Friday Night:Family Night

Last Friday we started a new tradition for our team. We had our first “Team Dinner”. I kinda want to call it “Family Dinner”. I think I will.

We decided that every Friday night our house will be open, and anyone from our team is welcome to come, eat dinner, drink tea, pray, worship, and just be together. I think we all need it. πŸ™‚

When Anton and Ruslan lived here, we were just too in over our heads to invite anyone over. The team was mostly all here during the day every day, and I’m pretty sure when the clock struck 5 they were eager to get the heck outta Dodge. I know I was…hehe. (laugh or cry, laugh or cry) A “Family Dinner” was not something that would have been super enjoyable during those times. We were all mostly just surviving. Then when Anton had to be moved from our home, he wasn’t really able to come back here. He had so much stress associated with this place, and so many emotions he couldn’t (and still can’t) articulate, him even coming near the door turned out poorly every time. So, Family Dinners were out of the question, as long as Anton wasn’t able to participate.

At a team meeting in August, I told the team that it was my dream and goal that by Christmas, Anton would be able to spend time in our house. We all agreed that we would bravely step out toward that goal. But I know it made everyone nervous. We all love him and so want him to heal and succeed-and he’s just soooo unpredictable. Anton is definitely a man of mystery.

We started out with a team party in the backyard towards the end of summer, and although there was stress, Anton did okay! We locked the doors to the house, and just made it completely inaccessible. It was a big step for him just to be here on the territory, and he did well. I’m not sure he really enjoyed himself, but he didn’t hurt anyone, so we called it a big fat win. πŸ˜‰

Then last month we had a bonfire at the back of the property and Anton did awesome. He was more stressed about the marshmallows than the location, so that was definitely a win!

Last Friday we decided to just go for it and we invited everyone over for the Family Dinner. Worst case scenario, Jed or Oleg would have to drive Anton home, right? He was quite stressed to be back in the house, but he was able to hold himself together, and I think he actually did really great. He even laughed a bit. It was so so wonderful to have almost everyone here, eating together, laughing together, and just being together. FINALLY. My heart was happy and full.

At one point we turned on the boys’ favorite worship songs and Ruslan was standing in the very center of the room, in the middle of everyone, just dancing and singing his guts out. I looked around the circle and saw how much everyone loved him and how they were delighting in him and I thought “This is how it should be.” Ruslan felt free to be fully himself, and he was surrounded by people who weren’t just tolerating him, or “allowing it”, but people who welcomed his tone-deaf singing and appreciated his signature dance moves.

Vlad was in the corner, beating his drum completely off beat. Anton was rocking. Boris was swaying. Our friend Maxim was with us and he was in turn reminding us for the 15th time that he’s now 34, and hiding his head under a pillow. All precious, all known, all appreciated and accepted for who they are, and all loved by a whole room full of people. I’m proud to call that room full of people my team, and I’m happy to also claim them as my friends and my Ukrainian family.

Friday Night:Family Night is here to stay. If you’re ever in our neck of the woods, consider yourself invited.

BeLOVE[d]

An Idea I’m Excited About :)

A couple days ago I got the best message from an American couple that live in Kyiv. I met them briefly on a trip to Ukraine before we moved here. Throughout the years they have followed the work and sent encouraging notes here and there to let us know that they pray for us. (Those kinds of notes are the best notes, by the way)

Last winter when it all hit the fan and we had to immediately remove Anton from our house, they let me know that they had been praying for Anton every night, and would continue to do so. In that terrible time, it was such a giant encouragement to hear that they were praying faithfully for our precious guy.

That brings us to a couple of days ago when I got another message from the couple letting us know that through all these months they have continued to pray for Anton every night. I was so shocked to read that! In that moment I was able to let them know that actually, Anton has really been struggling the past couple of weeks. They were thankful to know so they could understand better how to pray for him. It made me wish I had been sharing more about Anton with them all along.

Then I had an idea!

