A Call to a Small Life

Our life and world here in Ukraine is quite small. There’s a simplicity about it that I have grown to love and cherish. Sure, there are things about it that are far from simple. The emotions are not simple. Dealing with trauma is not simple. Speaking Ukrainian is not simple. Navigating local school and raising kids outside of our passport country is confusing and without simple answers. Figuring out how to help our guys become human after living all their lives as animals is about as unsimple as it can get.

And yet, our lives still have a sense of simplicity. Our lives are simple because we have a very singular focus. We aren’t trying to accomplish a bunch of different things in a multitude if different spheres. There are different facets to our work, for sure (family life, internship, building project, funds management, donor relations, legal stuff, budgets, medical care, advocacy, education…and on and on) and much of that is more complex due to where we live. But still, it all revolves around the one focus of building a community of love, dignity and hope for our friends with special needs.

Because of the nature of the work we do and the people God has brought into our lives to love, our world is quite small. Logistically, almost everything happens at.our.house. This house is the hub of everything. The duplex is being built right outside our back door. It’s a little more complicated at the moment because Anton and Ruslan are in apartments off-site, but still, the majority of life happens right here at our house.

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Also, because of our guys and their needs for structure and order and consistency, our lives have a very “small” nature to them. We can’t do all the things and go to all the places. We can’t be out late at night and running our kids to lots of activities and spending all day on Saturday at the soccer field (that’s not a thing here anyway…). Not that those things are bad, they just don’t work in this context. We all need to be home for dinner. Our guys need that. Boris needs to be in bed at 8 each night. He does best that way and so we give him that early bedtime nearly every night. Living in the village makes a busy life inconvenient, so the reality is we are just home more. Our relationship circle is also much smaller here than it was in the US. Our friends are mostly our team members and that’s okay. They are the ones who understand this life we’re living. They’re the ones who are with us day in and day out. They are our “people”. They are our Ukrainian family. 🙂

I resented that need for routine and “homebody-ness” at first, but now I see it as a wonderful gift. Having our team here every day means big group lunches every day at 13:00, and B-mo’s need for an evening routine means family dinner together nearly every single night at 18:00. It’s rare for someone in the family to not be at the table for dinner. Our team has spent countless hours at our table eating and laughing and just being together. What an enormous gift.

I’ve been reading a lot these days about the monastic life and I see a lot of similarities to our life here. The rhythms of morning worship and meals together and working together, giving ourselves to each other is reminiscent of some sort of “Order”. God has called us to a kind of simplicity here, a cutting out of the extras, and even though I don’t always love it, I am growing to appreciate it and how He is using it to shape us. My desire to pull back a bit from the digital world this year is a response to this call to a simpler life; it’s a desire to focus on the main things.

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As the duplex construction draws nearer to completion we are beginning to think more about who will join us in this life. We don’t want to just look for warm bodies to fill the needed spaces, but we want people to join us who are looking to answer that call for community. We are looking for and praying for people who desire to give their lives to this vision of hope, love and dignity. We don’t necessarily mean give your life away, like the rest of your life, but to give your life away for a season. Though some may decide to give the rest of their lives away, and we will be glad if God sends those people our way. 🙂 To do this life well, this life of living with people with disabilities, you have to die to yourself daily. You have to be willing to serve and live a “small” life- one in which you are not applauded and the sacrifices are rarely seen by others, but you do it anyway because you love the One who has called you to it and you love the one right in front of you.

I know “simple living” and living a “small life” are kind of trendy topics as of late. It can sound really romantic, but we have to remember that in order to live a small life we have to say no to quite a few things. It can be a painful thing to cut out the excess so we have time and energy for the mains, but if we look with an eternal perspective I’m pretty sure we’ll find that pain worth it. It’s not a romantic life here on the homestead in Ukraine, but it is a full one, one that will change its inhabitants forever. I know it is changing me.

If this resonates with you, please send us a note at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org. We are currently finishing up role descriptions and will share them when they are ready. 

