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. 😂 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 🙂 ) 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. 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.  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. 🙁 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” 😉 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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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!

BeLOVE[d]

Ruslan and Anton: The Skinny

Well, we’re two and a half weeks into life with Anton and Ruslan, our new additions, and I stole away for a few minutes to update you all on how it’s going. I know many of you have prayed for us and journeyed alongside us for many years and now the answer to our prayers are sitting downstairs on the couch watching cartoons. 🙂 Crazy, right?

“How’s it going with the new guys?” That’s the question everyone’s been asking, and a question that is impossible to describe with just one word. In general, I think Ruslan and Anton are doing really well. We didn’t know them as well as we knew Boris before he came to live with us, so we really had no idea what to expect. Although, we have learned with Boris that it doesn’t matter how well you know someone in an institutional setting. Once you get them out and into family life you really never know what they will be like. Boris is much different than I expected. So, we knew that we could not predict how Ruslan and Anton would adapt to “life on the outside”. So far I’m pleasantly surprised.

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At their first wedding!

Physical.  Ruslan and Anton both seem to be in pretty good health. There are some digestive issues that we have to work out, and some concerning results of lab work we had done, but most of that will probably resolve itself in time.  One of Ruslan’s feet has a pretty major issue that would probably require therapy and maybe surgery to fix. He walks with a very big limp and it looks so painful to watch him do stairs. 🙁 But, he runs and jumps and dances with the best of them. When we are out and about and are going to be walking more than just a little bit we make sure to bring a wheelchair for him. Anton is a pretty big guy, who we’re learning, benefits from PLENTY of exercise. He was waking up all night long hootin’ and hollerin’ and waking the whole house with loud laughter, but that is happening less and less. He still wakes up pretty early, but 6:00 is much better than 3:00!!!  He’s on the right track. 🙂

Emotional.  As you can imagine, our guys are in need of a great amount of healing. We know that their paths to healing may be very long, so we need to be patient. They both lived at Romaniv for more than 20 years and we don’t know where they were before that. They have been neglected and abused in every way you can imagine, and beyond what you can imagine. Pain like that doesn’t heal overnight.

Ruslan is a pretty anxious guy. He is verbal, so that helps a lot in easing his anxiety. When we are out and about he always wants to know where home is and when we’ll go back there. He always needs to make sure everyone is present and accounted for, and hey, I’ll take any help I can get in that department! Haha.  I remember when Vladik first came to us he was the same way regarding asking about home and needing to know which direction home was located. Ruslan is also a pleaser and wants to make sure we are happy with him. He needs lots of affirmation. He loves to help around the house and one sweet thing is that out of all four of our boys from Romaniv, Ruslan is the only one who shows interest in Evie. He talks to her, strokes her little hands, and has even picked her up a couple times! Yikes! 🙂 It’s really beautiful to watch him interact with her.

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Anton is often in his own world and takes a lot more intentionality to reach. He is happy to sit and play with his spinner for hours on end, so we have to work to keep him active. He’s the happiest, most content guy who has begun to laugh A LOT. His laugh is so jolly! We are learning that Anton is sensitive to noises and he gets pretty easily agitated by Boris’ many vocalizations. So, we have to make sure to give him space in those times because he can get a little aggressive. He’s just repeating what he knows, so we have empathy for him, but he also knows it’s wrong to hit, so he’s learning the not-so-fun world of good ol’ fashioned consequences (ie. missing out on a treat, or sitting in a chair for a few minutes without his spinner). Anton has a lot of insecurities about food so we are working hard on eating slowly, not hovering around the kitchen every moment of the day 😉 , and eating appropriate amounts. He doesn’t speak often so it’s hard to know what’s going on in that brain of his!

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Integration into Family Life.  This is the fun one. Ruslan and Anton are doing really great integrating into family life. Ruslan already told me he wants to learn to speak English. I bet he will too! He is so stinkin’ smart. Ruslan likes to join in on anything and everything that is going on in the house. He loves to be a part of the group. Anton is happy to join in too, but just needs more help to do it. They both love music and playing ball outside. They enjoy going on walks and, of course, going anywhere in the car.

As a whole, I would say our kids are adjusting pretty well to having Anton and Ruslan in the family. We’re dealing with the normal meltdowns that come with a major life change- there’s no escaping that. But in general, I’m super impressed with our kids and their adaptability. They are heroes.

It’s been a pretty huge adjustment for Jed and me. Our hands are now extremely full(er) :). Anton and Ruslan are doing well, but they also require a lot of attention. We’re trying to nip institutional behaviors and teach new behaviors to replace the not-so-pleasant ones. That requires a lot of time. Teaching hygiene, manners, appropriate interpersonal interactions, safety…we are starting from the ground up and it’s pretty intense. Vlad and Seth have experienced some regression since their arrival, so we are working through that as well. And then there’s Boris…yeah, he doesn’t love sharing attention AT ALL, so he’s pretty challenging at the moment. Basically, in this phase of life, from the moment we get up in the morning till the moment we lay our heads down at night we have to be “on”. There are just a lot of moving parts around here and a lot people needing different levels of supervision and interaction. It’s a lot. More than ever we are aware of our deep need to abide in Christ. There is no way we can do this without His help.

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Evidence of the one time we took EVERYBODY grocery shopping. Not quite sure why we attempted that…hehe

Monday, Wednesdays and Friday we have one of our Wide Awake interns here helping us, and then Monday through Friday Kenny is here with us during the day as well. We’re working with the interns to develop an educational plan for the boys (Boris included), but it’s slow going. Right now they are still adjusting to life outside of Romaniv, and we’re okay with that. The interns and Kenny help us keep everyone engaged, active, and safe as they learn about the world around them.

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At the car wash with Kenny

That’s a glimpse into our life at the moment! It’s a bit insane and there’s definitely never a dull moment. Lots of laundry. Lots of cooking. Lots of noises. Lots of correcting and guiding. But also, lots of laughter. Lots of new experiences. Lots of love and memory making. It’s a raw kind of life. The good moments are so very good, and the bad moments are kind of horrible. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns- definitely not romantic. But, it’s the life we have chosen and our yes to the Lord. It is beautiful in it’s own way. We are learning about our own weakness and humanness and learning what it means to lay our lives down. Jesus is so faithful to meet us right where we are when we need Him most. I’m so thankful for that. I really am thankful for the opportunity to see my great need for Jesus every single day.

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Jed took the guys to the Black Sea!  

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Both guys love working out in the woodshop with Jed

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Thank you for loving our big ol’ messy family. We are so thankful for your love and support. Please, when you think of us, pray for us. We appreciate it so much!