Ruslan and Anton: Three Years Free

This past week was a big milestone for our family. We celebrated three years of freedom for Anton and Ruslan. Three years!! It seems like they have been with us for so much longer. It’s a little hard to remember life without them. Three years ago when we brought them out of Romaniv to join our family we committed to them for life. We committed to love them and care for them always. We naively thought we knew them then. Now I think of how much they’ve changed and I can see that we really didn’t know them at all. They had never had the opportunity to truly be known, and I’m incredibly thankful that now they are loved and known and treasured by many, many people.

If you’ve followed our journey for a while you know that life with Ruslan and Anton has not been an easy one. We have had our fair share of struggles along the way. When we committed to them for life we thought we knew what that would look like. We thought they would live with us in our home, like Boris, forever. Well, that dream lasted a year and a half, and then we realized it was 100% not sustainable. Together we have journeyed through times of great joy and great sorrow, great healing and great pain, great suffering and great hope. It has been a massive rollercoaster. BUT- I am happy to report that God has always been with us. He has never left us or our boys and he has always given us exactly what we needed. He has taught us and helped us and we are all better having traveled this path.

The day we took Anton and Ruslan home ❤️

Ruslan is living with Luda, a member of our team, and her teenage son, Nazar. They live in an apartment about 10 minutes away from our village and Ruslan is doing FABULOUSLY well. He is happy and thriving. Since living in the apartment he has grown so much in independence. We are seeing now the man that God created Ruslan to be and we are so proud of him. He brings us lots of laughs and his love for “cappuccinkos” rivals the biggest coffee fanatics’ out there. 😂 Ruslan still struggles a lot with the trauma of his past and life with him is not all butterflies and unicorns, but Luda has great patience and they really are suited so well for life together. God blessed us abundantly when he brought us our dear Luda. What a gift.

Anton is living in the duplex, right outside our back door, with Max, Morgan, and Sasha. Life in the duplex is the best of both worlds for our Antoshka. We learned that he’s not well-suited for life in a big family, and over time it became unsafe for him to live with our family since we have small children in the home. But, he really does best when he is close to us and can see us every day. He’s a mama’s boy and I love him right back, so the duplex is the perfect place for him. Also, the proximity allows Jed and I to be a support when Anton is struggling. Man, I’m so thankful for that home! Anton has also grown and changed so much in the past three years. He is saying more words and we are all learning how he communicates and what he needs in his environment to thrive. He still struggles with anger and aggression, but he is also learning about sadness. He is learning that it’s okay to be sad and not every negative emotion he feels needs to go straight to anger. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to make mistakes. Over and over our team shows him that he is loved no matter what. His road to healing has been a steep one, but we love him dearly and we will not stop walking with him.

Last Sunday, on the anniversary of Ruslan and Anton’s freedom, our family picked them up before church and took them out for coffee. It was the first time it was just the 11 of us since Anton and Ruslan lived with us. I can’t even tell you what a precious time it was. Every time I think of it I get all emotional! We have all come so far together. I just kept looking at their faces and feeling overcome with thankfulness that they are our family. I was reminded of what blessings they are and what an honor it is to love them and be loved by them. When our boys love, they do so without restraint. They have like a sixth sense about people and when they feel that you truly love them you will have a friend for life. They are our precious, precious gifts from God and I so needed that reminder.

Our Boys

Sometimes in the daily grind of life here our focus can shift. We can get caught up in problem-solving, scheduling, budgeting, and team management. Our boys can easily become problems to be taken care of or tasks to completed. We always love them, but their demands and needs are so great that if we aren’t careful they can become our “burdens” when God is inviting us to recognize that they are our blessings. They are so valuable and our lives are forever changed because of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I have had seasons of feeling burdened by the responsibility of our boys. The responsibility for their lives is huge! But that responsibility is an honor- not a burden. My prayer is that our hearts would always remain soft to our boys. That in the good times and the bad we would recognize that they are our blessings- our gifts. They bring us joy. They teach us to love unconditionally. In loving them and caring for them our own weaknesses are brought to light and we have the great privilege of working that stuff out and not being allowed to just sit in that place of weakness and selfishness. As their lives are changed, so our lives are changed. Not one of us remains the same on this journey of bringing the lonely into family. Praise God for that. ❤️