 

 

2019: A Year of Learning and Miracles

Well this year sure flew by in a flurry! I was just looking through the 2019 blog posts to find the highlights to link here and saw that I really didn’t write a whole lot. That in itself shows what kind of year we had around here: fast and furious. 🙂

Here in our home, with Anton and Ruslan, this year has been unbelievably difficult. There have been many beautiful moments, don’t get me wrong, but the overarching feeling when I sat down and initially looked back over this year in our home was not “beautiful”, it was “stinkin’ hard and painful”. It has been a year of learning to lay down our lives and learning what this dream of deinstitutionalization really is. Of course we already had some experience with Vlad and Boris, but for many reasons it has just been exponentially harder with Anton and Ruslan. We have learned A LOT. We have changed A LOT. And we have so much to be thankful for.

I’d love to sit down and report to you the many great strides and changes that have been made in our boys, and while they have changed and made some strides, the greater changes have been made in the hearts of our family.

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This year has forced us, Jed and me, to dig deep down inside ourselves and deal with our junk, ’cause Lord knows we’ve got a whole lot of it. Many times this year the way has felt so dark. We have felt hopeless, helpless and in way over our heads. We’ve learned, and are still learning, how impossible it is to do this thing of deinstitutionalization in our own strength. We’ve learned that we’ll most definitely burn out and cope in unhealthy ways when we try to do this on our own. We’ll get bitter. We’ll pick up our phones as an escape. We’ll get all judgey. We’ll lose our patience with our kids and we’ll even stop laughing.

There’s just no way around it. We either do this thing with Jesus, or we fail. That has been the big lesson of 2019: Jed and Kim without Jesus doesn’t work. Praise God for his never-ending mercy and unrelenting love toward us, and thank God for your prayers and encouragement that have sustained us in the darkest of times.

We are different people than we were at the beginning of the year, in a good way. So when I look at it that way I am filled with thankfulness for this past year of struggle. We are changed. Our kids are changed. They have grown and stepped up and matured. Our team has grown and stepped up and matured. Our team has grown in love for each other and we have learned so very much about the path that lies ahead of us. If we had never brought Ruslan and Anton into our home we would have been dreadfully unprepared for the next phases of this journey. So, praise God that his ways are higher than ours. All the tears, all the struggles with self, all the sleepless nights have been 100% worth it. I mean that.

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When you look outside our home at the other parts of this Wide Awake machine there are no shortage of miracles. 🙂

In January we sent out desperate plea for our “Preston” to be adopted. The government was threatening to send him back to the institution if he did not have a committed family by summer. A family pretty quickly stepped forward and they met Preston on Christmas Eve. 🙂 Christmas Day at our house was spent with Preston and his new family getting to know each other. Praise God for his love for our sweet boy.

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Preston with his new daddy on Christmas Day

In July we sent out another desperate plea for our “Aaron” to be adopted. He was the last boy at Romaniv available for adoption and was going to age out at the end of the year, making him forever unadoptable. That same day, as the post was being written, an adoptive family was at Romaniv for another boy (“Kayden”) and they also fell in love with Aaron. They ended up adding him to their adoption and had court for him on December 18th. Aaron is legally an orphan no more, saved at the very last minute by an AMAZING family. He’ll go home to them in January. Praise God for his pursuit of the ones left behind and forgotten for so many years. This is such a huge miracle!!!

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Aaron will go home with his new family in January!

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Kayden was adopted in the fall by the same family. Look at him on his first day of school!

If those adoptions were the only thing that happened this year it would be enough to be a miraculous year, but let’s not forget the ginormous building right outside our back door. Ha!

Thanks to the generosity of donors, the next Wide Awake home is well on it’s way to completion. The roof is on and the windows and doors are in. We are looking at a completion date of late spring, early summer. It’s amazing!!!  (and did I mention, huge?)

The house is a duplex, so it has the capacity to be a forever home for 8 of our friends from Romaniv- four on each side, plus the people who will live there with them.

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We were thinking the end of the year would be a cool time to do a kind of “Virtual Housewarming” for the duplex. Many people have asked how they can be a part of the work here, and helping us to outfit the duplex with all the needed appliances is a great, tangible way to contribute to the freedom of our boys.

