Superheroes Live in Our House.

Sometimes I don’t know completely what I’m thinking or feeling until I write it out. You’ve been warned. 🙂

When we moved to Ukraine 5 years ago our mission was clear: to bring hope, love and dignity to people with disabilities. Our main goal was deinstitutionalization.  We dreamed of this work. We dreamed of this reality. We dreamed of the day we would begin to bring our guys out and have the opportunity to show them the love of a family. I dreamed of being a mama to them- to those who had no mama.

Now we are living that dream. It is a reality!

Four of the very ones we dreamed of setting free are downstairs drinking tea at the kitchen table. The ones who can speak call me “mama”. I dreamed of that. 🙂

Yes, I dreamed of it, but now that it’s here, I struggle with the reality of it. The day to day of it is harder than I imagined- much less romantic than I imagined. The reality of deinstitutionalization of adults who are so very broken- body, mind and spirit is non-stop work with very little reward. Yet I longed for it. I wept for it. I dreamed of it. But it’s so dang hard. So.dang.hard.

Where’s the disconnect? I love our guys. I can’t imagine not having them with us. Then why do I struggle so bad with their behaviors?  Why am I so often annoyed? Why do I (too often) wake with dread in my heart over the hardships I know the day will bring?

I can tell you why. Two reasons:

  1.  Far too often I try to do this work, live this life, without Jesus.
  2. As much as I fight for our guys to be included and seen as equals by the people around them, in my heart, I still see them as “less than”.

Friends, this work will bring you to your knees. Spending your life with the broken, teaching them to become human is a work that will break you. Well, I guess I can’t speak for you, but it’s definitely breaking me. Every single day I’m confronted with my own weakness, my own ugliness. It’s so yucky. Here I am fighting for justice for our guys; trying to show Ukrainians a new way, and yet I know that I don’t value them the way they deserve to be valued. Somehow, even after knowing all they have suffered, I still have a bit of my heart that looks down at them.

God forgive me.

I put my agenda before them. I dismiss their feelings as less important than my own. I shower love on them when they behave more human, but when they move into old behaviors I withhold my affection.

God forgive me.

I find myself realizing that those who are “lower functioning” (I hate that term but don’t know a better one) are generally easier for me because they require less of me. I can care for them more on my terms- when it’s convenient for me. The “higher functioning” of our boys demand more. Their struggles, feelings and hurts are presented in more complex ways and I’m exhausted with trying to make sense of it all, so I sometimes give up.

God forgive me.

As you’ve figured out, if you’ve read this far- I am far from a superhero (I’m sure you already knew that). I am a super flawed human who screws up on the regular. I function too often out of my own strength, which is consistently running out.

I need Jesus. Guys, I have zero business getting out of my bed and letting my feet touch the ground without first talking with Jesus. I’ll tell you what happens when I try to do my day in Kim’s strength. I’m short- like I have zero patience. I’m easily annoyed. I find more joy in my coffee than in the people around me. I’m discontent. I search for approval from others. I look for distraction. I compare my life to the lives of others and I either envy them, judge them, or puff myself up. Bottom line: Kim minus Jesus equals HOT MESS.

I’m not sure why I think I can do this on my own when I so clearly stink at it.

And yet-

His power is made perfect in my weakness. God has called us to this work and I know that I know if I turn to Him He will give me everything I need. Tomorrow is a new day and His mercies are new every morning. Amen?

I’ll tell you who the superheroes are around here: their names are Ruslan, Anton, Boris and Vladik.

Our guys have endured unimaginable pain, abuse and neglect. Their childhoods were stolen from them. Their teen years were stolen from them. So many missed opportunities, missed birthdays, missed cuddles, missed “I love you”s, missed adventures, missed family dinners, missed holidays, missed moments of peace and joy. Ruslan, Anton and Boris spent 3 decades as prisoners, innocent of any crime.

They came to us afraid, diseased, malnourished of body and spirit. But every single day they wake up and they try again. They are survivors. They are learning to give themselves to others, learning to become human. I’m certain it hurts them far more than it hurts me.

Our guys are deserving of the best- not because of what they have endured and not because of their likability, but because they are children of God, created in His image, just like you and me.

I’m done. I’m done holding back a part of my heart and selfishly longing for something different. I’m done parceling out my love to those who “deserve it” in that particular moment.

I’m here. I’m planting myself. No matter if our guys are every fully included into society here in Ukraine, they will fully be included into my heart. Not everyone is lucky enough to live with superheroes, but I get to live with 4. I’m one lucky lady. 🙂

BeLOVE[d]

 

Deinstitutionalization is no Joke.