As we’ve been planning our transition off of social media, we have been trying to think of ways for the Wide Awake community to stay engaged. I love the “back and forth” we have on social media and I really love that so many of you feel that you truly “know” our boys. That is a beautiful thing, to know our boys have cheerleaders in their corner that rejoice with us in every little victory and cry with us when times are tough. I don’t want to lose that part of community. It is an important piece at the heart of this work: to know and be known.

I would love to gather like-minded people together into groups that would celebrate, cheer on, pray for, and share the beauty of each of our boys. I’m thinking we need a “Team Boris”, “Team Ruslan”, “Team Anton” and “Team Vlad”. Then as more boys are added to our Wide Awake Family, we can gather teams for them as well. We probably need to gather a “Team Sasha” too, seeing as how Jed will soon be his guardian. Woot!

What does it mean to join a team?

  • We will send each team member a postcard of their boy that they can put on their fridge as a daily reminder of the precious life across the ocean.
  • I will email the teams each month with an update on their boy, prayer points and fun videos and pictures.
  • If we’re going through a rough patch I can let the team know and they can pray, support and encourage.
  • If there is a big gain for one of our boys, the team will know and be able to celebrate with us. I know it would mean a lot to our team here in Ukraine to hear that support and love from others for the boys that mean so much to them.
  • I even had an idea for a live chat with the team and their boy every so often…now that sounds fun!
  • Edited to add: I will still give regular updates about all the boys on the blog and in the weekly emails. The “teams” are more about targeted info about that specific boy. You can totally join more than one team!

What do you think? Wanna join a team? We would absolutely love for you to join us in caring for our boys in this way.

How to join?

  • Send me a message and let me know which team you would like to join.
  • Make sure I have your email address so I can send you the monthly updates.
  • If you would like us to send you a postcard, please send us your mailing address as well.

I’m so excited to see what comes of this. This idea was prompted because you all have shown so much love for our boys over the years. Thank you for loving them and for seeing them. Thank you for looking past the diagnoses and seeing the people. I can’t wait to keep sharing them with you and I really can’t wait till we have even more boys to introduce!

Wide Awake is leaving social media on Monday, October 12. But that doesn’t have to be goodbye! We are sending weekly email digests, so all the goodness you usually see on social media lands right in your inbox. Sign up below to get the weekly emails. I promise not to spam you. πŸ™‚

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An Anton Update

We can’t thank you enough. All of you who have been praying, all who sent messages, all who emailed and called. Thank you for loving us, for trusting us, and for loving Anton.

It has been quite the two weeks. To be honest, it’s been quite the year. No, let’s be real honest- it’s been quite the 6 years. πŸ˜‚ But these past two weeks have been a DOOZY.

Thank God, He heard our prayers and He made a way for everyone to be safe and loved. We found an apartment for Anton and it’s about a 10 minute walk from a park by the river. Every morning he gets to go for a walk in his most favorite place ever. Huge blessing.

The big question of the hour was: who would live with Anton? Thankfully, God heard our prayers and provided there too! Two friends from church, guys in their early twenties are living with Anton in the apartment. He spends his weekdays with our team, like always, then in the evenings and night he is home in the apartment with his two new housemates. They get a free apartment and Anton gets two new friends. Win win. 😊 They are kind, peaceful, and gracious men. A wonderful woman from church is helping to care for him on the weekends. She just returned to Zhytomyr and needed work and we needed weekend help. Win win. 😊 We are so thankful!!! We are giving it a month and then we’ll reevaluate further.

Anton is doing okay. He is confused, but we just keep reiterating to him that this is a better place for him, a quieter place. The first several days were not pretty. So bad. So so bad. He wanted to come home really badly. We were all in tears, but we know that we know that this is the best plan for right now. We aren’t bringing him home to our house at all right now, even for visits, just because it would definitely be confusing and we feel a significant time away is best. Of course we still see him plenty, just not at the house. He likes the new guys he is living with and is mellowing out a bit. It’s been a huge adjustment for all, but things are definitely not getting worse. Yay!

