In Loving Memory

Two weeks ago we heard the news, but it’s taken me a while to write about it. I’m not sure if I’ll find the right words tonight, but I’ll try, because their lives deserve to be honored. They should be known and celebrated by as many people as possible, because they were valuable and wonderful and their lives mattered.

I’m so sad to share that we have lost two of our friends. Vitya and Vova, two of our dear friends from Romaniv, have died and are now with Jesus. We are just so sad. On one hand, we are thankful that they suffer no longer. We know they are now free and they have no pain, no tears, no fear. But on the other hand we mourn so deeply for what they had to endure here on earth. We mourn that they never knew the love of a family and we weep that we didn’t get them out in time. Lots of emotions- a different one each moment. I guess we all remember anew just how important this work really is.

I’d love to share about our boys, if you’d like to know them better. I want to honor their memories by sharing with as many people as I can, just how wonderful they were.


Let’s start with Vitya. 🙂 I didn’t know Vitya quite as well as I knew Vova. We spent less time together over the years because Vitya didn’t move to the Isolation Hall until the last couple years of his life, and the Isolation Hall is where our team spends the majority of our time.

Before he was moved to the Isolation Hall, Vitya was in the same group as our Anton. He was nonverbal, but he could most definitely communicate! He was really very smart. I think anyone who visited Romaniv with us will remember Vitya. He was always ready with a handshake or a hug. When he smiled his eyes would close soooooo tightly! Vitya loved to dance and when we did our weekly dance class, back in the day, he was in absolute heaven. He had big emotions and was either very happy, or very sad, but his face showed it all. Vitya loved to pray. Any time we were going to have snack, or anytime a class ended, Vitya made certain that we stopped to pray. I will always remember that about him.

A couple of years ago Vitya was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and as his symptoms progressed he was moved to the Isolation Hall. He would fall often and just didn’t understand how to keep himself safe. We really saw him decline before quarantine. It is good and right that he is suffering no longer. But oh, we loved our Vitya and will miss his smiling face and tight hugs. I really can’t imagine Romaniv without him. He was a star and our team will never, ever forget him.

And now on to our precious Vova. Deep sigh.

I can’t help but cry as I write this. It’s heartbreaking to know that our Vova is gone. He is with Jesus, and I’m so so happy that he is free and safe and loved. We all feel that joy. But Vova’s death is a tremendous loss to our team. We planned that he would be the first to move into the second side of the duplex. We dreamed of his future as a part of our big Wide Awake Family. We imagined how he would grow and change and thrive. We wondered how he would transition and if he would maybe ever speak. We fully intended to set him free here on earth, but it will never be. He left us before we could show him that love and our heart break because of it.

I remember the first time Jed and I ever saw Vova. It was when we visited Romaniv in the spring of 2012. We were in Ukraine for the first time, scouting it out and listening for how God would have us respond to this great need, this great injustice. We visited Romaniv with Mission to Ukraine and knew at once that those boys were our people. That first visit was a bit overwhelming, but Jed and I both remembered Vova. He stood out to us because he was in such terrible condition. I’ll be honest that my first emotion upon seeing him, was fear. He was self-harming and blood was running down the side of his face. He was groaning and rocking, fiercely avoiding all human contact. He was just existing, cast away by society. His days consisted of rocking, and searching for string to swirl between his fingers.

I remember his sounds and I remember my fear. But that was not the Vova we eventually came to know. That was just a shell of a man. Our Vova had a deep laugh and an infectious smile. If you could get Vova to smile, then your day was made. Our Vova was curious. He didn’t always love to be touched and he didn’t always love to interact, but I think I can safely say that by the end of his life he had learned that some humans could be loving and good and safe. I pray that he knew he was loved by us. I know that I know that Vova knew he was loved by God. I just have to trust God’s faithfulness on that one. He promised to be a father to the fatherless, so I trust that Vova felt and knew that love. To be honest, that’s a leap of faith because Vova died from something preventable and treatable. He lived a life of abuse and neglect and in a way, he never even got to begin living. I find myself asking God a lot of questions, but in the end I choose to trust that he was near to Vova in ways we couldn’t see.

Our team visited and loved Vova for 6 years, and during 4 of those years the interns were also working closely with him on developing functional skills. It seems to us that out of all the boys in the Isolation he is one of the ones who benefited the most from that time of relationship. He really did change over time. It’s beautiful to look back through pictures and see the change in him.

