The One Left Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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.  

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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. 

2019: A Year of Learning and Miracles

Well this year sure flew by in a flurry! I was just looking through the 2019 blog posts to find the highlights to link here and saw that I really didn’t write a whole lot. That in itself shows what kind of year we had around here: fast and furious. 🙂

Here in our home, with Anton and Ruslan, this year has been unbelievably difficult. There have been many beautiful moments, don’t get me wrong, but the overarching feeling when I sat down and initially looked back over this year in our home was not “beautiful”, it was “stinkin’ hard and painful”. It has been a year of learning to lay down our lives and learning what this dream of deinstitutionalization really is. Of course we already had some experience with Vlad and Boris, but for many reasons it has just been exponentially harder with Anton and Ruslan. We have learned A LOT. We have changed A LOT. And we have so much to be thankful for.

I’d love to sit down and report to you the many great strides and changes that have been made in our boys, and while they have changed and made some strides, the greater changes have been made in the hearts of our family.

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This year has forced us, Jed and me, to dig deep down inside ourselves and deal with our junk, ’cause Lord knows we’ve got a whole lot of it. Many times this year the way has felt so dark. We have felt hopeless, helpless and in way over our heads. We’ve learned, and are still learning, how impossible it is to do this thing of deinstitutionalization in our own strength. We’ve learned that we’ll most definitely burn out and cope in unhealthy ways when we try to do this on our own. We’ll get bitter. We’ll pick up our phones as an escape. We’ll get all judgey. We’ll lose our patience with our kids and we’ll even stop laughing.

There’s just no way around it. We either do this thing with Jesus, or we fail. That has been the big lesson of 2019: Jed and Kim without Jesus doesn’t work. Praise God for his never-ending mercy and unrelenting love toward us, and thank God for your prayers and encouragement that have sustained us in the darkest of times.

We are different people than we were at the beginning of the year, in a good way. So when I look at it that way I am filled with thankfulness for this past year of struggle. We are changed. Our kids are changed. They have grown and stepped up and matured. Our team has grown and stepped up and matured. Our team has grown in love for each other and we have learned so very much about the path that lies ahead of us. If we had never brought Ruslan and Anton into our home we would have been dreadfully unprepared for the next phases of this journey. So, praise God that his ways are higher than ours. All the tears, all the struggles with self, all the sleepless nights have been 100% worth it. I mean that.

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When you look outside our home at the other parts of this Wide Awake machine there are no shortage of miracles. 🙂

In January we sent out desperate plea for our “Preston” to be adopted. The government was threatening to send him back to the institution if he did not have a committed family by summer. A family pretty quickly stepped forward and they met Preston on Christmas Eve. 🙂 Christmas Day at our house was spent with Preston and his new family getting to know each other. Praise God for his love for our sweet boy.

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Preston with his new daddy on Christmas Day

In July we sent out another desperate plea for our “Aaron” to be adopted. He was the last boy at Romaniv available for adoption and was going to age out at the end of the year, making him forever unadoptable. That same day, as the post was being written, an adoptive family was at Romaniv for another boy (“Kayden”) and they also fell in love with Aaron. They ended up adding him to their adoption and had court for him on December 18th. Aaron is legally an orphan no more, saved at the very last minute by an AMAZING family. He’ll go home to them in January. Praise God for his pursuit of the ones left behind and forgotten for so many years. This is such a huge miracle!!!

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Aaron will go home with his new family in January!

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Kayden was adopted in the fall by the same family. Look at him on his first day of school!

If those adoptions were the only thing that happened this year it would be enough to be a miraculous year, but let’s not forget the ginormous building right outside our back door. Ha!

Thanks to the generosity of donors, the next Wide Awake home is well on it’s way to completion. The roof is on and the windows and doors are in. We are looking at a completion date of late spring, early summer. It’s amazing!!!  (and did I mention, huge?)

The house is a duplex, so it has the capacity to be a forever home for 8 of our friends from Romaniv- four on each side, plus the people who will live there with them.

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We were thinking the end of the year would be a cool time to do a kind of “Virtual Housewarming” for the duplex. Many people have asked how they can be a part of the work here, and helping us to outfit the duplex with all the needed appliances is a great, tangible way to contribute to the freedom of our boys.

If you would like to contribute toward any of these items, just click on the item and proceed through the form. Thank you!

 

We are still searching for who will live in the duplex with our boys, so if this is something that your heart can’t let go of, please contact us and we can begin a conversation. I promise we are great neighbors. 😉

As we end the year I want to say thank you to this Wide Awake community for being such a wonderful source of encouragement and support to us and our team. In the good times you have celebrated with us, and in the hard times you have encouraged us, trusted us, and lifted our arms, encouraging us to press on, reminding us of our why. We thank God for you and look forward to the growth that will happen in 2020!

BeLOVE[d]

You can follow Wide Awake on Facebook and Instagram (@wide_awake_international). I update there much more frequently than here on the blog, especially when things get super crazy up in here. But I promise to keep this space alive too, if you still prefer blogs, so no worries 🙂

The Best Kind of Story+ A Birthday Wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their reply “We love him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can give your tax-deductible donation here. 

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

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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