If you would like to contribute toward any of these items, just click on the item and proceed through the form. Thank you!

 

We are still searching for who will live in the duplex with our boys, so if this is something that your heart can’t let go of, please contact us and we can begin a conversation. I promise we are great neighbors. 😉

As we end the year I want to say thank you to this Wide Awake community for being such a wonderful source of encouragement and support to us and our team. In the good times you have celebrated with us, and in the hard times you have encouraged us, trusted us, and lifted our arms, encouraging us to press on, reminding us of our why. We thank God for you and look forward to the growth that will happen in 2020!

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You can follow Wide Awake on Facebook and Instagram (@wide_awake_international). I update there much more frequently than here on the blog, especially when things get super crazy up in here. But I promise to keep this space alive too, if you still prefer blogs, so no worries 🙂

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.

 

Village Life

We’ve been living in the village for almost 2 months now, so I thought I should give a bit of an update on life here.

We FINALLY got our gas turned on last week, so that makes village life much happier!  I know many of our neighbors live without indoor plumbing, and therefore without hot water, but…yeah…I’m super thankful we only had to do that for a short while. I guess we’re a bit (a lot) spoiled.

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Our garden is MASSIVE, so much of my time and attention these days is directed toward managing the garden and all that it produces. Almost every day we try to can something so that we can make the most of the garden. So far we’ve put up several liters of pickles and several liters of cherry compote (a popular Ukrainian fruit drink). I’ve never done pickles before, so I’ve just picked out several different recipes from books and online and we’re trying them all! We’re labeling them with the recipe name so this winter we can decide which recipes are keepers and which aren’t. Figuring out how to can in Ukraine has been quite a challenge! Most people here don’t water bath their canned goods, and you can’t get the two piece lids we use in the US. So…we’ve had to compromise. The USDA might be horrified at our methods, but I’m sure all will turn out okay. (Fingers crossed!) Don’t worry, canning pros, we won’t attempt to can anything with low acidity.

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Village life for our little ones has been fantastic so far! Seth, Vladik and Havalah are outside basically every day from sun up to sun down. Seth and Hava both have little friends their same age that live right across the street and two houses down. Kids in the village have free reign and basically just run free all day long. It reminds me of what I imagine life was like in America a couple generations ago. The kids go from house to house, riding bikes, walking to the store to buy candy, and basically just running wild being kids. I LOVE IT. This is what we wanted for our kids, for their childhood. It just makes me happy that they can have that freedom here in the village.  Vladik spends most of his days watching the guys who are working on the house (they’re working on siding right now) and “building” his own special projects with scrap wood. Addy and Ez have a couple village friends, but they are around the house more than the Littles. They are good about helping me with the garden and taking care of our growing animal population (now including a dog, a cat, a hamster and the occasional neighbor cow who pastures in our back property).

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Our neighbors are kind, hardworking people. We don’t know them well yet, but most of them are parents of kids who are at our house all the time, so I’m sure over the coming years we’ll get to know each other well. We’re still quite a curiosity around here. I’m not sure that will ever change. 😉 The neighbors right next door butcher pigs, and the ones directly across the street butcher cows. Oh the sounds that come from those properties! Yikes. But, it sure is convenient when we want to buy meat! Also, the neighbor whose cow pastures on our property gives us fresh milk in exchange for letting his cow on our property. Village life has it’s perks, for sure!

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It’s not as convenient for our church friends to get to us as it used to be when we lived in the city, but oh man, this house is a far better gathering place! People love to be here. The house is cozy, the deck is perfect, and the air is fresh. We absolutely love our house. We can’t wait to bring our boys here! I can’t imagine how much they will grow and change in this environment. It’s going to be just awesome.

Village life is the life for us. We’re so happy here! THANK YOU a million times over to everyone who helped us get to this point. Our guest room is waiting for you. 🙂

family Johnson -21family Johnson -36family Johnson -42Thank you to our friend Andrey for the awesome photos of Vladik’s birthday!  

June Happened.

Hello July!