The loss of Vova was a big shock to our team and we mourn him because he was loved. We will miss our friend. We are honored and thankful that we were able to know him and be witnesses to his life. As we start to bring more boys into the duplex we will remember our friend and our great love for him. His life mattered. You were loved, our Vova. You mattered to us. I’m sorry we couldn’t get to you fast enough. We will never forget you.

I’ll leave you with Vova’s laugh. This is how we want to remember our friend. Happy, curious, and gentle. Precious, and of immense value.

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A Week to Celebrate

This week has been one for the books. It has been a week in which dreams have been fulfilled and what once seemed impossible became possible!

This week the duplex has a family! It’s no longer just a building site, but this week it became a home. We are so thankful and so excited.

For a while we had been thinking about and praying about the possibility of Anton living in the duplex with Max and Morgan. We are still waiting for Sasha’s guardianship to become official, and we felt pretty strongly that Anton would be happier if he lived in the village, closer to us, and in a place with more support. Lesya and Masha have lived with Anton in an apartment since June and they have done a wonderful job with him. He is healthier and stronger than ever. He is also more emotionally healthy. Still, living with him is plenty challenging, and everyone agreed it would be more sustainable for all if Anton was in a place with larger net of support.

So, this past weekend Masha, Lesya, and Anton joined Max and Morgan in the duplex and we are all just really, really happy about it. The girls have agreed to live in the duplex till the summer, in order to help with the transition of Anton, and later, Sasha. They are helping Max and Morgan learn how to live with our boys, and also helping them with all the language needed to communicate with the boys. It seems like it will be a great fit. Ruslan moved into Anton’s old apartment with Luda and Nazar, and that’s great too, because Anton’s old apartment is nicer and bigger. Win win!

I can’t even accurately describe to you how it feels to have life in the duplex. We have dreamed of a community like this for so long. We have an amazing community in our team, but to have community, right here, out our back door is a literal dream come true. We are living life together, with our boys, as friends and family and it’s just so beautiful. I’m sure it will have it’s challenges- because…humans. But, I really feel God’s smile on this. This is the life our boys deserve.

The timing seems just about perfect too, because today Jed finally began the guardianship classes required to bring Sasha into the family. We have been waiting since September for these classes to start. FINALLY!!! The classes last until mid-March, and then hopefully all will be in order for Sasha to move into the duplex. That gives Anton enough time to get adjusted to his new digs before Sasha joins. We are all eager to see Sasha again and bring him from darkness into light. So much love awaits him!

Thank you, thank you, thank you to each one of you who has prayed and encouraged and given money over the past years. The dreams are becoming reality. It’s such an exciting time to be a part of this work. Wahoo!

PS: If you haven’t heard yet, we are doing a BeLOVE[d] t-shirt/sweatshirt fundraiser! It ends on March 2. 100% of the proceeds will go toward finishing the second side of the duplex. Click the link below to buy a t-shirt 🙂

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About a Hero Mama and Her Son

It’s Story Time. 🙂 This story doesn’t have an ending yet. It’s ongoing, but the outcome is looking very promising.

Back in July, we were out working in the garden when we got a call from the Director at Romaniv. He had a mother with him in his office at the institution, and she wanted to give up her adult son. Because of COVID and institution restructuring, they weren’t accepting any new boys at that time. But, the mother was at her wits end, so he called us. He asked if she could come to our house and talk to us about her options.

An hour later we met one brave mama.

Have you ever wondered what kind of parent would willingly leave their child in a terrible place like Romaniv? Have you ever said the words “How could they? I would never ever.”

I have. I have wondered and I have judged and I have said “I would never ever.” But I’ll tell you what, it’s only by the grace of God that I have never. I used to judge those parents, and I judged them harshly. But, that was before I better understood their circumstances. Now I realize that if not for Jesus and the outrageously privileged circumstances into which I was brought up, it could be me. It could be you.

I would never condone a parent leaving their child in an institution. Never. I’m not saying I agree with the practice. Please don’t read that. What I am saying, is that in a country like Ukraine, with absolutely zero safety net for families with children with special needs, sometimes it seems they have little choice. Add in the fact that most of these families don’t know Jesus, are living in poverty, and are in a culture that absolutely does not value their child, – and calling their circumstances an “uphill battle” is putting it insanely mildly.