It’s been about a month since I last wrote here. We’ve been a family of 11 for about 6 weeks now and finding time to come up for air these days is quite the challenge. 🙂 The past 6 weeks have contained some of the highest highs and the lowest lows I have ever experienced. Alllllllll the feels. All of ’em. Deinstitutionalization is no joke.

The more we know our guys, the more we grieve over the many wasted years, the many abuses and the neglect. And the more we know them the deeper we grieve for the ones left behind.

Ruslan, Anton, Boris- they are not children. They are men, each with more than 20 years spent wasting away, locked away, hidden away. The tragedy of it makes my heart ache. They have spent their whole lives living in fear, treated like animals, when all along they were worth so much more.

Sometimes I look at them and I see them at face value: men who spent their lives in a mental institution. They have B.O. They don’t close the door when they use the bathroom. They don’t wash their hands without a reminder EVERY TIME. Anton spits when he is angry and has been aggressive at times. Boris still hits himself waaaaaaay too much. They don’t sleep well (which means we don’t sleep well). They have major anxiety about just about everything. They are food-obsessed. Ruslan asks the same questions approximately 258 times per day. They wipe their noses on their pillows. Anton will wander off and has no awareness of cars or strangers. Boris will wet himself as a way of manipulating us or the situation. Ruslan has a tennis ball that he obsessively searches for in the night- just to make sure it’s still there.

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And on and on. So much brokenness. So many tears (cried by me, because they never cry,  they only laugh when they should cry).

Last week, at an especially hard moment, I looked at Jed and asked “How can we ever expect anyone to want to do this work with us? It’s just.so.hard.” And then Jed calmly reminded me that God loves our guys more than we ever could and this is HIS work. Any time we try to pick up the weight of this and carry it by ourselves we collapse under the weight of it. We have to daily, sometimes hourly, hand the weight of this work back over to Jesus.

Yes, the more we know them the more we grieve.

But, also, the more we know them the more we love them.

Ruslan sings himself to sleep every night. He sings about whatever is on his mind and it’s hilarious. He sings about the friends who will come over the next day, or about a girl he thinks is pretty 🙂 or about Jesus. And Anton!  Guys, Anton is talking. Like a lot! When he was in the institution I only ever really heard him say one word. If you asked him who loved him he would answer “God”. Now he talks so much. He talks in bed, on the toilet, in the bath, at the table. Mostly he talks to himself, but when you ask him a question he will often answer, and a lot times we can understand him!  It’s absolutely incredible to watch him explode with language. We hoped for that, but I’m not sure we really expected it to happen! Boris is growing and changing all the time. He understands English and I pretty much only speak to him in English now. He is so smart! Watching the three of them during worship at church is good for the soul. They all love music and each dance in their own way. It’s so funny and cute and soul-filling.

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When we lay ourselves down and choose to view our guys through Jesus’ eyes, with eyes of compassion, we can look past the effects of a life of trauma and see the little boy inside who just wants to know he is safe.

Our sweet Anton can get quite stressed in his new life. He spent the last 20+ years sitting on a bench, so it makes sense that he would get overwhelmed. Now we can see the signs: red cheeks and neck and lots of talking. He can get a bit aggressive when he is overwhelmed and that really scared me. My mind started racing “What have we done???” Then one day we realized that Anton is a 30 year old sized two year old. He really is!  He is developmentally stuck at about age 2 or 3- he’s just a big dude, so looks can be deceiving. Now we know when he has a tantrum we just need to treat him at his developmental age and all will be well, eventually.  Our sweet buddy, we love him so much. Now if he’d just sleep a little more…

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The kids are still doing well. Vlad has been reverting into some old behaviors, so that’s tricky, but I guess was to be expected. Yesterday we went to lunch and the three older guys stayed at home with Kenny and one of our interns. We asked the kids each how they are doing, what are some of the joys and struggles of having our new additions home. By and large, table manners were the biggest complaint (ha!) and hearing Anton talk was the biggest joy. I was happy with those answers. We can work on table manners!

The days are full, and often hard, but we also have a lot of moments of laughter. Most of all, we have love. So, we’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other. 🙂

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Wide Awake Family Grows!

Happy Fall!

The trees are so so beautiful here right now and the weather is unseasonably  mild. The day before yesterday I roasted a pumpkin and made a pumpkin cheesecake treat and then yesterday cooked up some pumpkin soup. Fall has officially made it’s way to the Homestead. Bring on the cozy!

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Hava, school friends, and pretty fall colors

I always love to make a cozy home, but this year I have even more reason to create coziness. If you follow us on Instagram or our personal Facebook you already heard, but yes, our family is growing. We’re havin’ a baby!

