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]

If You Build It…

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The roof is going up on the next home for our boys and I realize that I haven’t written a lick about it! In fact, if you follow this blog much you may have noticed that I haven’t been actually writing about much of anything at all. It’s been silent here on the blog, but that silence doesn’t reflect what has actually been happening here in Ukraine. It has been busy here, as usual. 🙂

We have room on our property for our current home, plus 2 duplexes. The plan is for each side of each duplex to have space for 4 boys/men from the institution, plus space upstairs for the people who will be their family.

The first duplex is well under way and it is HUGE!!! I’m kinda jealous and wish I was going to live in it! The homes are going to be fabulous. We’ve learned some lessons from our current home setup and have designed to meet those needs in the plans for the duplexes. For instance, the duplexes will have toilets separate from showers, more toilets, a “family space” upstairs for the family who will live in the home and for guests, a separate bedroom for each boy, and a lockable pantry in the kitchen that will also house the refrigerator. The homes will all be fully accessible and up to ADA standards. Not to mention, they’re just going to be flat out GORGEOUS! So many windows, so much natural wood, so much light. So much excitement!!!

We are hoping to keep a steady pace on the build so that the first duplex will be completed in the late spring or early summer. We need another $30,000 to complete the project. In the meantime we are praying about which boys will live in the first homes and figuring out the process for securing guardianship of them. If we take anyone under the age of 18 everything is done differently than if we take adults, so there will be a learning curve there. Also, most of the boys under the age of 18 have parents, so we will need to work alongside them to see what supports could be put in place for reunification, and if that is not possible, than we need to make a plan for how we can work alongside the parents in caring for the boys here at the Homestead. So much to consider! Right now the plan is that one side of the duplex will be for children (under the age of 18) and the other side will be for adults. The current children at the institution are all 13 or 14 years old, but developmentally much younger.

Our focus in choosing boys at this point is pretty much zeroed in on the Isolation Hall. The boys and men there have significant medical needs that will never be addressed properly in the Institution. They are the ones our work has pretty much centered around in the last 5 years with our interns and our volunteer teams, so it makes sense for us to put our attention there, in the beginning. But of course, we are very open to God’s leading in this. We need so much wisdom and clarity!

The elephant in the room of this whole project is the question of who will live in the duplex with the boys?

Yeah, that’s a good question. And the answer right now is…we have no idea.

We are currently working on a job description and ministry description because the time has come to look in earnest for who will join us in this work. We need people who will live in the duplexes with the boys, like we do in our home, and we also need people who will live off-site and come in as daily help to the Wide Awake machine (Romaniv work, administrative help, in-home helpers, Special Wednesday helpers…the list goes on and on). It’s just gotten to the point where if we don’t bring more help in the growth will have to slow, or even stop, and we don’t want that to happen. Our boys need OUT.

Our dream is that a blend of Ukrainians and foreigners would work together to care for our boys. Ukrainians are the obvious choice. They have the language, know the culture, and already live here. But at the same time, we see the benefit of outsiders coming in to join as well. Westerners come in to this with different eyes and a different perspective. Ukrainians have been raised to see people with disabilities in one way, and an outside perspective is just really, really helpful- especially when you’re fighting for change in a culture that, historically, does not accept or recognize our boys as valuable.

Another benefit to outsiders coming in would be friendship for us. 🙂 We have a Ukrainian team that we love so much. They are our family here and I don’t know where we would be without them and their friendship. We also long for friendship with people in our native tongue. We long for relationship with people who understand where we come from and who can understand us fully. It is a deep desire and need for us, personally, if this work and life is to be sustainable for the long haul.

So, here’s to hoping and praying that if we build it…they will come!

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We have no doubt that God has the right people in mind to help on this journey. He has provided the land, the funds to build the home, and the boys to fill it. There’s just no way it’s going to sit empty because of lack of helpers. So, we pray and begin to actively seek out who those helpers might be.

If this strikes a chord with you and you find that it’s something you just can’t let go, can’t forget, let’s talk. It’s certainly not a romantic call, but it’s an important one. I can promise a YES to this work will never leave you bored. Hehe.

To all who have given to help make this duplex a reality- THANK YOU! It’s really happening! Thank you for believing in this dream and in this work. We can’t wait to fill it to the brim with life and love.

 

The Best Kind of Story+ A Birthday Wish

It’s story time. And this is the best kind of story. This is the kind of story in which all looks hopeless and then, at the last second, hope arrives and the helpless one is saved. This is the kind of story where life is lost, and then life is found. It’s the kind of story where love wins over fear. It’s a story of miracles.

Several years ago, in the Eastern United States, Nate and Jen saw a documentary that would change their lives forever. They saw a film about orphans with special needs in Bulgaria. The film showed how the children were mistreated in institutions and the results of a very broken system. After that film they knew they had to do something. They were moved to action. (My kind of people!)