Take that mama who came to our house on that July day as an example. She is a single mama of 2. She and her husband are separated and he is not involved at all. Her older son, Siri, is 23 and has an intellectual disability. He also has some mental health issues for which she has found zero help from doctors. Siri used to attend a boarding school for children with special needs, and he was happy there. Then, when he turned 20 and aged out of that program she had nowhere else to turn to for help. Siri, a social guy who was used to spending lots of time with peers, was suddenly home alone all day in an apartment while mom had to work. He really isn’t safe to be home alone, but what other option was there? With no extended family willing to help, and no programs offering assistance of any kind, the family was forced into an extremely unsafe situation.

After many months of being home alone all day, trapped in an apartment, Siri began to decline. He stopped using the toilet, stopped feeding himself, and eventually stopped talking. This young man who used to thrive in the company of others, who could even read and write, was now dependent on his mother to (literally) run home every three hours to feed him, change him, and make sure he was okay, before locking him back inside for his own safety. Then an already impossible situation became even more difficult when Siri became aggressive and explosive. COVID forced his younger brother to learn from home, and the two boys at home alone all day was just absolutely not sustainable. But still, what could mom do? She was 100% on her own with no support and no help. In order to keep her younger son safe she felt she had to put Siri in an institution. This hero mama who had raised her son alone for 23 years was at the end or her rope.

It seems like a nearly impossible thing, to raise a child with special needs, alone, in a culture that has some built-in supports like Medicare and public schooling. But it is a whole other beast to raise a child like Siri alone in Ukraine. This society says our boys have no value. Finding appropriate medical care for them is daunting and nearly impossible (no exaggeration). The government gives zero help, and even walking down the street is a constant reminder that this culture will only accommodate the able-bodied and independently-capable. I find raising our boys here a super difficult task- and I have a whole team of help!!! I remember how scared we were when Anton became aggressive toward our kids. I had Jed there to help me- and it was still scary and confusing. We felt so helpless. I can’t fathom the hopelessness and fear that this mom has felt. Whichever decision she made, it was like she was choosing one child over another. Hers was 100% a lose-lose situation.

After meeting with mom on that hot July day, we spoke with our team about how God might be asking us to step in and help. Mom was still pretty determined to place Siri in the institution, but was agreeable to our help while she waited for a spot to open up for him. We started including him in our weekly art class and group activities on Fridays. He was withdrawn and shy, but his mom seemed mostly happy for him to have the outlet.

The day we met Siri

Over the past several months we have watched Siri change into a different person. It’s actually pretty incredible. We are starting to see the boy he probably was when he was in school. He has slowly learned that our team and our boys are a safe place for him. He has begun to dance, to sing, to hug. He has a light in his eyes when everyone is all together. He has found his people. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows. There have still been some pretty rough times at home, but, thankfully, they are countered with good times- times of growth and happiness.

A few days ago mom called Tanya, our teacher, and told her that a place had opened up for Siri at an institution in our region. She was on her way to check it out. She had only a few days to make a decision as to whether she would place him there, or the spot would go to someone else. Tanya was at our house when she called. We stopped and prayed. We asked our team to stop, wherever they were in the city, and pray. So many people all over the world were praying! We cried out to God to intervene. We asked for his mercy over this family. We asked for His will to be done. After the visit, mom had a lot to think about. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, and we just waited and prayed. Then, finally, when our team was all together at the mountains Tanya got a phone call from her. She had decided to turn down the placement. Siri would stay home with her! Praise God. A few of us might have cried tears of relief. 😉

Now comes the road of figuring out how to help mom keep her son for the long haul. Now is the time to figure out how to make their living situation sustainable and safe for all. Now, more than ever, we need God’s wisdom for how to hold this mama’s arms up.

Would you pray with us for Siri and his mama and brother? Pray that God gives this hero mama strength. Pray that she would come to know Jesus and his never-ending love. Pray for our team, that we would have wisdom about the best way to help this little fam. Thank you!

Evie brings out the best in everyone 🙂

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A Tale of 15 COVID Tests

I was at a bit of a loss as to how to name this post.

Some contenders: “A Tale of (a lot more than) 2 COVID Tests”, “An Absurd Tale of COVID Testing in Oregon”, “What I Gotta Do to Get on an Airplane??”, “COVID Testing Before Travel: A Tale of Woe”, “How to Unsuccessfully Exit the USA”…and so on and so on. You get the idea.

