Winds of Change and a Voice

A couple weeks ago at church, a friend introduced us to her friend, who then met Vladik, and this story began.

The friend we met, Vera, is a local activist here in Zhytomyr.  She is involved in some local politics and has a passion for children and adults with special needs. She is particularly passionate about developing inclusive education in our city.

“Inclusive education is based on the simple idea that every child and family is valued equally and deserves the same opportunities and experiences. Inclusive education is about children with disabilities – whether the disability is mild or severe, hidden or obvious – participating in everyday activities, just like they would if their disability were not present. It’s about building friendships, membership and having opportunities just like everyone else…Inclusion is about providing the help children need to learn and participate in meaningful ways.” source

Inclusive education, as a general practice, does not exist in our city, nor throughout the rest of Ukraine. There are places where inclusion is more possible than others, and of course I can’t speak to the whole country or to every school, but in general it is not practiced. Here in Zhytomyr, at this point in time, inclusive education is only available to very few children with disabilities, and generally it is only available to children who’s parents have fought, and continue to fight, a very hard fight to make it possible.

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At a press conference about inclusive education

The schools and school system in our city are simply not set up at all for children who need extra help.  We have learned that just from having our own non-native speaker children in school here! Our kids’ “special need” was that they lacked language, and the schools just were not sure at all what to do with them because they didn’t fit the mold.  It is not the fault of the teachers, or even the schools themselves, it is the fault of a social system that has spent decades hiding those who are different. If children with special needs do not exist in a society, then there is no need for society to adapt for them. For many years it was the practice to institutionalize people with disabilities, but that is slowly changing.  More and more Ukrainian families are choosing to keep and raise their children. As more children with special needs are living at home, the need for education and inclusion for them is becoming more and more apparent.

This is not an issue isolated to Ukraine. All developing countries must face this issue at some point. In the US we have come a long way, but we really didn’t start addressing the issue of inclusive education until a few decades ago. So this is not me pointing a finger at Ukraine- as if the Ukrainian people are alone in this injustice; this is me knee deep in the fight for my son, here in Ukraine.

Now, back to the story. 🙂 Vera, our new friend, had heard about Vladik, about where he came from, and about the fact that he attends school. She was fascinated by it and asked if we would be willing to speak to the local news about our quest for education for Vladik. We agreed to meet, a bit leary in the beginning, but open to a discussion. We want to be very careful with how we expose Vladik to the news. His story is painful and tender and deserves to be shared in it’s entirety. Vladik is too precious and he has fought too hard to be reduced to a sound bite that induces guilt or pity. In my opinion, he deserves a standing ovation!

We met with Vera and agreed to share Vladik’s education story, but we wanted to make sure the focus was about how he is thriving, and not only about where he came from. She agreed, and two days later our boy was cheesin’ it up for a camera crew, charming them all with his awesomeness.

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We thought he would be nervous, but boy were we wrong! He absolutely loved the camera! He proudly showed how he gets ready for school, how he knows which bus to take and where to walk. Most of all, in my very biased opinion, he showed that he is a wonderful boy who is valuable and smart and deserving of an education, just like every other child. Here is the video:

When we decided to adopt Vladik, we felt like the Lord was telling us that Vladik would be a voice for those who have no voice. At that time we thought maybe that meant that someday Vladik would become a speaker who would share his story with others, many years down the road. And maybe that is still going to be true someday, but, wow have we been surprised how God has decided to use Vladik as a voice already!  Here in his own country! Vladik is not necessarily being a voice with his words and speech, but with his life, with his joy, with his courage. He is showing his own people what is possible. He is showing how someone who was locked away for all of his childhood is still capable of learning and growing and changing, if only given the chance. He is a voice of hope for all of the children left behind.

The follow-up to the short news story about Vladik was a live interview on a local evening TV show. Gosh, I wish I would have realized it was going to be live before we got there. That was a bit of a shock! Ha! Anyway, we survived. 😉 In the first half of the show Vera interviewed Jed and me, along with one of the teacher’s from the kids’ school. We got the opportunity to share why it’s important to us that Vladik go to school. In that we were able to naturally share about his value and his worth as a human. It’s important for Vladik to go to school because he is a child and he wants to learn! He wants to be with other children and have experiences and gain independence and learn new things. He was robbed of so much in his life and we, as his parents, are obligated to help him grow to his fullest potential- however that may look like. It is our privilege to fight for him and the ones who will come behind him.