BeLOVE[d]


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

All About Sasha and Life in the Duplex

If you follow our team’s social media accounts or if you’re subscribed to our newsletter you already heard the wonderful news that Sasha is home! I’m finally getting around to writing about it in this space. Two weeks ago we got to bust him out of the institution for good. It was a long road of documents and jumping through too many hoops, but that’s all behind us, and our Sasha is now safe and sound in his forever home. We are so relieved and thankful. Thank you for all the prayer support along the way.

Sasha lived with his mother for his first 11 years and then was removed from her care and placed in the institution. I remember the day he arrived at Romaniv. He was so beautiful! He looked so innocent, so full of life. We were all devastated to see such a precious soul sent to such a dark place. He was affectionate, sought out eye contact, and could even sing songs; it was obvious that he had been loved. We knew his innocence wouldn’t last long, and sure enough, over the following months and years, we watched him quickly decline and turn into a shell of his former self.

Sasha’s first day at Romaniv

A couple years ago a social worker asked us to help find a home for Sasha, and since we knew we were creating forever homes for people just like him, it seemed obvious that he should be the first boy to come live in the duplex as soon as it was ready. Jed started on documents, Max and Morgan picked up and moved their whole lives to Ukraine, and the duplex was made into an absolutely beautiful home, all so Sasha could know love and be free. And FINALLY it is a reality. As I’m writing this he’s on his way to a swimming pool for the first time. He loves water, so I’m guessing he’s going to be pretty excited. 😊

Because Sasha’s history is different from the rest of our boys, having lived with his mother for so many years and having obviously known love at some point, we were hopeful he would have an easier period of adaptation. And so far he has! Also, he is just now 15, and the difference between taking a 15 year old out of an institution and a 30 year old is not small. His brain is more pliable. He is more flexible. He seems to learn more quickly. Yes, we are in for a marathon, not a sprint, but the head start of him being younger is a pretty big deal.

Taking Sasha home!

When Sasha first came to us he was afraid of everything. He resisted any transition to a different activity or a different location in the house. He was afraid to lay down to sleep and paced in his room till all hours of the night. On the first night, it took three of us to change his diaper because he was just so afraid. He didn’t really want to be touched. But he has already grown so much! It’s pretty miraculous how ready he was to be loved and cared for. He is so affectionate. He loves hugs and kisses and when he is sad he wants to be held and comforted. He is feeding himself- slowly, but safely. He smiles and has started to make some sounds. He is easily overstimulated and is pretty food-obsessed, but overall, he is really doing amazingly well. I think his development is going to explode over the next several months. It’s so fun to watch him open up and show more and more of himself.

Sasha is under the legal guardianship of Jed, but he lives in the duplex with Max, Morgan, and Anton. Max and Morgan could not be a better fit for Sasha. They love him so much and from day one they gave their hearts away to him. It’s clear that Sasha cares for them and feels safe with them. It’s just so beautiful!!! They are so attuned to Anton and Sasha and their moods, their needs. Max and Morgan are all in and they are doing a fantastic job. It’s a really wonderful thing to be able to trust them completely with the boys’ care. We are nearby if they need us, or if they have questions, but we don’t worry for one second about the boys because we know they are in capable, loving hands. I really can’t express how thankful we are that God brought Max and Morgan to us. What a gift!

