The Lonely

Yesterday we got Anton and Ruslan’s medical histories from the institution. Oh my heart. Twenty plus years of their life, summed up in doctor’s chicken scratches on paper yellowed from time. We know the basics of how they spent the last 20 years. They sat on benches inside in the winter, and sat on benches outside in the summer. End of story. The medical files are the only hints we have of any significant life events outside bench- sitting.  They are our glimpse of our boys’ past- those, and a photo of each boy from time gone by.

My heart leapt and sank when I saw the photos. My babies! Oh my dear ones, I’m so sorry you had to wait so long. I’m so sorry you had no mama to comfort you, no papa to guide you. I’m so sorry you endured such abuse and neglect when you could not defend yourselves. You were so young, so small. My heart is broken for the little boy left at Romaniv alone and afraid.

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Ruslan, age 10

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Anton, age 16

Our life here is a full one; full of responsibilities and full of people. But our life here is also a lonely one. Our lives are completely absorbed with the care of people whom the society has thrown away. Our time, energy and love is wrapped up in people who are not accepted in this country. Our work is isolating. Couple that with language barriers and cultural difference, and then add the distance from loved ones…sometimes the loneliness of this life threatens to overwhelm.

The other night I was rocking Evie to sleep in a quiet, dark room. My thoughts were wandering and all of a sudden I was completely overwhelmed by loneliness. It washed over me like a giant ocean wave. I’d never felt anything like it. Evie wasn’t asleep, but I had to leave the room, lest my mind wander to a verrrrrrry dark place. I wept as I longed for family and friends far away. I lamented my lonely and often isolated existence in my Ukrainian village. I wished for the peer relationships with other moms that are non-existent at this time of my life when I need them so badly. If there ever was a “woe is me” moment- that was it. Not.pretty. Yikes.

I share that story not to bring pity on myself or to fill my inbox with messages from concerned friends, but to share what I am learning from it.

The feelings of loneliness I have are only the tip-tip-top of the iceberg of the loneliness our guys lived with their whole lives. In Anton, Ruslan and Boris we are seeing the effects of how 30 years of utter aloneness and helplessness shape a person. The effects are devastating. In my own loneliness, which greatly pales in comparison to the life they have known, God is granting me greater empathy and compassion for the boys I love so dearly.

I may feel alone, but-

I am surrounded by my family who love and care for me. They were abandoned by their family.

I chose this life that I’m living, and the sacrifices that come with it. They had absolutely no choice or agency in their situation. They were completely helpless. 

I have always been taught, and have always known that I was loved by God first, and also by many people. They had no one to teach them or comfort them. 

I have hope. I know that this work, this life is exactly what God has asked me to do and I trust that He will give me the grace to do it. They had no reason to hope. They lived in hell and were prisoners, innocent of any crime.

I do believe and trust that God comforted them while they were in the institution. I believe that He fathered them in ways we could not see. His word says that He is a Father to the fatherless, so I know it has to be true. At the same time, there is the reality that they were abused and neglected in every way- for decades. I can’t explain that paradox. I know both sides to be true and I guess I just won’t be able to make sense of it this side of eternity.

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Boris, age unknown

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Baby Vladik

Jean Vanier, a great man who has spent his life living with and loving people with intellectual disabilities, said “To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unloveable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain.”

Ruslan, Anton, Boris, Vladik. I weep over the many years they had to taste that loneliness. I look at the pictures of them as little ones and wonder at what could have been, had they not waited so long.

In Ukraine alone, there are thousands of children and adults who are helpless and alone in institutions. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Do you have room at your table for one more? Do you have love in your heart to give? Could you reach out and give of yourself so that one more soul could know the love of a family? No child, no adult should be alone and if you have the ability to help, then by all means- do it. It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. If all that is standing in your way is your desire for your own comfort, then it’s time for something to change.

Adoption is messy and uncomfortable and hard. Let’s be honest, it’s so much easier to not adopt. Like 500% easier. But this life isn’t about doing what’s easier. It’s about chasing hard after Jesus and running the race full-on till the race is complete. If you are alive, then your race is not complete. If running hard after Jesus means laying down your life so that another may truly live, then just go ahead and do it. If adoption is meant to be your YES and you are still saying NO, please reconsider. Someone is waiting for your yes, and the sooner you can get to that someone the better. If adoption isn’t supposed to be a part of your race, that’s perfectly okay! Just figure out what your YES is and get busy doing it.

In this month of November, this National Adoption Month, please consider again if adoption should be your YES. Consider again how you can make space in your heart and home for the lonely. Consider laying down your life so that others may live. Say YES!

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I remember that night as clear as day. I remember the night we drove to the institution, knowing only that one little boy was dying and we had to do something about it.

He was new to the institution, having arrived the week before from the baby house. He was sick upon arrival and was quickly sent to the hospital. The hospital said there was nothing they could do for him: “His brain is dying”. So they promptly sent him back to the institution to die. We had seen him just the day before, and although we had never met before and had no baseline, we didn’t think he looked too concerning. I’m an RN with many years of experience and I never would have imagined that the next night he would be on his deathbed. He looked pale, stiff, eyes with circles under them from exhaustion, but many of our boys look like that and they are not actively dying. I thought he looked fragile, but I did not fear for his life.

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The first day we met

I was wrong. Because now that I know this precious, precious boy I can look back and see how very ill he was that night. He was a shell of a boy. His body was there, but his soul was just barely hanging on. The boy we saw that day should have frightened the heck out of me. He was oh so sick. We just didn’t know.