Nate and Jen’s hearts were turned toward adoption and they went on to adopt a little boy from Bulgaria and then a little boy from China. But they weren’t done yet. Or rather, God wasn’t done with them yet. 🙂

In the summer of 2018 they began the process to adopt another little boy. This little boy was in southern Ukraine. In fact, he was in the very orphanage that God used to turn our hearts to Ukraine back in 2010. Nate and Jen fell in love with this boy and were moving forward to make him their son, but then, while they were still working on documents on the US side, the little boy died in Ukraine.

I can’t imagine the heartbreak. To make the decision to adopt a child is no small thing. You have to be ALL IN. And then to find out the child died without knowing the love of a family that you desperately wanted to give. It’s just so so terrible.

In their grief, Nate and Jen understood that they had love to give, and that many other children in Ukraine waited for families, so they decided to continue the adoption process. Much to our joy and surprise, they chose to adopt “Kayden”, one of our boys!

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Kayden was in pretty bad shape at the time he was chosen and we knew he needed to be adopted in order to survive. He just wasn’t/isn’t strong enough to live many more years in an institution. So we waited eagerly for the time when the documents would finally be completed on the US side and Nate and Jen could come to Ukraine to meet Kayden.

Earlier this summer the moment arrived! One Friday morning  in July they were driven out to the institution and got to meet their boy and begin the in-country adoption process. They got to spend a few hours with Kayden, and then of course they got to meet all our other loves who are equally as precious and equally as desperate for love and attention.

We had plans to meet up that night for dinner in the city, so they texted me when they arrived that evening at their hotel room. We chatted a bit about their day and then, out of curiosity, they asked if any of the other boys were adoptable, because they had heard none were. I clarified that yes, just one more boy was available for adoption, “Aaron” and I sent them this video so they would know who I was talking about:

Their reply “We love him.”

Nate and Jen spent the weekend with our boys and grew to love them more and more- not just Kayden, but all of them. They are a pretty lovable bunch, if I do say so myself. And then at the end of a whirlwind few days they were headed back to the US to wait for a court date.

On their way home they messaged me to let me know that they were praying about coming back after this adoption to take home Aaron too. Aaron, that one boy, the boy in the video, the last boy who is available for adoption at the institution. They knew that his time was short, as he ages out in December, and they just couldn’t fathom leaving him behind.

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Guys, my heart skipped a beat or five when I read that message. Seriously? Hold up. Back up. They were thinking about adopting Aaron? Let me just tell you, I love Aaron deeply. I adore him. I see him for the precious little boy that he is deep inside, but I can tell you that not many see that. He is despised by nannies. He is bullied by other boys. He is about as far from an orphanage favorite as you can get. My faith has been so very small over the years that I have hardly advocated for him. For several years I knew he was available but I left advocacy for him on the back burner, instead advocating for all the others- the ones who seemed that they would be “easier”, the ones I could get decent pictures of, the ones I could write glowing reports about. I hate that I did that, but I want to be honest.

As much as Jed and I love Aaron, I had almost zero faith that anyone else would love him as much as we do. I halfheartedly advocated for him, but my deepest fear was that I would write as honestly as possible about him, but then a family would arrive to adopt him and be instantly scared off by his behaviors. The boy is loud. He is highly sensory seeking. I really do believe that he will change within the safety of family, but I can’t make any promises at all. I knew a family would have to take him as he is, and I just had no hope that anyone would.

But God. God promises to be a Father to the fatherless and He.Keeps.His.Promises. When our faith is small, that is when His glory shines brightest. Lest I should think that any of this has anything to do with how well I advocate or how catchy our blog is or how many followers we have to “like” our posts. This work is God’s work and these boys are His and we are simply his vessels. Thank God that His ways are higher and his timing is perfect.

I am just so deeply grateful to God for keeping His promise. And I’m so deeply grateful to Nate and Jen for seeing our boys with eyes wide open and not allowing fear to hold them back. I just almost can’t believe it’s actually going to happen!

Right now they are in the process of making necessary changes to documents so that they can bring both Kayden and Aaron home. Once they get them home there will be no more adoptable boys at the institution. Each one who has the possibility for adoption will be adopted. It is well with my soul.

As you can imagine, deciding to add another child to an adoption adds quite a bit of expense. So you can guess what I’m going to say next. 🙂 Would you help me support this family and their huge step of obedience?

Tomorrow I turn 40 (yes, I know, the big 4-0) and I can’t imagine any better gift than to see this family, who are adopting the FINAL TWO BOYS, be supported. I don’t want them to have to worry about money at all. Would you consider giving a tax-deductible donation to their adoption fund in honor of me turning old?

You can give your tax-deductible donation here. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your prayers, support and advocacy. Two more boys are about to know freedom and the love of a family. THANK YOU GOD!!!!

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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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.