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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While the Light Remains

About three weeks ago two new little loves arrived at our institution.  We had been anticipating their arrival, wondering what they would be like.  Our Ben had recently vacated his crib (YAY!), and while our hearts were broken, knowing his crib would soon be filled again, our hearts were also expectant, knowing two new lives would enter ours, and knowing we would love them instantly.

We were right.  Love at first sight.

Sweet Baby A has been hospitalized almost continually since the transfer.  We haven’t been able to get to know him yet, but we love him nonetheless, and right now we are just thankful that he is alive and on the mend. 

Our other little love has us all smitten.  We are goners, and I can guarantee you’ll be one too by the end of this post.

Meet baby “Kayden“. 


COME.ON. How can cuteness like this exist?  Especially in a mental institution out in the boonies????  He is out of control perfection.  COME.TO.MAMA. 

I introduced him to you on FB yesterday and so many people were instantly in love.  We had let our kids name him “Sam”, after our friend Sam who just visited us last week.  Boy was I surprised when I found out that he had already been listed on an orphan advocacy site, and there were already people who had been trying to find a family for him!  They had named him “Kayden“, so we’ll just run with that.  Sam=Kayden=bundle of love. 


If you click on his profile on the advocacy site you will find a loooooong list of diagnoses.  Many of them sound very scary and many of them sound just plain confusing.  I get that.  But for just one minute, forget that list and look at the child.  

He is perfectly amazing.  He is beautiful.  He is pure sunshine.  He is giggles and smiles and hilarious expressions.  He is light in a dark place and HE DOES NOT BELONG THERE.  No child belongs there, it’s true.  But seriously, we have got to get this baby out, and we’ve got to do it quick.

The thing is, our institution ruins children.  It is all sensory deprivation and neglect and ugliness. Little Kayden has a spark.  He has life and light in his eyes and he doesn’t yet know that he has been sent to die.  Did you know that when baby houses transfer boys to our institution that they expect them to be dead within 6 months?  It’s true.  I’ve heard it from directors’ mouths.  Everyone knows that a mental institution is no place for a fragile piece of sunshine like this.  How can a child thrive in a place like this?  He can’t.  A mental institution is a death sentence.  It’s the end of the road. 

Unless. 

Unless one brave family looks at the child, and considers the diagnoses and decides to take a leap for the sake of a life. 

Kayden is available for adoption, and adoption is what will save his life.  

We have him in a room with our Isaiah where he will get good nanny attention, and that is good.  That is necessary.  He would most surely die if it weren’t for those special nannies.  But even the best nanny can not provide what a mommy and daddy can give.  Consider our little Ben!  He is home with his family and is gaining weight like crazy!  Our nannies could never get him to gain no matter how hard they tried. His mommy reports that he is starting to find his voice.  With us he was practically silent.  I’ve seen video of him smiling and laughing- that is not the boy we knew.  Now he is known.  Now he is loved.  Now he has light in his eyes.  Children were not made for institutions.  Children were made for families.  Our Vladik and little Ben are living proof of that.  

Kayden still has light and hope.  My heart longs for a family to scoop him up before we have to watch that light fade.  



Kayden is five years old and weighs 19lbs. Right now he only drinks from a bottle, but our team is trying to teach him to eat from a spoon. He can sit up, but he does not crawl or walk. Would you please consider our boy?  Would you please pause and ask God how He would like you to respond to this face?  Would you please share Kayden’s face far and wide so that his mommy and daddy might see him as quickly as possible and come to him?  Sharing works.  That is how our boys are being found.  We simply have to get their faces out there and then God does the rest.  Let’s get this baby out while the light still remains.  Ready, set, go! 

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If you would like more info about Kayden, please do not hestitate to contact me.  You can comment here, or you can email me at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org. You can find more photos of him, and info about the adoption process in his country here.

The Front Lines

Last night, in the middle of the night, we stood outside the orphanage, unsure of what to do.  A young child lay dying inside and never had we felt so helpless.  All the details of what transpired are for a later post, as a lot is still unresolved, but last night there was a fight for his life on all levels, and I will never ever forget it.  For now, he lives.  

Lately we have felt pressed on all sides.  Lately it’s felt like the difficulties will never stop and the obstacles will just keep on coming without relief.  Several times over the past couple of months we’ve said “Something’s gotta give.”  Some days we felt like we just couldn’t take one more challenge.  It all just feels like too much. 