I know, I know. We were rather shocked too. (to put it mildly)

In the middle of the crazy month of June when teams were coming and going and we could barely keep our heads on straight we found out the news. I remember the shock and the overwhelming feeling of “how in the world are we going to do this?”  We decided to keep our little surprise a secret until we could really wrap our brains around it.

We thought the baby days were long gone for us. Seven year old Seth was the last baby we had in our home, and after 7 years straight of newborns- bio and foster– we were more than ready to say goodbye to diapers, bottles, bouncy seats, and sleepless nights. We had moved into the magical season when no one needs to nap, everyone can potty independently and get their own drinks of water. And then BAM! The bomb dropped. 🙂

After the initial shock wore off and the crazy summer slowed down a bit we were able think straight. It didn’t take long for us to see the joy in our unexpected gift. How precious it will be to witness new life once again. Our lives here, our work here is surrounded by brokenness. Our boys are so broken. They have endured years upon years of abuse and neglect. The nurturing they missed out on as little babies is visible in their bodies even today. Our Vladik has come so far, yet every day we work with him to repair the brokenness inside.  It’s a hard and painful road, but one we are called to walk down and we do, with joy and sadness mixed. We pray that this baby will be like a healing balm to our family and to our boys. How amazing it will be to have the opportunity to nurture this little one, to meet his or her needs and to watch him or her grow- surrounded by love- the way God intended. How encouraging it will be to not have to fight against years of neglect, and how joyful it will be for our other kiddos to be a part of the process.

We are so happy and we are so thankful. God truly does know what we need.

So it is with great joy that we share our wonderful gift of new life.

I’m 23 weeks pregnant now (more than halfway!), and baby is due to make it’s appearance right around Valentine’s Day. We never find out the gender beforehand, so we’re keeping it a surprise this time around too. We already have boys and girls, so it doesn’t really matter- although our girls feel pretty strongly that they need a sister to even things out. It’s been 9 years since my body has done the whole growing  a baby thing, but so far so good, even if I am considered “advanced maternal age”. 😉 I definitely feel it more this time around, the discomfort and all that, but my body is generally pretty good at being pregnant, so I don’t have many complaints.

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Baby and me at the halfway point

Navigating a pregnancy here in Ukraine is definitely an adventure I never expected to have!  Of course the whole system is vastly different than what I’ve been used to in the past, but so far so good. I’ve mostly encountered a bazillion blood tests and a bazillion documents. I go to one doctor now, and then will switch to a “delivery doctor” when we are closer to the due date. Many people have asked if we will fly to the US for the birth, but that’s really not practical, for a number of reasons. Ukrainian women have babies here every day and do fine. I don’t see why it should be any different for me.

So I’m cozying up the house, taking advantage of quiet moments when the kids are at school (soon the quiet will disappear again!), and trying to be kind to my advanced maternal age body by putting my feet up when I need to (not easy to do when dishes pile up and boxes need unpacking STILL and 5 kids need me, but I’m trying). I know soon everything will change again, so I’m attempting to not rush this time, but to treasure the moments we have as a family of 7. Hopefully it won’t be long before our first Romaniv friend joins our family, and the baby soon after, so living in today is becoming an important skill to develop. It’s so interesting how the physical and spiritual align themselves. As we have been preparing the home for our boys and expecting them, things around us have changed. We have long compared the building of the Homestead and now the legal process of gaining guardianship as a kind of “pregnancy”. Now we also have a physical pregnancy. We are joyfully “expecting” in more ways than one.

Thank you to all who have shared our joy. Your encouraging words have blessed our family. We will be so excited to introduce our new baby to you in just a few short months! Yay for seasons of growth! (literally!) 😉

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In Loving Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Run free, my love.

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All About Vladik: One Year Free

Two days ago we celebrated one year of freedom for our sweet Vladik.  Our miracle boy spent the day at a Hungarian water park (long story…for another post) discovering his great love for enormous water slides.  He ran and played and splashed, yelling “Mom, look!  Dad, watch me!” He watched his brothers and sisters do things he was nervous to do, then conquered his fears and tried for himself.  He ate ice cream and pizza and laughed and asked “Blue slide again?”  

He truly lived.  


On one hand I can hardly believe a whole year has passed since Vladik came out of Romaniv forever, but mostly it feels like a lifetime ago.  When I go to Romaniv these days I can hardly picture him there.  He is truly a different child.  

