between two worlds is very sticky business with no instruction manual.  

How do you leave a place and people well? 

How do re-enter a place well?

How do you leave a place where you are outgoing and confident, a fixer, and a leader and return to a place where you are a learner, an outsider, a person on the fringes of society with a first-grade handle on the language- and not crawl into a shell and hide?

How do you maintain friendships from across multiple time zones while also being fully planted and rooted where you are?

How do you invest in new friendships without feeling like you are letting your old ones slip away?  

How do you fully embrace your overseas life without feeling like you are a traitor to the ones you love across the ocean?

How do you look at pictures of your old friends and their kids all together and not feel guilt and sadness that your kids are not there to join in and grow up together?

How do you leave your mother and father and take away their grandchildren without feeling massive guilt?

How do you be fully where you are when you feel like your heart and life are split in two?

I don’t have a clue. 

One thing I know is that I failed in many of those areas last time we were in Ukraine and I am hopeful that this time will be better.  Last time I lived with A LOT of guilt. Everyday. No one put that on me; I’m awesome at doing that to myself.🙂

I felt like I was a bad friend to my American friends, but my Ukrainian life took so much energy that I simply couldn’t be the kind of friend I wanted to be to the ones I have loved for many years.  

I allowed all my confidence to be stripped away and socially became a shell of my former self. (Lack of fluency will do that to ya) Making friends was hard for me and I’m not used to that. I ached to be understood and known. (See, just writing that makes me worried that my Ukrainian friends will think I’m saying I had no friends in Ukraine. Ugh! Ha! )

We spent those first two years just learning how to survive and didn’t really get the chance to become fully planted.  Our kids felt that.  I know that couldn’t really be helped.  We had to learn to survive and the learning curve was/is steep. Grocery shopping, banking, post-officing, cooking, schooling, transportation, church, utilities, LANGUAGE…everything was new and we were like aliens on a different planet. There was a lot of everyday living to figure out before any roots could begin to take hold. 

But this time, I think this time is going to be different. Our mindset is different.We are purchasing land and settling in for the long-haul.  We have committed our lives to these boys and once we begin to take them out everything changes. Of course we’ll still come to the US for visits, but my heart and mind need the opportunity to settle in and make a home in Ukraine. I need pictures up on the walls.  I need to know in my heart that until God says differently, Ukraine is our home. No guilt allowed. 

So, if you see us in the coming days, just know that our hearts are confused and there is no easy answer to the question “How are you?” We’re so happy and so sad.  We’re excited and dreading.  We’re confident and scared.  We’re ready and we’re not.  

I’m only resolute one thing: I know that I know that this is the life God has created us for and I WILL NOT allow guilt to rob me of the joy that comes with following Jesus and saying yes. 

So there. That’s the *pretty much* uncensored version of my heart.  If you are a person who prays we would sure appreciate your prayers over the next several weeks.  The kids are struggling with all the change and the chaos in our home is great at the moment. We need peace and knowing and joy in the journey.  

Thank you for walking with us! 

The Beauty and the Grief of Older Child Adoption

Vladik will turn 16 next month. It will be the celebration of the century, because our baby finally has a family. I can’t wait to celebrate the life of our boy. He is a warrior. He is a survivor. I can’t wait to shower him with love and attention. I can’t wait to show him with song and cake and presents and word and hugs that he is special; he is loved; he is wanted.  

After 15 years of nothingness, he was CHOSEN. 

Older child adoption is a tough thing.  It is a scary thing.  It is not something to go into without much prayer and consideration, just like with any adoption.  Every adoption has the scary unknowns.  Adoption is a leap of faith and there is no “easy” adoption.  Adoption is just hard.  Beautiful and hard.  :) But it’s different with older child adoption, isn’t it?  You can’t erase the cold hard facts that are years and so.much.time gone by. It makes a difference.

Vladik had 15 years of life without us.  He has 15 years worth of memories and trauma and pain and stress and fears, and we weren’t there.  We weren’t there to comfort him.  He was in a very unsafe, very traumatic, very scary place and there was no mommy and daddy to fight for him.  It kills me to think of it. 