We made it home to Ukraine, but the events leading up to our departure were anything but straightforward. They were more poke-your-eye-out type events that involved me crying on the phone to Walgreens pharmacist on more than one occasion. Face palm. Not my finest hour.

A couple weeks before we were scheduled to fly from Oregon to Ukraine we got an email from our airline that stated the Netherlands was requiring COVID testing in order to transit through their airport. Me, being naive about COVID testing in Oregon thought “Hey, no big deal. We’ll figure that out the week we leave.”

The week of our departure arrived and I started looking around for where we could get tested to fulfill Amsterdam’s requirements. They required the test be a PCR test, conducted within 72 hours of arrival in Amsterdam, and the results in hard copy had to be presented before boarding at your initial departure point. Welp, after much digging, and doing rapid testing that was the wrong test altogether (BTW, try doing 8 self-administered tests in a 15 passenger van at a Walgreens Drive-Thru. I dare you. It’s like a fun exercise in team work….or something like that), we came to realize that Amsterdam’s requirements were basically impossible for us to fulfill. No one anywhere could guarantee that quick of a turnaround for PCR testing. We are a family of 9- we couldn’t risk failure. We had to know that we were going to be allowed to board and not be turned away.

So, we had to contact the airline and ask them to reroute us through a different country with more lenient COVID requirements. They rebooked us to fly through France the next week. France accepted rapid tests and they only had to be conducted within 72 hours of departure. That we could do. Although, I think France has now changed their requirements and are now more strict. We got out right in time!

We were scheduled to fly on a Friday morning. I had done my research and found an acceptable rapid testing site in a nearby town and booked us some appointments for Thursday morning. We arrived at the clinic to do the tests, got all the paperwork filled out, and then they dropped the bomb that unfortunately they would not be able to test us that day because our insurance didn’t cover the rapid test. “Oh, that’s okay” I said, “We’ll pay out of pocket. We have to have these tests done since we leave TOMORROW, so we don’t really have a choice. If we have to pay, we have to pay.”

They then proceeded to tell us they couldn’t accept cash from us since we were insured. What??? I’m offering you cash. Please just take it and stick a swab up my nose. Nope. They wouldn’t do it. No way were they going to test us. We were going to have to find somewhere else. Well, I hate to break it to you, but finding another place that would do 7 rapid tests that same day was an impossible task.

Jed and I sat on the phone for hours calling every single clinic we could find and no one would test us. We drove all around town to different clinics and begged in person. We called clinics 3 hours away! We were desperate. I was crying. Kids were crying. At one point Hava blurted out “I just want to go home and eat some borscht!!” It was ugly. It’s not that we were so desperate to leave our family and friends, it’s just that we’d been living out of suitcases for weeks and we had already delayed our return home by a week and we were just done. The stress of saying goodbye to family and friends is hard enough. It’s worse when it drags on and on and on. Plus, we knew Max and Morgan, the new house parents for the duplex, were arriving in Ukraine soon and we didn’t want them to arrive without us there to greet them. Ugh. It was such an emotion fest! The last week of our time in the US is always a little ugly anyway. This just took it to a whole new level. 🙂

Finally, after a couple hours of sitting in parking lots making unsuccessful phone calls, Jed called it quits. There was nothing more we could do. We were just going to have to rebook our flights again. My face hurt from crying and the kids were all hungry, bordering on hangry. We decided to head back to the grandparents’ house to regroup and figure out a new plan.

Then our miracle came. I pulled up to my parents’ driveway and my dad met us there. He had made a ton of phone calls and was able to track down a nurse practitioner friend who works at an urgent care clinic. In fact, that day was her first day working at the urgent care clinic where he found her. She spoke with her office manager and they told us if we could get there in an hour, they could test us. All of us. You better believe we were back on the road within minutes. It was an absolute miracle! I can’t even tell you the relief we felt. We were going home!

The biggest bonus to all of that craziness, was that Max and Morgan ended up flying home to Ukraine with us. They had also been scheduled to fly through Amsterdam, but realized they weren’t able to fulfill the requirements. So, we met up at LAX and flew the rest of the way home to Ukraine together. It was just perfect.

Traveling internationally during this crazy time in history is not for the faint of heart. I think I’m content to just stay home in my little village for a while. The days of COVID test acronyms, insurance policy numbers, health declaration forms, and googling “COVID testing near me” are behind us. We’ll just sit tight in the middle of nowhere Ukraine, thank you very much. 🙂

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Inside a Moment

Watch this 26 second video:

Our team sent us that video this past week and my heart melted. Tears filled my eyes and I couldn’t stop watching it over and over. Then I showed it to Jed and he kinda bawled his eyes out. I haven’t seen him like that for quite some time. It was a moment.

