Massively Exciting News!

This was originally shared in our newsletter (last Friday), but I wanted to make sure everyone got the news. If you aren’t signed up for our newsletter you should be! Sign up below 😊

So, last week I told you all a bit more about Zhanna and Vanya and about how much they have come to mean to our family and team. Well, you didn’t know it, but I was prepping you for this week’s news: Zhanna and Vanya will soon be moving into the duplex!! Ohhhhhh yeah, you read it right. They are officially becoming a part of our team and family here on the Homestead and we are so thankful and excited. 

Years ago, before we even had land in our village, before we adopted Vlad or had guardianship of any of our boys, we would sit and imagine how the dream God had given us would play out. We wondered who would come to help us, who would want to live with the boys, and Jed had an idea. He thought about how amazing it would be if parents who already had their own children with disabilities would want to come live with our boys in community. That way, our boys would have loving people in their lives who already see the value in every life, and our team could help support the parents as they raise their children into adulthood. We thought it could be a win-win for everyone.

When we met Zhanna last spring it was obvious from the start that she shared our same heart. We clicked right from the beginning. Back in the fall I shared our dream of parents like her living with our boys and offhand mentioned “Hey! Wanna come live with Anton and Sasha?” We laughed about it and moved on. Then on Chrismas day, when we were having a quiet day with the boys, Zhanna and Vanya were with us and she brought up that conversation. She asked me if I really meant what I said about parents like her living with our boys. I told her I definitely meant it! Parents like her already “get” our life. It is not a big adjustment to live with our boys, because she has already adjusted her entire life for Vanya. She is committed to him for life- she’s not going anywhere. Zhanna told me she was seriously considering it, and we started to discuss details. Then on New Years Eve, she came to me and told me “I want to live here with the boys. I feel in my heart that it is the right thing for us.” ❤️
We met later to talk details, and the decision was made. Our family just grew.

Next week Zhanna and Vanya will begin to spend their days at the duplex, and then sleep at home at night. We will all take our cues from the boys and over the next couple of months they will slowly transition to living full-time with Anton and Sasha. At the end of February Grant will join them. 💪 It will require each and every one of us to grow and change, but we are all ready. One of our values is to be a welcoming community- and we are ready to live that value out. Zhanna and Vanya will no longer be alone, and we will have more of the help we desperately need so that we can bring more boys out of Romaniv and into family life. 

I really can’t thank you enough for praying. God was working on Zhanna’s heart for months and we had no idea. Anton and Sasha are in the perfect spaces, emotionally, to be able to accept new people into their home. It is just right. 

God is so good to us and our boys. He doesn’t miss a detail. 

BeLOVE[d]

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Redefining Family

Back in May we had our first “Open Doors Day” for Dim Hidnosti, the Ukrainian arm of Wide Awake. Open Doors Day is a time for our organization to open wide our doors and invite people from the community to come see and learn about our work. Many of our volunteers have joined us after coming to an Open Door Day. We’ve had 3 so far, and each has been a success. I think it’s time to do another!

So back in May, we planned and prepared, anticipating our first time of opening up our doors. We had no idea who would come and if it would be worth all the time and effort. I remember the day of, it was a beautiful day- so sunny and warm- until it wasn’t. Just as people started arriving the floodgates opened and it began to pour down rain. We had planned to gather outside, so everyone was running around like crazy, bringing everything inside and adjusting plans last minute. We had a great turnout; the house was jam packed. It was not ideal to be crammed inside, but we were all just happy that so many people came.

That day turned out to be a super significant day, although we didn’t know it at the time! That was the day we met our dear friends who we now call family, Zhanna and Vanya. Zhanna is mom to Vanya and a psychologist. She has worked tirelessly in our city for the rights of people with autism. She has counseled moms who have a newly diagnosed child and worked with the high-ups in the city toward inclusion and support for families who have a child with autism. And all the while Zhanna has single-parented her son Vanya, who is 15 and has autism. I’m not sure how Zhanna found out about the Open Doors Day, but she came, and it turned out to be a life-changing day for all of us.