We started Anton on an anti anxiety medication to hopefully take the edge off during this time. We are also working with a GI doc to get some other answers, but right now we’re waiting on test results before we know more. She wanted us to put him on a gluten-free, lactose-free diet, so that’s super fun to try to do in the Breadbasket of Europe. Ugh. Good thing Anton’s not obsessed with food or it would be really hard. <— (Insert my most sarcastic voice)

Overall it’s been super hard, but God has been faithful. Our team is the best best best. Jed and I are coming down from living in a state of constant vigilance and we are wow, so exhausted. We are also so thankful for our community here and for God’s provision.

Please keep praying. Pray that this living situation would work well and that we would get more answers about Anton’s health. Thank you!!!!

When Plans Must Change

This is a post I never imagined writing. In fact, we took all the precautions imaginable to try to prevent a post like this from ever happening, but, here we are.

This past weekend we had to remove our dear Anton from our home.

Anton has struggled off and on with aggressive behaviors basically the whole time he’s lived with us. It kind of surprised us because he was not aggressive at Romaniv. In fact, he was the most meek, quiet, subdued and shy man you could imagine. Almost all of the boys and men at Romaniv are aggressive to some degree. Aggression is the language of institutional life. And since Anton lived there from the age of 4 till we took him home at age 30, that was the language of his childhood, his teen years, and his adulthood. In an institution like that only the strong survive. The pecking order is well-established and the stronger abuse the weaker. It’s what Anton knows, but since he himself was not aggressive, we felt okay bringing him home. Also, we knew God said Anton was our family, so we listened.

Once Anton started to act out aggressively when upset or not feeling well, or when he didn’t get his own way, we were a little surprised (although not completely- we tried to be “prepared for anything”) and sad, but also hoped that once his language abilities grew and he felt safe, his aggression would diminish or maybe even completely go away. We still hope for that!

In the past month or so Anton’s aggression has dramatically increased. When awake he has been in an almost constant state of stress and keeping him from escalating has become a full time job. This past weekend it became obvious that it was not safe for him to be in our home with our children for even one more day.

Let me say right now that we are 100% committed to Anton- legally, and in our hearts. We love him so so much, and we know that this is not who he really is. He desperately wants to do the right thing. The real Anton is fun-loving and tender-hearted. We truly believe he doesn’t want to hurt others, but he is working through something and it’s not safe for him to work it out in close proximity to small children. Maybe this is a stage in his healing and he will come out on the other side even more loving and more like his true self, but while we are committed to helping him heal we also have to consider every person in our family. Boris and the little ones can’t be sacrificed during Anton’s healing process. He’s a full-grown man and his emotions are big. We realized this weekend that we had to find another way.

Right now we have Anton staying in an apartment in town and our team is taking turns staying with him. Today Jed is out with a realtor looking for a more long-term apartment that Anton can live in until the duplex is finished, and then we plan that he will live there. We are hoping to find 2 guys who will live with him in the apartment. He can spend the daytime with our team like always, and then have his evenings and weekends at the apartment.

Our hearts are broken, and in just the last few days our plans and ideas for our family have been turned on their heads.

When we brought Boris, Anton and Ruslan into our home we planned they would live with us, in our home, for life. But it seems God has other plans. Yes, the duplex is literally right outside our back door, but it’s still not what we had planned. At the same time, we have a responsibility to our kids, and we also know we can’t help transition other boys to the duplex and then next home after that if 100% of our attention has to be focused on just keeping the people in this one house safe. We have to have some margin in order to keep our family and Wide Awake, as an organization, healthy and growing.

Our dream of “family style homes” is still the dream. But God is kind of asking us to redefine in our minds what “family” means. Family doesn’t have to mean a mom, dad, and a bunch of kids. That scenario doesn’t work for every person- especially when we’re talking about people who have been so extremely abused and traumatized for so many years. Sometimes family needs to be smaller, quieter, more controlled, with fewer moving parts. We have 6 kids. Our home will never be quiet. In my mind it’s a peaceful chaos, but I think we are learning that it’s just not the best environment for our Anton. “Family” is a place where you are loved and accepted as you are. It’s a place where you are supported and encouraged to grow into your full potential. We can still provide that for Anton.