BUT

Then we remember the big picture.  We are not simply fighting an injust system.  We are not just battling passport officers and city administrators and higher-ups only looking to fill their pockets.  This battle is not against flesh and blood.  

We are fighting for lives.  We are fighting for precious souls who have been discarded by the world.  We are fighting for God’s Kingdom to come in a very dark place.  We are fighting for glimpses of Heaven to break through.  And we do not fight alone.  God goes before us and this is HIS battle.  

Right now our team is on the front lines and we are advancing.  Look what God is doing!

Our sweet Stephan will have a family!  Yes, a family has committed to adopting our little love.  It’s a miracle. He will have a future.  He will be saved.  They are in the beginning stages of paperwork, but they love him and are fighting to get to him.


Two other families are still working hard to adopt Isaiah and Jonathan.  They have hit many roadblocks along the way, but progress is being made and we are confident that God goes before them.


The new roof is going up on our Wide Awake property house.  Every day brings us closer to bringing our boys out for good.

Next week our family will submit our documents for permanent residency.  Once we get permission to stay here forever it will be much easier for us to register Wide Awake as a Ukrainian non-profit.  That will be a big and necessary step toward getting our boys out.

Jed and Den, our pastor and board member, met with the Ukrainian Ombudsman for the Rights and Protection of children to discuss Wide Awake’s vision and plans.  The President’s office is aware of our team and the work.  Relationship is building there and who knows how God plans to use that? 

All of this is thanks to God.  He gets the glory for every single bit of it because there is NO WAY we could have strategized enough or worked hard enough for this kind of advancement.  We certainly would have screwed it all up.  God loves our Boys so very much and He is clearing the way for the freedom.  HE is doing all of this, not us.  

So, it is no wonder that we meet resistance.  It’s no wonder that with all of this amazing stuff happening that we meet obstacles of every kind.  It’s no wonder that our hearts get overwhelmed and we are hit with trial after trial.  It’s no wonder that we get afraid and intimidated and distracted.  The enemy will not give up his ground so easily.  

Last night, standing in the cold, knowing death was near, we were on the very edge of the front line.  We were in the line of fire.  Never in your life can you be prepared for a moment like that.  Never in your life could you imagine that you would need to convince medical professionals of the value and worth of a life.  

Friends, we need prayer like never before.  The battle is heating up and much is at stake.  We need supernatural wisdom like never before.  We need favor with government officials and orphanage administration.  We need to know when to push and when to hold back.  Most of all we just need Jesus.  We need to have his heart and his eyes. We need to remain humble and small in our own eyes, that He might be lifted up.  We need to simply say yes and give Him the control.  He loves our boys more than we ever could.   


Please pray for our new little one who is so sick.  I will give details as I am able. Thank you! 

From Darkness Into Light

One month ago the most miraculous thing happened.  I didn’t realize that basically I’d been holding my breath since January.  I didn’t realize it until one month ago when our team finally breathed a collective sigh of relief.  

He made it.  He survived.  He made it out. His family took him out forever, never to return.  

Our baby Ben was saved.  


I think we all hoped with all of our hearts that it would happen, but until I watched Ben’s mommy and grandma walk him out of the Isolation Hall, down the sidewalk, and actually get into the van with him, I’m not sure I believed it would really happen.  It was just too good to be true.  FREEDOM!!!!

Ben is at home with his loving daddy and mommy and two brothers.  He is doing amazing.  He is a survivor and he beat the odds.  And now he has a future!  It’s what we want for every single one of our boys.  It’s the perfect end to a beautiful love story…actually I guess it’s the perfect beginning, because only now does Ben’s life truly begin.  


Freedom. It’s what we want for every single boy and man within the walls of the institution.  That’s why we moved here.  That’s why we purchased the land.  That’s why Jed spoke in Switzerland yesterday and in Germany today.  Many, many people need to know about our boys because it will take many, many people to help set them all free.  

Almost all of our boys are trapped in the cycle of institutions forever unless we get them out into group homes.  They are too old to be adopted or their parents still maintain their rights.  They are stuck. 

BUT Stephan.  Stephan is not stuck.  He is one of the very few who is available for adoption.  His fate doesn’t have to be the same as the others.  He could have the freedom and love that Ben now knows- and he could have it soon!  All that is needed is one loving family to step forward and claim their son.  


Stephan is such a tiny little love.  He’s thirteen years old but about the size of our 6 year old, Seth.  If you didn’t know his age you’d swear he’s 6 or 7.  Years of neglect, physical and emotional, have stunted his growth.  He loves to eat, and eats well, but he’s still so tiny.