Zhanna and Vanya started coming to just about every single gathering and event that our team provided. They were present at every art class, every party, every outing. It was just a natural fit from the very start. We love them and they love us. It feels like we have always been together. Zhanna and Vanya spent Christmas and New Years with us, and yesterday we all celebrated Vanya’s 16th birthday together. It was really special. Vanya understood that it was a special day and he was so happy!

Yesterday at Vanya’s birthday Zhanna told us it was the first time she really felt like she and Vanya were accepted in a family just as they are. They are not expected to be something they are not, or something they can’t be. They are loved just because they are Zhanna and Vanya, and they are precious to us. They have become a part of our big Wide Awake Family.

When our family moved to Ukraine and left our biological families behind we began to redefine “family” in our hearts. We had no choice but to open our hearts to the possibility of finding family in Ukraine, or else be alone. Then, of course, we added our boys to our family and redefined “family” once again. When someone asks me how many children I have I always stumble on my answer. “Well, I have 6 Johnson kids, but then 4 more who call me ‘Mama’, but a couple of them are in their 30’s and they don’t actually live in our home…”

Nope. No. No more. I decided I’m done with that. I’m done with the stumbling and mumbling and explaining. If I am “Mama” to our boys, then they are my sons. In my heart they are my sons, and in their hearts I am Mama, so why do I need to stumble over my words? Jed and I are committed to them for life, and we have ultimate responsibility for their health and well-being, soul, mind, and body. They are our family. I am a mother of 10. 😆

We still dream that in the duplex there would be house parents (a mother and a father figure), but we also have learned over the past couple of years that the nuclear family is not the only type of family that can be amazing. Friends who are committed to each other through the good times and the bad can also create a wonderful family. When Max and Morgan moved back to the US we worried that Anton and Sasha would feel that loss of house parents and that it would affect them negatively, but we have learned an amazing truth over the past 4 months: our team is Anton and Sasha’s family. Yes, they have our Johnson family always and forever, but that’s not where their family ends. They have our entire team who is committed to them and loves them: Lesya, Masha, another Masha, Tanya, Tonya, Luda, Nina, Oleg, Maxim, Ruslan, and MIra. No matter who is sleeping at the duplex with them each night, they have been just fine, because it’s always someone from their family there with them, and they know they are safe and loved.

Last week Jed and I met with Zhanna and we were talking about our future together with her and Vanya. We discussed our commitment to them as a part of our family, how in our hearts “family” is not reserved just for those who live in our home or who share our blood. We have team members who have basically no biological family and we are family to each other. Zhanna and Vanya have been very much alone and there is no reason they should stay that way: we can be family for each other. ❤️

Family is a place to know and be known.

Family is a place to forgive and be forgiven.

Family is a place to serve and be served.

Family is a place to love and BeLOVE[d].

I thank God for the beautiful family he has given us, both here and in the US. We are blessed to be loved by many people, and to be able to open our hearts to others who have been alone for so long.

Do you know of anyone who is need of family? Maybe your next YES is opening your heart to someone who is lonely. ❤️ Why not give it a try?

BeLOVE[d]

BeLOVE[d]

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How Are the Boys?

It’s been a while since I wrote an update about all our boys, right? I tried valiantly, for a while, to do the prayer team updates once a month, but I got a little burned out on that. It just ended up being too much. So…it kinda fizzled. Sorry about that. 🤷‍♀️ I’ll make it up to you now with an update about each of the boys you love so much. As you’ll see below, they are just doing really, really well. We are thankful that right now all of our boys are happy, healthy, and thriving.