Late at night, the day after we first met him I was contacted by some ministry friends who told me that he was dying and the nannies didn’t expect him to live through the night. I was shocked. What???  I just saw him! How can this be? A few of us from the team rushed to the institution late in the night to see if there was anything at all that could be done to save his life.

It was a fight. It was a battle I’ll never forget. I remember standing on the sidewalk outside the Isolation Hall. All around us was dark, save the moon above us, the four of us were discussing/arguing about what to do next. We were panicked and knew time was not on our side. In the end we had to pull connections at the very top of the Ukrainian government to get our boy to the hospital. But, God made the way and to the hospital he went. From the local hospital he went to a regional hospital, then to a hospital in Kyiv- creating waves at every stop.

His story reached many people all over Ukraine. Top Dogs in the Ukrainian government took a big interest in his story and a fight for life became no longer just about him- but he began to represent the thousands just like him: forgotten, neglected, deemed unworthy, deemed a waste of time and resources. News stories were broadcasted and people rose up in outrage. This little boy whose life was miraculously saved that night in a rural institution became a type of poster child for orphan reform. His life became a voice for the voiceless.

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In the hospital in Kyiv

Eventually our little one, we’ll call him “Andy” (Addy’s name choice) 🙂 was released from the hospital and went to live with a sweet family from our church- an older mom and her two adult daughters. The plan was that he would live with them for a short time while his birth mom decided what she wanted to do: take him home, or sign away her rights and release him for adoption (returning him to institutional care was never an option any of us considered). The weeks turned into months and the months turned into a year, and the foster family fell in love. Andy has become a member of the family and he loves them just as much as they treasure him. And oh, how he has thrived in the light of their love.

The time has now come- the time we anticipated and dreaded all at once. The time has come to find our Andy a forever family outside of Ukraine. Mom decided that she is just not able to give him the care that he needs and deserves and she has signed away her rights. Our sweet foster family, as much as they adore Andy, recognize that he will never be able to live up to his full potential here in Ukraine. He needs therapy and medical attention that is simply unavailable here. They cry just talking about me writing this blog post, but they love him enough to let him go.

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So, I’m turning to all of you, asking for help. The time has come to find the family that is perfectly suited for our boy. I am absolutely confident that they are out there.

Let me tell you more about Andy. He is 7 years old and has lived most of his life in family. He lived with his mother and father until they felt they couldn’t care for him anymore, and then he spent a year and a half in institutional care before moving to live with our foster family. Because of that, he does not have the institutional behaviors you see in our boys at Romaniv. He has endured trauma, there is no doubt about that, but he has also known the love of a family and has been very well-loved at that!

Andy has Cerebral Palsy and this is his great challenge. He is not able to sit up, stand, or walk independently- but he sure wants to! He tries to mimic people and say words, but does not speak fluently. He is not toilet trained at this time. His muscles just do not listen well to his brain, so his ability to feed himself or do much independently is limited. He is so smart. He understands everything and knows what he does and doesn’t want. Don’t let his disability trick you- he is fully alive in there and I can’t wait to see what he has to say once he is given more ways to communicate. Other than his CP diagnosis, he is a fairly healthy boy. He gets the occasional respiratory infection, but he is growing and developing in a healthy manner.

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He wants to stand and walk so bad!

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Andy enjoys cars and trucks and toys of all kinds. He needs some help to play with them, but he does like to play. He loves to watch cartoons and to color…he enjoys age-appropriate activities, he just needs help in order to engage. His arms move unpredictably and the spastic nature of his CP makes intentional movement extremely difficult. He absolutely needs consistent therapy.  Andy is social and likes to be with people. He is firmly attached to his foster family and it’s easy to see how he loves them. He prefers them over anyone else and cries when he is separated from them. He even sleeps in their arms! I told you he is well loved. 🙂

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Andy is now available for international adoption and we are actively seeking a family. This adoption will be different than any other Ukrainian adoption I know of, because Andy will be adopted while living in the foster family- not from an institution. The high-ups in the government who personally care about him have worked to make that exception possible. The adoptive family will be well-supported in Ukraine as many, many  people have a very personal interest in Andy and his well-being. He is loved by many. The Ukrainian portion of the adoption will be well-supported by the government. The foster family is an absolute wealth of knowledge and would love to be a support to the adoptive family in whatever ways the family wants.  In other words, if you step off the ledge for this one you will not be alone. We are here for you and our love for Andy compels us to do anything and everything we can to make his adoption a success.

Saying yes to adopting Andy is no small decision. He will require a lot of care- especially in the beginning as he will be separated from everyone he loves. His care is physically demanding too. He’s getting to be a big boy and he can not care for himself at this point.

But, oh the joy. Oh.the.joy!

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Out of the many thousands of children in institutions all over Ukraine, God chose this one. He plucked Andy from his deathbed in the dead of night from an institution in the middle of nowhere and saved his life. He was mere hours away from dying- this beautiful, amazing, smart, happy boy was almost lost to us. But no. God saw him and acted. God has used Andy’s life to be a voice for others and I believe He will continue to do that.

He is one special boy and I have no doubt that his adoptive family will be blessed beyond measure by his life.

Will you help share him with the world?  Please share this post and please pray about your own response. Are you the family that is missing their son?

If you have any questions about Ukrainian adoption in general, or more specific questions about Andy you can email me at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org and I will be happy to talk with you. Video can be made available to interested families. 

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.

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. 

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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!