In Loving Memory

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

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

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


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

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

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

And now on to our precious Vova. Deep sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inside a Moment

Watch this 26 second video:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PRESTON: An Update + Video

Update 4/15: An adoptive family has stepped forward for Preston! They are currently compiling their adoption dossier as quickly as possible. If you would like to donate to their adoption fund follow this link: https://reecesrainbow.org/129794/sponsorrichardson2

THANK YOU to every one of you who has shared Preston’s story with the world. As of today more than 40,000 people have viewed the blog post about his urgent need for a family.

Please keep sharing! So far no one has stepped up for Preston. There have been many, many inquiries by email, Facebook and Instagram, but no one has taken the leap.

I can not emphasize enough that this is a race against time. A family must step up NOW. If you are one of those interested families, I’m sorry to rush you…but hurry up! 🙂

Certain questions about Preston have been asked several times, so I will answer them here.

Why can’t Preston’s current family adopt him? There is no doubt that Preston’s current caregivers love him immensely. They adore him and he is a genuine member of the family. They also went into this committing to care for him for one year, and now have passed the two year mark. They never took Preston in with the plans to keep him forever. His current family saved his life. They nursed him back to life and have sacrificed SO MUCH because of their great love for him. Their hearts will break to see him go. But they are not, and have never been, his permanent plan.

  1. Much like in the US, after a certain length of time in transition, a child’s case must move to a permanency plan. Preston’s time in transition has run out. His permanency plan is adoption- either domestic or international. He can not legally stay in his current situation.
  2. Ukraine does not allow single parent adoptions. He currently lives with a single woman and her adult daughter. Neither of them are legally allowed to adopt him.
  3. Both members of his current family have expressed more than once that they believe Preston would do best with a father in the family. He lights up around men and you can see he longs for that relationship that a father can provide. His current home can not provide that for him.

How can it be best for Preston to leave his country, culture and language and be adopted internationally? This is a question that is not easily answered in one paragraph of a blog post. So, so much in that question.

For sure, bringing Preston out of Ukraine into a family culture and language that is completely foreign to him will be very difficult on him. FOR SURE. There is no denying it. I am a huge advocate of keeping kids in their home culture whenever possible. The USA and other western countries are wonderful and have many amazing resources that we do not have access to further east, but I definitely do not believe that the USA and other western countries are the best place for every child.

So why do I advocate for Preston to be adopted out of Ukraine?

  1. I advocate for that because no one in Ukraine has stepped forward for him.
  2. Preston would greatly benefit from medical resources (therapy, medications) that are simply not available yet in Ukraine. He has so much potential, but lack of consistent therapy and doctors up-to-date on the latest in helping children with CP hold him back significantly. His CP is basically untreated at this point.
  3. He is a very smart boy, but Ukraine does not have special education, so he is unable to attend school. This breaks my heart because I KNOW he is so capable. There are no resources here for home education- least of all education of a child with any special needs.

We love Ukraine. Heck, we moved our entire family here, permanently. I am not some random person who is not personally invested into this country and her people. We have given our lives to being sparks of change here. So let’s get that straight: I love Ukrainian people. I am committed to Ukraine. I also am raising children and adults with significant special needs here in Ukraine and I face every day what it means to live with people in a culture that does not accept them. Change is coming slowly, but it is extremely difficult to  live in Ukraine with people with special needs. I’m not just talking about lack of accessibility, which is a big problem, I’m talking about the attitude of the society as a whole. Life here is an uphill battle for our guys every day and I’m not going to pretend that life would necessarily be better for Preston here.

If a child with special needs is born into a Ukrainian family that love him and are ready to fight for him then OF COURSE it is better for that child to stay in Ukraine with his family. That’s not even a question. On the other hand, if a child with special needs is born into a Ukrainian family that does not want him (like Preston) or feels they can not care for him and they give that child to the State, then it is in the child’s best interest for us to look as far and wide as we can until we find someone who will love and care for him.

Those are hard words to write, but it’s my love for Preston and thousands other just like him that compel me to point at the elephant in the room and not ignore it. If Preston is not adopted he will return to the institution where he nearly died, so no, when it comes down to him losing his language or losing his life, I will not say it is best for him to stay in  Ukraine.

If you have more questions about Preston or adoption please don’t hesitate to ask! I am happy to talk with interested families.

I wrote extensively about his needs here.  You can give a tax deductible donation to Preston’s adoption grant here.

Thank you for your continued advocacy! Please keep it up! Let’s find our boy a family.

I know I wrote some strong words about Ukraine. Of course there are many exceptions to this and a few of them come and work at our house every day. They fight alongside us for our guys and they, and others like them, will be the ones to change their country. 

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.

In Loving Memory

I was sitting at the doctor with Vladik yesterday when I got the text.

Our sweet Dima had left this earth, gone to be with Jesus. He was twenty-seven years old and he was my love.