Vlad. Can you believe our Vlad is 21 years old now? He’s officially an adult, so he’s working hard at learning how an adult should behave and taking on more adult responsibilities. Vlad has taken on the responsibility of caring for the goats along with the chickens and I have to admit that I get a good chuckle watching him try to wrangle them into the yard at night. It is a sight to behold and probably the only time you will ever see Vlad angry at any living being. 😂 He still goes to work at the electrical shop 3 days a week for about 4 hours and it’s going “okay”. There are good days, and not so good days. Vlad has the most wonderful, kind, patient boss, but it’s still a challenge for him to stay focused and motivated at work without mom or dad there to keep him in line 🤦‍♀️. I hope he can keep his job, but he’s going to need to rise up to the challenge if he wants to keep working. We’re also searching for the balance of what kind of work can challenge Vlad so he can grow, but also work in which he can be successful. It’s all one big experiment.

Physically, Vlad is doing great. We decided to wait until next winter to being working on his orthodontics back in the US. Right now he is needs a lot of support from us and it just doesn’t seem like the right time for him to be so far away. We’ll see! He is generally happy and thriving. The other day he brought me his Christmas list that he wrote out himself. It was written in a mixture of Ukrainian and English and it just made me smile. He is such a joy and we are thankful that he is our son.

Boris. Our sweet Bmo is doing so great!! He really is growing and changing right now. He has started to communicate more and more of his needs and desires and I think that brings him joy- when we understand him. He mostly communicates by bringing us the thing he wants (like a cup when he wants a drink, or his blanket when he wants to sleep), but he also will occasionally use cards. It’s encouraging to see him trying to communicate. He’s also using the toilet more frequently with great success. We are all super happy about that!

Boris is still med-free and self-harm-free. We stopped giving him meds at the beginning of last year and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t hit himself even once. I’m still in awe of that miracle. I never dreamed he would have a life without hurting himself. He has been laughing a lot lately and is just generally really happy and content. The past couple of weeks he has been vocalizing more too! It’s so strange to hear consonant sounds coming from his mouth. What if someday he speaks!? 🤩

Ruslan. Rus is still living with Luda and her son, Nazar, in an apartment in town and it is great. Luda is really the perfect person for Ruslan and they do so well together. She gives him a lot of independence and he is thriving in that. He is growing and maturing, emotionally, and is all around happy! Of course he still has his moments when trauma rears its ugly head, but he is growing in that. He is better able to handle unexpected changes in plans and negative emotions. The team has been working hard on that with him.

Ruslan loves meeting friends for coffee. When he goes to a cafe he always orders a “cappuccinko”. 😂 He is so super social and I love watching him at church, how he walks up and greets all the different people he knows. Such a man! I’m really proud of Ruslan. He is making great strides and brings us a lot of joy and laughter. In the past my relationship with him has gone through some difficulties, but God has brought a lot of healing to my heart and I’m so thankful that I am in a place right now where I can just delight in Ruslan. He is a precious gift to our family and our team. 🥰

Anton. Antoshka is talking up a storm! In the past, Anton has really only spoken we have asked him to, when was repeating after us, or when he was angry. But right now he is in a season of exploding vocabulary! He is talking on his own accord and saying things we have never heard him say before. He’s singing a lot too, which usually is a sign with him that all is well. He’s in a really good place these days.

Back in the late summer, early fall he was really stressed and had lost some weight. He was looking pretty skinny and just not healthy, in general. But, over the last two months he has gained 12 pounds! Anton really shows us his emotional well-being through his body- his skin coloring, his weight. So a chubby Anton is a happy Anton. And that makes the rest of us happy too. 🥰 Anton is taking more “responsibility” for Sasha and will even take things away from him if he knows Sasha is holding something he’s not allowed to have. The other day I was in the kitchen at the duplex and I heard Anton yell “Sashaaaaaaa!!!” I ran to the bathroom and Sasha was trying to climb into the (empty) bathtub while Anton was trying to stop him. Big brother was watching out for Sasha. 😊 This is huge because in the past Anton has really only ever seemed to care about Anton. The fact that he is watching Sasha and interacting with him like that is actually a big step for Anton. I’m proud. ❤️