I’ll tell you what, Stephan is all boy!  There is nothing he likes more than to be spun around and around and to sit on a walker or in a wheelchair and be pushed FAST.  The faster the better for our boy.  He loves to play rough and he loves tickles.  See, the thing is, our sweet Stephan is blind.  To be in darkness in that place, oh my heart can’t even comprehend.  The institution is a rush to all of your senses.  The smells, the sounds, the sights, all of it rushes you like a freight train upon entering, but when I think about hearing and smelling all of that and not being able to see?  Yeah, I get a little panicky just thinking of it, and I’m a grown woman!  No person should have to sleep one night there, let alone spend years there in darkness.  It’s just too much.  Too much.  Someone please get him out of there. 


I’ve been wanting to hardcore advocate for Stephen for a long time.  There was just one major detail that kept me from it.  We knew that he was blind, but then several nannies told us that he was also deaf!  This was news to us because deafness was not in his medical file.  Yet several insisted that yes, he was deaf.  I did not believe it, but I needed to be 100% sure before I could ask a family to come for him and be confident on that very big detail.

You might be thinking “How could you NOT know if a child is deaf or not?  Wouldn’t it be obvious?”  In a typically developing child in a safe environment, yes I guess it would be fairly easy to detect if there was a problem, but at our institution it is not.  I told you before that the your senses are assaulted upon entering, right?  I don’t even know how to fully explain to you what it is like there.  It is loud: screeches, screams, some laughter, crying, yelling.  During the day the noise is just about constant. And then there is the lack of stimulus.  There is just nothing there.  Unless the interns or a team is there, the Isolation Hall is just pure nothingness.  No books, no toys, no music, nothing.  Years of pure nothingness, lack of stimuli, has left our boys with many inappropriate behaviors and responses.  Pure nothingness leads them to self-harming behaviors and autistic-type behaviors.  Now imagine that nothingness coupled with darkness?  Yeah, horrible.  Stephan, like many of the other boys, does not respond appropriately much of the time.  He has learned to tune out the world around him.  It’s survival.  


A few weeks ago I was sitting on a bed with our Vitya, cuddling him to sleep because he had a horrible toothache. Stephan came and was sitting at the other end of the bed.  I sat quietly and just observed him, hoping to get my questions answered about his hearing.  I called his name, no response.  He sat quietly twirling his sock in front of his face, twirling and twirling.  Then a nanny came in and saw that his socks were off.  “Stephan, why are your socks off?  Give me your foot” He stuck his foot out.  “Now give me your other foot.”  He stuck out his other foot.  She wasn’t touching his feet, she was only speaking, and he listened and obeyed.  Question answered.  He hears.  I told that nanny what others had said about him being deaf.  Her reply “Maybe he doesn’t want to listen all the time, but of course he hears!”  Haha.  Sounds like a typical kiddo to me! 



Stephan is potty-trained and goes to the toilet independently.  He does not self-harm, nor have I ever seen him harm others. He doesn’t really interact with the other boys at all.  He could learn to feed himself, but at this time he’s not interested in learning. He can walk and run, but he does not speak. he spends all of his days standing under the window or sitting in the kitchen waiting for the next meal.  He spins and twirls to get his sensory needs met and he adores going outside. But, his quality of life is very poor and will remain that way until he is free.

I believe with all of my heart that there is a family out there for our sweet boy.  He has SO MUCH potential!!!  Please don’t be scared off by his age.  He’s like a toddler in behavior, and like a first grader in size, yet in a little over two years he will age out and his chance to be adopted will be gone forever.  He has waited too long in unsafe darkness.

Would you please pass on Stephan’s face to others?  Would you please consider him for your own family?  Maybe you have said that you hope to adopt some day but have never considered a special needs adoption.  Would you consider it now?  Would you at least promise to pray and ask God how He would like you to respond?  We always said we would not consider special-needs adoption…uh yeah…never say never.  Ha! 

This boy lives in a very bad place and he needs out yesterday.  I know that I know that the family who chooses him will be so blessed to see him blossom before their very eyes.  He is an absolute treasure. 


I am happy to answer any questions you may have about Stephan.  Just comment here or email me at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org 

Also, our Stephan has a $10,000 adoption grant through Reece’s Rainbow!!!  That removes a HUGE barrier to his adoption.  Please share him far and wide and let’s find this boy a family! 

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.