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Dima had been ill and away in a special hospital for the past several months.  We missed him desperately and couldn’t wait for him to get well and return to us.  He did return last month, but to our dismay he looked terrible.  He was so much worse, not at all healthy.  He was thin and yellow and just so sick.  After only a few days he was taken back to the hospital, several hours away.  He died there a couple of days ago and was buried yesterday at the cemetery in the town of Romaniv. We went to see where his body was laid, surrounded by the graves of other boys gone before him.

We are shocked and just heartbroken. It wasn’t supposed to go like this.  He was supposed to be with us. We were so excited for the day when Dima would come live with us at the homestead.  We pictured him in our family forever. He was my special boy and I just knew that someday I would get to mother him the way my heart longed to mother him.  I so desperately wanted to watch him blossom and grow and come to know the love of a family here on earth.  But, God had another plan.

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Can I tell you about my Dima?  I want as many people as possible to know him and to see him for the precious, beautiful treasure that he was.  He was amazing.

When we first started going to Romaniv we hardly noticed Dima.  He was always tied to his bed because he wasn’t able to walk and was a fall risk.  He usually looked drugged and out of it, and just wasn’t able to connect with other humans on pretty much any level.  He was like a dead person. I’ve seen an old video of him from years ago and know that he wasn’t always like that, but somewhere along the way he was lost. 

In the summer of 2014 we started taking a few boys at a time to the Sensory Room to get them into a quiet environment where we could try to connect with them one on one.  I remember our team debating if we should even try to take Dima there.  He couldn’t walk, but was long, awkward and heavy.  One of the guys would have to carry him. Whenever we did take him there he would just sleep or zone out and it felt almost like a waste of time.  There were so few hands available, shouldn’t we be focusing in on the boys who seem to enjoy our company, or at least seemed to benefit from it?

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No, no, no.  Dima had been passed over for his entire life.  Drugged and left to sit in his own excrement for hours on end, his whole life he had been cast aside.  Would we be the next in a long line of people who had passed over him and thought of him as unworthy?  NO.

So, we kept taking him to the Sensory Room. And one day that summer, a miracle happened. Nina, one of our team members, was sitting on a bean bag with Dima in the Sensory Room.  She was just sitting near him, being with him, when she picked up a little toy xylophone.  She tapped tapped it next to his ear and he sat up! He looked at Nina with wide eyes, made some sounds and gave her the hugest smile.  Our Dima was awake! Nina was crying and laughing. In amazement we all jumped up and ran over to see. I will never ever forget that beautiful moment.

How is it possible that after a lifetime of suffering, when Dima finally awoke, his first response was a smile?  JOY. I can’t even comprehend it.

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Over the next two years we had the awesome privilege of watching Dima come more and more alive.  He still had many days when his mind was somewhere else, not wanting to, or not able to engage with us, but he also had many days when he was funny and smiley and would babble your ear off.  We all absolutely adored him. He learned to say “banana” and “Lala” (the Ukrainian word for a doll). Roma, one of our team members had a special love for Dima and was working to teach him to feed himself independently.  Every time he was at Romaniv, Roma would make sure to pick up Dima and get him out of his bed.  He would cuddle him on the couch and just enjoy being near him.  Our baby.

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I know that our grieving and mourning is more about us than about Dima.  He is finally free.  He’s definitely not grieving and he knows no pain.  He is made whole.  He can run! He can speak! He is healed and right now he knows the great love of the Father better than we can even begin to comprehend.

Still, we grieve.  We miss our friend and we always will.  My heart aches for the suffering he had to endure in this life.  I wonder if he was alone when he died?  Did he suffer?  Was he in pain? Did anyone at that hospital far away truly care for him?  Was he treated well?  Did anyone see him for the treasure he was? My heart longed to show him every day that he was loved, even adored.  I dreamed of how much he would blossom in the love of a family.  I so wanted him to experience that joy and peace here on earth. Why was so much of his life spent waiting for life to begin?  It’s hard to trust God’s ways in times like this. 

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But then I remember his joy that day, years ago in the Sensory Room. For many years humans had not been a positive thing in Dima’s life.  Humans had hurt him and neglected him and cast him aside.  But when awakened and faced with humans- he smiled.  The only way that was possible was if God was near to him in a way that we couldn’t see. God promises in His Word to be a Father to the Fatherless, and we have to trust that He keeps his Word. We have to trust that God showed his love to Dima in the deepest places of his mind and soul. We have to trust that even if he seemed to live this life so alone and abandoned, his Father in heaven never left his side, even for one second.

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It was the joy of the Lord that brought the smile to Dima’s face.

It was the peace of God that followed him when he traveled to the hospital far away.

And it was the goodness of God that allowed his suffering to end.

We will never forget our precious Dima.  We will miss him forever.  But may we never ever forget his joy in unimaginable circumstances.  Please, learn from his life. Choose joy today. 

Precious Dima, you were loved.  You were treasured.  You were longed for and wanted. We saw your beauty and we will never be the same because of you.  

Run free, my love.

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