The second half of the show was what rocked my world. Vera interviewed a foster mom (our friend who fosters sweet “Baby A”) and three local mothers of children with special needs. Those moms shared about their experiences with fighting for inclusion in schools, and they said so many things that needed to be said- by Ukrainians, not by us foreigners.   They spoke about the first need being an inclusive society. Inclusive education is not possible without an inclusive society. They spoke about the value of their children and their desires for them being the same as every parent’s desire for their children. We were cheering them on (literally clapping and bouncing up and down in our seats) from the green room.

Many parents of children with special needs in our city, and throughout this country keep their children at home almost all the time. They are afraid to take them out because society as a whole does not accept them. Whether that means inaccessible public transportation and buildings, or just basically unaccepting people, the results are the same. It’s easier and less painful to just stay home. We have experienced this feeling many, many days here in Zhytomyr. Sometimes I get a horrible sinking feeling in my gut when I know we are about to go somewhere with Vladik. I know the stares and the finger-pointing and the mocking will come. I know that all my kids, including Vladik will hear it. I will wonder at his understanding and my heart will break for him. I know I will need to steer clear of groups of kids because that is when the staring is the worst. I know the cruel comments will come and I will wonder how to respond. It has become our reality- and yes, some days it seems like it would be better to just stay home. Vladik is loved at home. He is safe and understood.

BUT change will not come without exposure. People can not learn if they are not given the opportunity. Vladik, with his sparkling personality and loving, cheerful nature is the perfect person to teach others. To know him is to love him. If we keep him at home, hidden away, we are contributing to the problem, not being agents of change, as God has called us to be. Vladik loves to go out! He loves adventure and going on buses and seeing new things, meeting new people. If he is brave enough to face an intolerant world every single day- and do it with joy, then we can do it too.

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Our boy is a voice. In his own, unassuming way, he is standing up for all the families and children hiding in the shadows. As one of the local moms in the interview said in encouragement to families watching “Come out! Come out! Don’t hide anymore.”

The winds of change are coming. May God open and change hearts and may He receive all the glory.

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While the Light Remains

About three weeks ago two new little loves arrived at our institution.  We had been anticipating their arrival, wondering what they would be like.  Our Ben had recently vacated his crib (YAY!), and while our hearts were broken, knowing his crib would soon be filled again, our hearts were also expectant, knowing two new lives would enter ours, and knowing we would love them instantly.

We were right.  Love at first sight.

Sweet Baby A has been hospitalized almost continually since the transfer.  We haven’t been able to get to know him yet, but we love him nonetheless, and right now we are just thankful that he is alive and on the mend. 

Our other little love has us all smitten.  We are goners, and I can guarantee you’ll be one too by the end of this post.

Meet baby “Kayden“. 


COME.ON. How can cuteness like this exist?  Especially in a mental institution out in the boonies????  He is out of control perfection.  COME.TO.MAMA. 

I introduced him to you on FB yesterday and so many people were instantly in love.  We had let our kids name him “Sam”, after our friend Sam who just visited us last week.  Boy was I surprised when I found out that he had already been listed on an orphan advocacy site, and there were already people who had been trying to find a family for him!  They had named him “Kayden“, so we’ll just run with that.  Sam=Kayden=bundle of love. 


If you click on his profile on the advocacy site you will find a loooooong list of diagnoses.  Many of them sound very scary and many of them sound just plain confusing.  I get that.  But for just one minute, forget that list and look at the child.  

He is perfectly amazing.  He is beautiful.  He is pure sunshine.  He is giggles and smiles and hilarious expressions.  He is light in a dark place and HE DOES NOT BELONG THERE.  No child belongs there, it’s true.  But seriously, we have got to get this baby out, and we’ve got to do it quick.

The thing is, our institution ruins children.  It is all sensory deprivation and neglect and ugliness. Little Kayden has a spark.  He has life and light in his eyes and he doesn’t yet know that he has been sent to die.  Did you know that when baby houses transfer boys to our institution that they expect them to be dead within 6 months?  It’s true.  I’ve heard it from directors’ mouths.  Everyone knows that a mental institution is no place for a fragile piece of sunshine like this.  How can a child thrive in a place like this?  He can’t.  A mental institution is a death sentence.  It’s the end of the road. 

Unless. 

Unless one brave family looks at the child, and considers the diagnoses and decides to take a leap for the sake of a life. 

Kayden is available for adoption, and adoption is what will save his life.  