It’s interesting because if you ask anyone who visited Romaniv and met Vladik there they would all tell you how happy he was.  He was always laughing and smiling.  ALWAYS.  But now that we truly know him we can see his behavior then for what it really was.  Yes, he was smiling, and yes he laughed a lot, but he was also afraid- ALL THE TIME.  His body showed his fear in the way he held himself; his shoulders scrunched up, his head down, full-on protection mode at every moment. His laugh seemed happy, but now we know that laugh as the nervous, afraid laugh that shows up when he is unsure. If you asked him for a hug he would sort of back up toward you and lean a shoulder in. You could see he was compliant but he didn’t feel comfortable and he didn’t enjoy it.  He was afraid of physical contact and always on guard.  He had a bright countenance that I believe came from the Lord, but it was just a dim flicker compared to how he shines now.  

The boy we knew at Romaniv was a shadow of the boy we know now.  And the boy we know now is amazing.  

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He is funny and loves to make his siblings laugh. He comes up to me several times a day with his arms open as wide as possible, asking for a hug. He adores Bluebell, our puppy, and could play with her for hours. He likes ice cream and potatoes and pizza and soup. He’s a daredevil and wants everything faster and higher and louder. His bike is his most prized possession. He and Seth are still thick as thieves and when they get too quiet I know something is up…typical brothers. 😉 He speaks English and Ukrainian and a mish-mash of the two that can only be described as “Vladik speak”. Oh, and he pretty much never stops talking.  Motor.Mouth.

We think Vladik is doing miraculously well.  His transition to our family has been amazingly smooth.  BUT 15 years of institutionalization, 11 of those in a bad place, can not be erased in one year.  We have so many wonderful moments, and we also have so many difficult moments.  Parenting a child who has lived a lifetime of trauma is no joke.  It requires constant reassurance and truckloads of patience (of which I am guilty of running short).  Just when you think you’ve conquered a certain behavior or fear something triggers and you go ’round the mountain again…and again.  

Put your arms down. No beeping. We’re going home soon. Put your arms down.  No beeping. If you want to talk to someone just say “hi”, you don’t need to make strange noises to get attention. No beeping. Put your arms down. And on and on…

It’s no secret that extra struggles come with the fact that we are back in Ukraine.  Most every other internationally adopted child I know leaves their institutional life and it is over and gone for good; new life, new memories, old life gone forever.  That will never be Vladik’s reality.  Romaniv has stayed and will stay a part of his life.  It is our life.  As much as we would love for him to, he doesn’t ever get to fully forget. We will never ever take him to Romaniv again, and we tell him that all the time, but he knows we go there and he hears us talk of it daily. Some people might think it’s cruel of us to bring him back here where he is constantly reminded of his past.  We know that.  We know, and our only response is “God said so.”  Just like our other children have an unusual life because of what God has called our family to, so it is with Vladik.  And just like we trust that God is caring for our other children and giving them what they need, so it is with Vladik.  When we chose to say yes to adopting Vladik we knew this would be his reality and still we knew that we knew God was saying to make him our son.  So we did.  

Annnnnd God is making a way for our boy, even here in Ukraine.  He is surrounded by our team who knew him when he was an orphan and know him now.  In their eyes he is a celebrity.  He is what we dream of for all of our boys, in the flesh.  His presence in our church here in Ukraine brings hope and refreshment to those who work tirelessly on behalf of the ones Vladik left behind.  He brings joy wherever he goes.  🙂 


A local private school welcomed all our kids with open arms, including Vladik.  He gets to do PE, music, and art with the fifth grade, while having individual lessons the rest of the day.  I get to make his lesson plans and our dear friend has agreed to teach him.  She loves Vladik and sees him for the beautiful soul that he is.  Their lessons start next month and I can’t wait to see how he thrives.  So far the kids at the school have been kind and accepting of Vladik.  We are thankful. 

He gets to attend a weekly class at Mission to Ukraine where he will be treasured and valued.  Full circle. 


The other day we were visiting a beautiful basilica in Budapest.  We decided to pay the fee and go see the inside of the building. We approached the cashier and when he saw Vladik he smiled so warmly.  He almost pushed us into the church, “You don’t pay!  Please, please go for free” he exclaimed with a kind pat on Vladik’s back, and a look of tenderness in his eyes. I could see there was no pity there, only love. Oh man, the tears were flowing.  That man, he saw the beauty of our boy.  There was no look of disgust, no disdain, no mouth-hanging-open staring.  There was love.  For me that moment was a gift from God.  It felt like God was whispering over us “See, I see your boy, and I’m watching over him.” 

Vladik’s healing is a long road, but he is definitely well on his way.  He is absolutely flourishing and growing and LIVING.  We will never ever be the same because he is our son.  He is our gift and I pray we never take him for granted.