We’ve cried a river of tears over the last few days. My mind just keeps trying to figure out a way to keep him here, but I’m also in awe of how much more peaceful it is here without feeling like we have to protect everyone from Anton every minute. I didn’t realize how much of our hearts and minds and household routine were consumed with keeping Anton from escalating. It’s just not sustainable if we are committed to these guys for life and if we’re going to be able to bring more boys from the institution.

My heart screams that no one can love him as deeply as I love him. How can I entrust him to another? He must be so confused. He’s one of my babies and I know he loves me just as much. But right now he needs something that I can’t give him, and my heart needs to trust that God’s plans for Anton are good and He is not surprised by this turn of events- even though we are.

That’s where we stand now. We would so appreciate your prayers during this time. We need so much wisdom. Anton needs so much peace. We are visiting every kind of doctor available to make sure we are not missing some physical ailment that is causing him pain or stress. We will not give up on our boy.

We met with our team on Sunday night and were amazed and encouraged when we stood back and realized we were in a room FULL of people who love Anton and want the best for him. Jed and I are not alone in this. I thank God for our wonderful, loving, committed team.

If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask. We have no secrets and always want to be honest about the journey, while also maintaining Anton’s dignity.

Thank you for loving us and believing in this work.

BeLOVE[d]

Eight Months In

We’re coming up on 8 months with Anton and Ruslan and I feel like we’re slowly starting to come up for air. Caring for our guys is still pretty much all-consuming, but we have gotten in to a bit of a rhythm, and things are looking up!

Sometimes it feels like their progress is so minuscule, but then we look back and remember things we had to do a few months ago just to keep the peace around here and we see how far the guys have come. Very far!

Anton. Six months ago we were barely sleeping because Anton was up all hours of the night wandering the halls. I remember we used to have to turn off all the water to the house and unscrew all the downstairs lightbulbs before we went to bed every night because Anton would get up and try to take a bath at 3 in the morning, or shriek and hoot and holler at 2am so that we would get him up and feed him. We had to remove all options in order for him to be able to turn his brain off enough to rest and fall asleep. At one point Jed was sleeping on a couch in front of his door to remove the option of nighttime wanderings. Those were the days…yikes.

Now I can happily report that Anton goes to bed easily and doesn’t get up until at least 6:30 every morning. (knock on a biiiiiiig ol’ piece of wood πŸ™‚ ) His sleep success is thanks to a strict evening routine that we dare not stray from, and blessed medication. The combo of the two saved our lives.

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He’s saying a lot of words, and more and more often he says them at the appropriate times! He used to only really speak when he was angry, but now that’s not always the case. There are so many words in there and sometimes he’ll shock us with a “See you tomorrow!” (in Ukrainian of course) or something like that.

Anton gets stressed pretty easily, and when he doesn’t feel good, physically, he gets really worked up. In times of stress he is aggressive toward others, so that is a big bummer. I hate those times because I know he is just repeating what he’s seen his whole life and it’s not the real Anton. When he is in an aggressive mood it just becomes a matter of keeping him separate from everyone else and that is exhausting. I hope and pray that someday Anton will be able to express his emotions in ways that are less painful to others. We are doing all we can to help him learn a new way.

When Anton feels good and is at ease he is so joyful, sweet and fun-loving. He loves big bear hugs, dancing, toy cars and fidget-spinners. He enjoys stirring things in the kitchen and will gladly eat anything and everything you put in front of him. He has started to say “I love you” on occasion and this week he said “Mama” for the first time. Melt my heart.