Our friends at Mission to Ukraine (MTU) and Bible Orphan Ministry (BOM) have told us about what Romaniv was like when they first visited: MTU 8 years ago and BOM 10, maybe 12 years ago.  Before BOM first visited there had been no outsiders ever, that we know of.  The boys were like wild animals, the conditions appalling and disgusting, the staff overworked and hopeless.  Romaniv looks amazing these days, compared to what was, and even today it is a place that turns sweet little boys into lifeless shells.  It is a bad place today.  No child should have to spend one night there.  It was even worse before.  

And my Vladik was there.  Sent to Romaniv as a tiny, chubby-cheeked four year old, he was there before there was hope. 

I got this picture in my inbox this morning from Bible Orphan Ministry.  It’s from a time soon after Vladik’s transfer.  Oh my baby.  If only we had known you.  If only we could have gotten to you sooner…

What grief.  All that time lost.  All that time, as his view of the world was being shaped, he was living in hell.  

The grief of older child adoption can not be ignored.  They have simply waited so long, and because of that, the healing is slow and tedious, and sort of like an onion.  So many layers of pain and fear need to be peeled away- and they don’t come off easily.  So many unhealthy learned behaviors.  Survival of the fittest.  In constant fight or flight- for 15 years.

I needed to see that picture today.  I needed to be reminded of where Vladik came from because I can easily forget.  The longer he is with us, the more I forget all the years before.  

Lately he seems to have taken some steps back in his healing.  We’ve seen more guarding, more anxiety, more institutional behaviors, less receptiveness to physical affection, more tears. Somehow I guess I thought we had won those battles.  We were already over those mountains, and I found myself becoming impatient, not wanting to climb them again.  I was growing annoyed with the institutional behaviors.  I was impatient with the tears.  I was less nurturing and more “buck up bucko”. ;) 

Then that picture popped up.  How could I have forgotten????  I mean Romaniv is always on my mind.  I never forget Romaniv. My babies are there, they are always in my heart, in my thoughts, on my brain.  But how could I have forgotten about all those years…all those minutes, all those moments that Vladik endured in that place?  FIFTEEN YEARS.  Fifteen years can not be undone in 9 months.  Sure, progress can be made, but we’re talking reprogramming EVERYTHING.  We are talking about starting at square one and learning anew EVERYTHING. 

And in that relearning comes the beauty of older child adoption.  

Redemption.  

We get the honor and privilege of showing Vladik with our actions and with our words that things don’t have to be the way they were. 

When you are hurt you can cry, you don’t need to laugh, because mommy will come to you.

When you are unsure in a new situation, you don’t need to hold your ears and make loud noises to fill the space, because mommy and daddy are here and we will guide you.  

When you have free time and you aren’t sure what you should do next, you don’t need to bang the walls or pace or rock because your brother will play basketball with you.  Your sister will cuddle you and watch your favorite cartoon.  Your daddy will take you on a motorcycle ride.  :) 

When you worry about having enough food or if your body is safe or about your feet that are so different, don’t.  We will always feed you.  Your body will be safe even without long sleeves.  You will always have socks to cover your feet.

Look what God says! 

“…Behold, I am making all things new.”Revelation 21:5
“He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

God loves our kids so much, and He is all about redemption.

In an older child adoption we get to start over.  We get to watch the redemption and we get to see our child grow from a frail, cowering little boy into a strong, outgoing teenager with a smile that lights up our world and a basketball shot that amazes us all.  If you would have told me 10 years ago that God would give us a 15 year old son from a rural mental institution and he would be one of our greatest surprises, greatest treasures ever….I’m not sure I would have believed you!  We are so thankful that God knows best. 

If you are considering older child adoption, please don’t shy away.  The battle is uphill, but the view at the top is beautiful. No child is beyond hope.  No child is too far gone.  After all, an older child is still just a child, and every child deserves to have a family.   


These two older children are boys that I know and love with all my heart.  They live where Vladik used to live.  They are precious, and deserving, and they have waited too long.  Would you please consider adding one of them to your family and being a part of their redemption story?  Email me if you have any questions about them.  PS: They are each eligible for a $10,000 adoption grant through Reece’s Rainbow!