Sasha. Oh Sasha. He just brings us all so much joy! I remember back when we first decided to pursue guardianship of Sasha, we felt the Lord speak to us that he would bring joy to us all, and that has totally been true. His transition to family life has been the easiest of all the boys- by a mile. He was just ready! He is the cuddliest, sweetest man-child (😆) ever. Often Sasha is in content in his own world, but as time goes by he is more and more willing to engage. He responds to his name now (sometimes) and will follow some simple commands. Sasha loves to cuddle, sing, run, spin in circles, play with water bottles, and grab everything in sight that he’s not supposed to have. 😉 He also really loves to eat, but I think that goes without saying. He is a 15 year old boy, after all and he’s growing like a weed. He’s about to grow out of all of his pants and has gained about 25lbs. since he came home to us in May. 😱

Sasha has epilepsy and when he came to us he was on two medications: one he took twice a day and one he took three times a day. Now, six months later, he takes only one of those medications, twice a day. Woot! The neurologist is happy with the changes in Sasha’s brain activity and now that he is on less medication he is more interactive and alert throughout the day. Sleep is sometimes a bit hit or miss, but mostly fine. We are just so incredibly thankful that Sasha is in our family and we all adore him. He is a gift.

Thanks to everyone who prays for our boys. It is such a joy to share how they are developing and changing. Sometimes it feels like we struggle with the same things over and over, month after month, year after year, (because we do…😜) but when I sit down and write out an update like this I marvel at how much they really have grown! These are not little children we are talking about! Besides Sasha, these are grown men, yet they still change and grow. They have so much to overcome every single day, but they do it. They allow us into their worlds and they let us love them. And then they love us back. I know I’ve said it a bazillion times, but I just can’t even begin to imagine our lives without our boys. They are God’s gifts to us.

BeLOVE[d]

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Birthdays Comin’ Out Our Ears 🥳

I’m tellin’ you what, we have been celebrating like crazy around here! Birthday after birthday after birthday. The past month or so has been a birthday explosion, and I’m not a weighing type person, but if I were, I’m certain the scales would indicate just how much we’ve partied. 😂

Celebrations around here are sweet. They don’t call for many ingredients. Simplicity is at the core. All you need for a Wide Awake celebration is some tasty baked treats (gluten and lactose free for our Anton), fruit, tea with sugar, a speaker, and some music. Decorations are nice, but the treats and the dancing are the main focus of every celebration. Our boys and our team love a good dance party- the louder the music, the better.

I love love love seeing our boys celebrated by so many people. I love seeing the gifts our team members buy for the boys because it just shows how well each of them are known. Our team knows just the thing that each of them will like. For Anton it’s anything that can spin and anything he can eat. For Bmo it’s mainly just candy. Haha. They are known and they are seen as individuals. That is no small thing.

“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.” -Jean Vanier

On My Mind: The Kids.

I’ve been a bit absent in this space over the past several weeks. I blame Christiana. 🙂 Our friend, Christiana, has been here for the past several weeks, and since I have her nearby to verbally process with, I feel less of a need to process here. Ha! You all didn’t realize you were my sounding board…or maybe you did. I’m an external processor, so I either need to talk out my thoughts or in absence of an English-speaking friend, write them out. So, I told Christiana I blame her for my lack of writing inspiration. Hehe. How’s that for throwing a friend under the bus?

Lately, the main thing that’s been ringing around in my brain has been my kids. I’m a mom of many, so obviously, mothering takes up the majority of my time and attention. As my kids move into different stages they need more or less of that time and attention, and right now it seems every one of them needs more. It’s a season where I’m seeing a lot of things that need to change and realizing that I need more support than I currently have in order to make those changes. So, it’s been a bit of a stretching season of mothering.