Ruslan.Β To be honest, it’s hard for me to write about Ruslan because I’m unsure how much to share. Whenever I share about our boys I want to respect their dignity and respect their privacy. It’s so important for me not to overshare their personal struggles. At the same time, I always want to be honest about this process. It does none of us any good for me to pretend all is unicorns and rainbows when they so clearly are not. This is stinkin’ hard work for us, our team, and our boys every.single.day. Most of all for our boys. Learning to become a human after 20+ years of living like an animal is not an easy process to go through. They need our empathy and our compassion, but they also need our strength. They need to have a standard to rise to, expectations to meet. They need to know we believe in them and we want more for them because we love them!

Ruslan’s trauma presents itself as high anxiety and a need to be in control of everything. At Romaniv his world was small. The stressors were crazy HUGE, but there were few of them. His main priority there was keeping himself safe and keeping himself fed. Here in the real world, the wider world, there are many, many things outside of his control. There are so many more things for him to obsess about and be anxious about. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Β He wants desperately to control his environment, but when you live in a house with 10 other people you just can’t control every single detail. That is outrageously hard for Ruslan. Sometimes it seems like it’s only getting harder, only getting worse, but he has actually made some great strides in the past few months. A few months ago he was was having daily meltdowns and those really only happen on rare occasions now. You can see him ramping up for a meltdown, and then most of the time he can wind himself down. Not always, but most of the time. I’m so thankful for that!

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When Ruslan is relaxed and at peace he is hilarious. He has a great sense of humor and a compassionate heart. He really loves Evie and is mostly gentle with her. He loves to sing, and worship time at church is his most favorite thing EVER. The anxiety ridden Ruslan who acts out in fear holds back the real Ruslan. The anxious Ruslan is also extremely hard to live with. It breaks my heart because I want things to be different. So, we will continue to fight for him. We will fight to get him all the help we can so that he can live his life to the fullest.

We have waited a bit to see how things would play out with a highly structured day and several months of safety and now we have an accurate baseline for Ruslan. We are ready to seek out psychiatric care for our guy and see how we can best help him move forward. If you would pray with us for wisdom in this we would really appreciate it.

Health. As far as medical stuff goes for both guys, we’ve been slowly but surely getting things taken care of. Fridays have become our “medical day”, so Kenny and I try to tackle the different medical appointments on Fridays. We’re focused on dental stuff right now and that’s super fun since Kenny and I both HATE going to the dentist. I’m not sure how much moral support we provide, but we do our best. Hehe. Anton has one problematic tooth that should be fixed next week and Ruslan has a whole mouthful of problems. I’m not sure he’ll have any teeth left when we get finished. Poor guy. πŸ™ I’m guessing we’ll be exploring the world of dentures or implants in the near future. Anton has some physical symptoms that I don’t have answers for yet, but all in all I think they are both in pretty good health at the moment. Step by step we’re getting there!

I have to say that there is no way we could do any of this without our amazing team. Kenny and Oleg are with us Monday through Friday, bathing our guys, shaving them, taking them on bike rides, teaching them how to make tea, keeping them safe, talking them off the ledge, teaching them how to be men, loving them, comforting them, supporting us and all in all just being awesome. This really would be impossible without their help. We would have burned out months ago.

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Masha, Masha, and Lesya are also absolutely essential to the success of this home. “Harry Potter Masha” πŸ˜‰ comes to our home three times a week. She plans and organizes the guys’ schedule for the week and is learning to implement the plans that Olya, our wonderful OT, recommends. Masha’s work makes it so that we aren’t just spinning our wheels with the guys, but we are hopefully moving toward specific developmental goals. “Second Masha” and Lesya each come once a week and provide great additional support to our guys and the rest of the team. I love our team and can’t express how thankful I am that God brought each of them to our family.

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So, there’s a bit of an update on our two newest family members. If you have any questions about Anton or Ruslan, or the process of deinstitutionalization don’t hesitate to ask! My hope and dream for writing this out is that someone reading it will also feel called to this deep, difficult, and beautiful work. We need help and I know God will call the right people to join us. I also write this so that those of you who pray will know better how to pray for our family and our team.

To all of you who pray, support, encourage and love us from afar, thank you! We can’t tell you how much we need it and appreciate it. Thank you for partnering with us on this journey. We couldn’t do it without you!

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