Probably the biggest struggle we’ve been working through since Sasha came home is with Anton and his emotions about it all. Anton has big, big feelings, and any negative emotion is expressed with anger. It’s his go-to and he really hasn’t ever known another way. He’s had tons of transition over this past year and we expected that adding Sasha to the mix would be difficult for him. Sure enough, last week he really struggled with anger and aggression. Max and Morgan were super attentive and patient, we changed our schedule of assistants to give Anton more stability, and it seems like he has begun to turn the corner. Over the weekend he even showed some sadness with tears and crying. That’s something we haven’t really ever seen with Anton. It was super encouraging to see him working through sadness with tears instead of anger and aggression. If you remember, please pray for our Anton. He doesn’t want to hurt others, I really believe that. He just grew up his whole life in an environment where anger and aggression were the main modes of communication. Learning a new way takes time, but we won’t give up on our boy. He is learning. Please pray for Max and Morgan too. They really want to keep Sasha safe, and constantly being on the lookout for Anton’s mood shifts can be really exhausting. Pray for them for peace, wisdom, and perseverance. This work is certainly not easy. Worth it? Yes. But easy? Noooooooo. 😳

Lately, I’ve been struck by how wonderful it is to have the gift of time with our boys. We are in no rush for them to meet some sort of developmental milestones. Of course, we want to encourage them to meet their full potentials and we want them to have as much independence as they are capable of, but we are in no rush. We have the rest of their lives to help them learn. The most important thing is that they are safe and they are loved. As long as they are safe and loved- and they know it, then we have met our goal. My favorite thing is to look out into the backyard and see Anton on the swing, Sasha playing with a ball (or eating grass…🙃 ), and Bmo just enjoying sitting out in the sun. They are free! They are loved! They are valued and surrounded by people who truly know them and see them as individuals worth fighting for. Life with our boys is a gift. Sometimes it’s really hard, but a lot of times it’s really beautiful. What an honor to be the ones who get to show them love. What an honor to be the ones with whom they feel safe and at home. We are blessed to have our boys and I really can’t imagine a life without them.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

A Week to Celebrate

This week has been one for the books. It has been a week in which dreams have been fulfilled and what once seemed impossible became possible!

This week the duplex has a family! It’s no longer just a building site, but this week it became a home. We are so thankful and so excited.

For a while we had been thinking about and praying about the possibility of Anton living in the duplex with Max and Morgan. We are still waiting for Sasha’s guardianship to become official, and we felt pretty strongly that Anton would be happier if he lived in the village, closer to us, and in a place with more support. Lesya and Masha have lived with Anton in an apartment since June and they have done a wonderful job with him. He is healthier and stronger than ever. He is also more emotionally healthy. Still, living with him is plenty challenging, and everyone agreed it would be more sustainable for all if Anton was in a place with larger net of support.

So, this past weekend Masha, Lesya, and Anton joined Max and Morgan in the duplex and we are all just really, really happy about it. The girls have agreed to live in the duplex till the summer, in order to help with the transition of Anton, and later, Sasha. They are helping Max and Morgan learn how to live with our boys, and also helping them with all the language needed to communicate with the boys. It seems like it will be a great fit. Ruslan moved into Anton’s old apartment with Luda and Nazar, and that’s great too, because Anton’s old apartment is nicer and bigger. Win win!

I can’t even accurately describe to you how it feels to have life in the duplex. We have dreamed of a community like this for so long. We have an amazing community in our team, but to have community, right here, out our back door is a literal dream come true. We are living life together, with our boys, as friends and family and it’s just so beautiful. I’m sure it will have it’s challenges- because…humans. But, I really feel God’s smile on this. This is the life our boys deserve.

The timing seems just about perfect too, because today Jed finally began the guardianship classes required to bring Sasha into the family. We have been waiting since September for these classes to start. FINALLY!!! The classes last until mid-March, and then hopefully all will be in order for Sasha to move into the duplex. That gives Anton enough time to get adjusted to his new digs before Sasha joins. We are all eager to see Sasha again and bring him from darkness into light. So much love awaits him!

Thank you, thank you, thank you to each one of you who has prayed and encouraged and given money over the past years. The dreams are becoming reality. It’s such an exciting time to be a part of this work. Wahoo!