That video means so much to us because of the people in it, their stories, how our lives have become entwined and all that has led up to that beautiful moment in time. I’d love to break it down for you so you can see some of what we see when we watch.

The first boy I see is our friend Maxim. He is 34 years old and loves to tell that fact to everyone he meets by holding his fingers up in their faces. He knows how to count and is proud of himself when he counts correctly.

We met Maxim and his mama 6 years ago and have loved them ever since. Maxim is tall, quick to bear hug, only speaks a few words, but is as smart as a whip when it comes to math. He has always lived with his parents, but they are quite elderly, and after his older brother passed away they had no plan for who would care for Maxim after they are unable to do so themselves. A couple of years ago his mama approached us and asked if we would be willing to take Maxim into our Wide Awake family when they pass. “You don’t have to do much for him. Just help him with his clothes and make sure to cook him food.” Of course our answer was YES! And we’ll do more than just help him with his clothes and feed him. We will love him and care for him always. He will never be alone. He will never be placed in an institution. NEVER.

When we were at the sea in the fall our team felt like we needed to start incorporating Maxim into the life of our team, so every week, twice a week, he joins our boys for lessons and special time together. Because Maxim has always been loved and cared for, he doesn’t carry trauma like our other boys. His joy is like a little child. He adds something special to our family and is God’s gift to us all.

Next I see Ruslan, and then a glimpse of Anton: my precious boys. They wasted away for years- for decades- living like animals. Now they are celebrating Christmas, surrounded by people who love them and have given their lives so that they could live. They are known. They are happy. They are growing and thriving. In the good and in the bad, they are loved and accepted for who they are. BELOVE[d]

Then Kostya, sitting next to Masha, pops into the scene. Oh, my heart was so happy to see him there! Kostya lives with his courageous mama and is a great addition to our little group. Kostya has Down Syndrome and is also autistic. His autism makes it very difficult to engage with him. He is nonverbal and can get easily overwhelmed by new situations. But, oh man, he is perfect for us. He is just the kind of boy we love to love. He can be easily passed over in social situations, and it’s hard to know what’s happening in his mind, but our little company is great for him and his mom. Our teacher, Tanya, has worked really hard to keep connection with them and to help insure they are not isolated. They belong with us.

Oh, and then there’s Sergei! Look at that sweet smiling face. He’s showing us the ornament he’s made and he’s so proud of his work. Man, he looks so good, so healthy.

We met Sergei and his mama a few months ago when they were referred to us by the director of the institution. Sergei’s mama has been raising him all on her own and had reached the point of overwhelm many months earlier. Their situation seemed impossible, and his mama felt the only situation was handing him over to the institution. She couldn’t see any other way to move forward. Since then our team has worked so very hard to help keep Sergei in the home. They have encouraged mom, included Sergei in our classes and activities and brought him into the life of our team. We are praying and acting, doing whatever we can to keep this family together. We don’t know what the end of the story will be, but for now Sergei has new friends and he and his mama are a part of something bigger than themselves. Oh, my heart leaped when I saw his smiling face- happy and loved by friends. Please pray for his mama. She has been brave for so long. Pray that she will open up to our help and that she would know the Father’s love.

I see our team and Kostya’s mom, looking on with love and care. I know them and I understand what they had to do behind the scenes to make a little gathering like that come together. Oleg must have traveled all over town, picking everyone up and transporting them from their homes. Masha arranged the work schedule so there would be enough helping hands. Tanya planned the craft and made sure it was ready and developmentally appropriate. Max was there next to Anton, helping him to regulate his emotions within the bigger group. The candle was lit. I know music was playing- the atmosphere of love and warmth thought out and intentional. A gathering like that, with a group like that doesn’t just happen. It has to be thoughtfully created. But it is worth it that our boys would know they are loved and valued, and that they would feel Christmas cheer. 🙂

When I watch that video I remember the stories of how God brought so many different people together, people that 7 years ago we had no idea even existed, but are now our family.

Now go watch those 26 seconds again. Look into those faces and see what I see. I see beautiful, precious friends who were overlooked for too long, but are now celebrated. I see lives changed and I see love in action. Annnnd I’m thankful.

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