We have him in a room with our Isaiah where he will get good nanny attention, and that is good.  That is necessary.  He would most surely die if it weren’t for those special nannies.  But even the best nanny can not provide what a mommy and daddy can give.  Consider our little Ben!  He is home with his family and is gaining weight like crazy!  Our nannies could never get him to gain no matter how hard they tried. His mommy reports that he is starting to find his voice.  With us he was practically silent.  I’ve seen video of him smiling and laughing- that is not the boy we knew.  Now he is known.  Now he is loved.  Now he has light in his eyes.  Children were not made for institutions.  Children were made for families.  Our Vladik and little Ben are living proof of that.  

Kayden still has light and hope.  My heart longs for a family to scoop him up before we have to watch that light fade.  



Kayden is five years old and weighs 19lbs. Right now he only drinks from a bottle, but our team is trying to teach him to eat from a spoon. He can sit up, but he does not crawl or walk. Would you please consider our boy?  Would you please pause and ask God how He would like you to respond to this face?  Would you please share Kayden’s face far and wide so that his mommy and daddy might see him as quickly as possible and come to him?  Sharing works.  That is how our boys are being found.  We simply have to get their faces out there and then God does the rest.  Let’s get this baby out while the light still remains.  Ready, set, go! 

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If you would like more info about Kayden, please do not hestitate to contact me.  You can comment here, or you can email me at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org. You can find more photos of him, and info about the adoption process in his country here.

The Front Lines

Last night, in the middle of the night, we stood outside the orphanage, unsure of what to do.  A young child lay dying inside and never had we felt so helpless.  All the details of what transpired are for a later post, as a lot is still unresolved, but last night there was a fight for his life on all levels, and I will never ever forget it.  For now, he lives.  

Lately we have felt pressed on all sides.  Lately it’s felt like the difficulties will never stop and the obstacles will just keep on coming without relief.  Several times over the past couple of months we’ve said “Something’s gotta give.”  Some days we felt like we just couldn’t take one more challenge.  It all just feels like too much. 

BUT

Then we remember the big picture.  We are not simply fighting an injust system.  We are not just battling passport officers and city administrators and higher-ups only looking to fill their pockets.  This battle is not against flesh and blood.  

We are fighting for lives.  We are fighting for precious souls who have been discarded by the world.  We are fighting for God’s Kingdom to come in a very dark place.  We are fighting for glimpses of Heaven to break through.  And we do not fight alone.  God goes before us and this is HIS battle.  

Right now our team is on the front lines and we are advancing.  Look what God is doing!

Our sweet Stephan will have a family!  Yes, a family has committed to adopting our little love.  It’s a miracle. He will have a future.  He will be saved.  They are in the beginning stages of paperwork, but they love him and are fighting to get to him.


Two other families are still working hard to adopt Isaiah and Jonathan.  They have hit many roadblocks along the way, but progress is being made and we are confident that God goes before them.


The new roof is going up on our Wide Awake property house.  Every day brings us closer to bringing our boys out for good.

Next week our family will submit our documents for permanent residency.  Once we get permission to stay here forever it will be much easier for us to register Wide Awake as a Ukrainian non-profit.  That will be a big and necessary step toward getting our boys out.

Jed and Den, our pastor and board member, met with the Ukrainian Ombudsman for the Rights and Protection of children to discuss Wide Awake’s vision and plans.  The President’s office is aware of our team and the work.  Relationship is building there and who knows how God plans to use that? 

All of this is thanks to God.  He gets the glory for every single bit of it because there is NO WAY we could have strategized enough or worked hard enough for this kind of advancement.  We certainly would have screwed it all up.  God loves our Boys so very much and He is clearing the way for the freedom.  HE is doing all of this, not us.  

So, it is no wonder that we meet resistance.  It’s no wonder that with all of this amazing stuff happening that we meet obstacles of every kind.  It’s no wonder that our hearts get overwhelmed and we are hit with trial after trial.  It’s no wonder that we get afraid and intimidated and distracted.  The enemy will not give up his ground so easily.  

Last night, standing in the cold, knowing death was near, we were on the very edge of the front line.  We were in the line of fire.  Never in your life can you be prepared for a moment like that.  Never in your life could you imagine that you would need to convince medical professionals of the value and worth of a life.  

Friends, we need prayer like never before.  The battle is heating up and much is at stake.  We need supernatural wisdom like never before.  We need favor with government officials and orphanage administration.  We need to know when to push and when to hold back.  Most of all we just need Jesus.  We need to have his heart and his eyes. We need to remain humble and small in our own eyes, that He might be lifted up.  We need to simply say yes and give Him the control.  He loves our boys more than we ever could.   


Please pray for our new little one who is so sick.  I will give details as I am able. Thank you! 

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! 

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!