PS: If you haven’t heard yet, we are doing a BeLOVE[d] t-shirt/sweatshirt fundraiser! It ends on March 2. 100% of the proceeds will go toward finishing the second side of the duplex. Click the link below to buy a t-shirt 🙂

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

About a Hero Mama and Her Son

It’s Story Time. 🙂 This story doesn’t have an ending yet. It’s ongoing, but the outcome is looking very promising.

Back in July, we were out working in the garden when we got a call from the Director at Romaniv. He had a mother with him in his office at the institution, and she wanted to give up her adult son. Because of COVID and institution restructuring, they weren’t accepting any new boys at that time. But, the mother was at her wits end, so he called us. He asked if she could come to our house and talk to us about her options.

An hour later we met one brave mama.

Have you ever wondered what kind of parent would willingly leave their child in a terrible place like Romaniv? Have you ever said the words “How could they? I would never ever.”

I have. I have wondered and I have judged and I have said “I would never ever.” But I’ll tell you what, it’s only by the grace of God that I have never. I used to judge those parents, and I judged them harshly. But, that was before I better understood their circumstances. Now I realize that if not for Jesus and the outrageously privileged circumstances into which I was brought up, it could be me. It could be you.

I would never condone a parent leaving their child in an institution. Never. I’m not saying I agree with the practice. Please don’t read that. What I am saying, is that in a country like Ukraine, with absolutely zero safety net for families with children with special needs, sometimes it seems they have little choice. Add in the fact that most of these families don’t know Jesus, are living in poverty, and are in a culture that absolutely does not value their child, – and calling their circumstances an “uphill battle” is putting it insanely mildly.

Take that mama who came to our house on that July day as an example. She is a single mama of 2. She and her husband are separated and he is not involved at all. Her older son, Siri, is 23 and has an intellectual disability. He also has some mental health issues for which she has found zero help from doctors. Siri used to attend a boarding school for children with special needs, and he was happy there. Then, when he turned 20 and aged out of that program she had nowhere else to turn to for help. Siri, a social guy who was used to spending lots of time with peers, was suddenly home alone all day in an apartment while mom had to work. He really isn’t safe to be home alone, but what other option was there? With no extended family willing to help, and no programs offering assistance of any kind, the family was forced into an extremely unsafe situation.

After many months of being home alone all day, trapped in an apartment, Siri began to decline. He stopped using the toilet, stopped feeding himself, and eventually stopped talking. This young man who used to thrive in the company of others, who could even read and write, was now dependent on his mother to (literally) run home every three hours to feed him, change him, and make sure he was okay, before locking him back inside for his own safety. Then an already impossible situation became even more difficult when Siri became aggressive and explosive. COVID forced his younger brother to learn from home, and the two boys at home alone all day was just absolutely not sustainable. But still, what could mom do? She was 100% on her own with no support and no help. In order to keep her younger son safe she felt she had to put Siri in an institution. This hero mama who had raised her son alone for 23 years was at the end or her rope.

It seems like a nearly impossible thing, to raise a child with special needs, alone, in a culture that has some built-in supports like Medicare and public schooling. But it is a whole other beast to raise a child like Siri alone in Ukraine. This society says our boys have no value. Finding appropriate medical care for them is daunting and nearly impossible (no exaggeration). The government gives zero help, and even walking down the street is a constant reminder that this culture will only accommodate the able-bodied and independently-capable. I find raising our boys here a super difficult task- and I have a whole team of help!!! I remember how scared we were when Anton became aggressive toward our kids. I had Jed there to help me- and it was still scary and confusing. We felt so helpless. I can’t fathom the hopelessness and fear that this mom has felt. Whichever decision she made, it was like she was choosing one child over another. Hers was 100% a lose-lose situation.

After meeting with mom on that hot July day, we spoke with our team about how God might be asking us to step in and help. Mom was still pretty determined to place Siri in the institution, but was agreeable to our help while she waited for a spot to open up for him. We started including him in our weekly art class and group activities on Fridays. He was withdrawn and shy, but his mom seemed mostly happy for him to have the outlet.