What in the world? June was a tornado. It was a tornado of awesomeness and craziness and life-changingness. But yeah, it was definitely a tornado.

Recap:

May 31: Our sweet Sara left after a month of massage and intern-training. We miss you Saramama!

June 7: We celebrated our kids’ completion of one year of Ukrainian school and our precious Seth’s birthday at a water park in Kyiv. Yay!

June 10: We moved to the Wide Awake Homestead! MONUMENTAL DAY.

June 11: Tara and Christiana arrived! Tara and Christiana are both American girls who came to bless our boys and our team. Their presence was so refreshing. They served and smiled and brought every one of us so much joy. Internet friendships can turn out to be real-life awesome!

June 12-16: Tara and Christiana started going to Romaniv with our team and interns, getting to know the boys. Addy went to a day camp at school and made new friends. 🙂

June 17: The team from Hands of Hope arrived! Hands of Hope is our wonderful partner in Indiana. They have poured much love and support into Romaniv and Wide Awake over many years. They came to help with a Romaniv Day Camp that was put on by Mission to Ukraine and Wide Awake. They also brought an awesome builder with them who served us by building a deck at the Homestead!!!!

June 19: Day Camp begins and a team of medical professionals from Germany arrived to help at the camp and observe our team.

June 22: Sydney, an American friend and long-time Wide Awake supporter was “in the neighborhood” and arrived to visit, help, and see all the craziness we are up to. ALSO a crazy awesome American arrived to begin the in-country process of adopting our sweet Stephan!!! His presence was just the hugest encouragement to our team. We were so blessed to see him open his heart to Stephan and say YES to what God has for his family. Just wow.

June 23: Final day of Day Camp! Hands of Hope threw our team a party and it was awesome. They encouraged us and blessed us all. Our hearts needed it.

June 24: Hands of Hope headed home.

June 25: Our church had a beautiful baptism and picnic at the river. All our German friends and American friends joined in and it was just a really special day.

June 26: The German team provided a training for our interns after observing their work over the past week. Their insight and wisdom, how they saw the boys and the work with fresh eyes was invaluable. They challenged us and pushed us in new ways.  A little pushing can hurt, but when done in love it can foster so much growth. We really so appreciated their hearts and hard work!

June 27: The German team did more training for the interns, and then a training for our team. So much good stuff!!

June 28: Good bye German team! Thank you!! Please come again. 🙂

June 29: Good bye dear Tara, Christiana and Sydney. Your wide open hearts and contagious laughter will be greatly missed. Come again!

So there you have it. Tornado.

It was quite the balance of scheduling and transportation and feeding, but the goodness far outweighed any stress that came along with it. I mean, all those wonderful people came because they love our boys and they believe in the vision of what we are doing here. They believe in God’s dream and they see the incredible worth of our boys. They gave up their vacation time and spent a lot of money to come pour into our boys, our family, and our team. We are forever grateful and super humbled by their giving.

I know I promised you a walk-through of the Homestead and I haven’t forgotten. With all the craziness of June we really haven’t gotten a chance to settle at all, and speaking of tornados…well, you get the idea. I’d like to tidy up a bit before sharing with you. 😉 Hopefully this week I’ll have something to show you. Thank you for your patience!

Now for pics.

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Camp theme for the Isolation Hall: “Fun in the Sun and Shade”

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We had stations for each of the 5 senses. For some boys every station became the “taste” station. Ha!

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Thank you Barry and Tom for all your hard work on the deck!

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Americans at work, picking Colorado bugs off our potatoes. Welcome to Ukraine. hehe

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Village life is gross sometimes. 

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The German team arrived! (plus Ava, not pictured)

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Thanks Hands of Hope for the great party!

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Sweet Friends. Thank you for refreshing my soul!

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Taking a break from training 🙂

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I can’t believe they finished the deck! Photos will follow in the next post.

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Team training: Respect, appreciation, safety

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So much love entered the Romaniv gates over the past month. We are so immensely grateful for all the sweet moments our boys experienced. May they hold those moments in their hearts forever. I know we will.