I think I’ve written about it here before, but parenting in our situation feels like parenting in a black hole. We have no peers around to talk with, bounce ideas off of, to watch and learn from. Jed and I feel pretty much alone in this whole parenting gig. The majority of our kids’ closest friends are from here in our village, and those parents are mostly absent. I have no idea what is going on in their homes, and they spend most of their time here in our home or in our yard. That makes things easier for me since I mostly always know where my kids are! 🙂 But parenting without other moms around can be both a blessing and a hardship. On one hand, I have no one with whom to compare myself. I’m not on social media anymore and I don’t have other mom friends to watch, so the comparison game isn’t a thing for me anymore. What a relief! I don’t feel less than, because I literally have no idea what other people are doing. On the other hand, I literally have no idea what other people are doing, so I can’t learn from them or ask for their advice. When things are going well that seems like no big deal, but when things are rough, it’s like a massive hole. I would love so much to have a peer group of moms to move through life together. I had that before we moved here and I miss it so much. I can read parenting books written by older and wiser people and learn something new, but it’s definitely not the same as sitting down for coffee with a friend to just talk through your struggles together. Sigh. Any of you moms out there wanna move to Ukraine and be my neighbor?

The only child who still likes her picture taken…

Our Addy is seventeen and in her junior year of high school. Can you believe it? Our first little chickadee will soon leave the nest. Noooooooooooo! It’s an exciting time of preparing for next steps and helping Addy to realize her dreams. She would like to take a year after graduation to attend a Bible School in Germany, and then she hopes to enter a German nursing school and study there (free higher education for the win!). To be eligible for studying in Germany Addy will need a high school diploma from an accredited American high school. So, this next year she will be enrolled in a school that is part online and part textbooks. Hopefully, we can cram enough credits in there to get her that coveted diploma. She’s pretty motivated and determined, so I have no doubt that she’ll do it. She also needs B1 level German to enter nursing school, so next week she will begin German lessons. Exciting times for our girl!

Next school year Ezra will be enrolled in the same accredited high school as Addy. He’ll be a sophomore and I’m excited for him to have the opportunity to learn from other teachers. Addy is a very motivated self-learner, but Ezra does better with deadlines and more specific feedback. I really hopeful that this school will be a good fit for him. If he wants to study further in the US he won’t need a diploma, but if he chooses another country for study, like Addy, then he will almost definitely need one. We figured it’s easier to bite the bullet now and just work toward the diploma so his options are more open in the future.

Hava is continuing on in Ukrainian school. She’s finishing up 5th grade and so far, it suits her just fine. She’s still young, but right now she says she wants to attend university in Ukraine and become a teacher. As long as she thinks she wants to stay in Ukraine, we’ll keep her in Ukrainian school. She’s getting a high level of education and thriving in school. No need to go changing a good thing. We’ll just take it a year at a time.

Seth has been homeschooling this year and I have no doubt that bringing him home for school was the right choice. We have just recently started learning therapy for him via Zoom and I’m really hopeful that it will help him grow in his literacy. He has progressed a lot this past year, but I know he needs more than I can give him. Just knowing we have another set of eyes and ears on his learning is such a relief to me! I want so much for Seth to grow into the man God has created him to be and to reach his potential, so I’m really thankful we found this resource. I don’t really foresee Seth reentering Ukrainian school. We’ll take it a year at a time, but for now, he’s better off at home with me.

Evie is 3 and is already wondering when she will get to go to school. 🙂 Here in Ukraine, most people send their toddlers to the local “kindergarten”. It’s free preschool/daycare and you can send your child as often as you like. Our village has a kindergarten that runs half days and we’re considering sending Evie in the fall. I’d like her to go maybe 3 half days a week and see how she likes it. I really want her to enter first grade with confidence and good language skills so that she doesn’t struggle unnecessarily. She speaks Ukrainian now, but definitely below the level of her peers (although her English is great!). She’ll need that extra boost of kinder in order to be ready for first grade when she’s 6. Plus, she’s super social and wants so badly to have friends (mini-Havalah). I’m pretty sure she’s gonna love it. We’ll see!

So, I’ve been researching diploma programs and learning therapy. I’ve been emailing and consulting and googling. We just have to work extra hard to access the resources that we need here. It’s a stretching time, but sometimes stretching feels good, even when it hurts a little.

What’s on your mind these days?