The day we met Siri

Over the past several months we have watched Siri change into a different person. It’s actually pretty incredible. We are starting to see the boy he probably was when he was in school. He has slowly learned that our team and our boys are a safe place for him. He has begun to dance, to sing, to hug. He has a light in his eyes when everyone is all together. He has found his people. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows. There have still been some pretty rough times at home, but, thankfully, they are countered with good times- times of growth and happiness.

A few days ago mom called Tanya, our teacher, and told her that a place had opened up for Siri at an institution in our region. She was on her way to check it out. She had only a few days to make a decision as to whether she would place him there, or the spot would go to someone else. Tanya was at our house when she called. We stopped and prayed. We asked our team to stop, wherever they were in the city, and pray. So many people all over the world were praying! We cried out to God to intervene. We asked for his mercy over this family. We asked for His will to be done. After the visit, mom had a lot to think about. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, and we just waited and prayed. Then, finally, when our team was all together at the mountains Tanya got a phone call from her. She had decided to turn down the placement. Siri would stay home with her! Praise God. A few of us might have cried tears of relief. 😉

Now comes the road of figuring out how to help mom keep her son for the long haul. Now is the time to figure out how to make their living situation sustainable and safe for all. Now, more than ever, we need God’s wisdom for how to hold this mama’s arms up.

Would you pray with us for Siri and his mama and brother? Pray that God gives this hero mama strength. Pray that she would come to know Jesus and his never-ending love. Pray for our team, that we would have wisdom about the best way to help this little fam. Thank you!

Evie brings out the best in everyone 🙂

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The First Time

Her heart pounded in her chest and her stomach churned as the van turned onto the gravel road lined with trees.

Two weeks earlier she and he had left their four small children and flew all the way across the world to visit that place. They had heard the stories and knew deep in their souls that they were supposed to DO something about the injustices being done in that place and others like it.

She had cried countless tears over the past year as she washed dishes and changed diapers and swept the floor in suburban America. Her heart was broken for the helpless ones who were trapped in their suffering with no future, no hope. Though she had never met them, in her heart she already loved them. Her mama heart ached to hold them and make everything better.

The van pulled up to a gate and stopped. They stepped out of the van and instantly she heard them. She heard the sounds of the ones she had dreamed of and longed to know. The yelling, the moaning, the cries of excitement intensified- visitors had arrived!

She and he walked hand in hand down the sidewalk of the institution and the noises became louder. She saw curious faces peeking through windows and her heart skipped a beat. Would her heart deny her? Would her body betray her? Would all their preparations and prayers leave them reeling in the depth of their naivety? What if they met the boys face to face and wanted to run away from them instead of embracing them? What if this was not the YES they had hoped it would be?

But then a door opened and she was among them, punched in the gut by the smells and the sounds; all five senses assaulted in an instant.

As she and he were swarmed by faces and hands and bodies, fear melted away and her heart became alive. In that moment she realized that her soul had been longing for those souls in front of her. Her hands were covered in their saliva and their scent, and yet she couldn’t contain the joy and the “rightness” she felt in that moment. She glanced in his direction and their eyes met. He gave a slight nod, yes, he felt it too.

This was what they were put on the earth to do. These were their people. This was their path.

______________

That first day at Romaniv will forever burn in my memory. I met my boys that day. I met my future that day. I loved them instantly and fiercely that day and I promised myself I would fight endlessly for them. It was a naive love, most definitely, but it was true.

Mama Bear awoke that day. Circumstances and disappointments have made her cower in her cave these last months, afraid to love them like she did before. Living with them was harder than she imagined it would be. In the midst of their overwhelming trauma, her love has not been enough. Their hearts are like bottomless pits that can never be filled. No amount of her love will ever be enough. So she cowers in her cave, afraid to give more, afraid to bring more boys to freedom because of the damage, pain and disappointment that is sure to follow.

But she can not fight for them from her cave. She can not fight for them and remain safe from pain. To love them is to feel their pain and to walk with them through it, even if that walk takes forever.

I am their Mama and I will not be afraid.