What’s Up at Romaniv?

It’s been a long time since I’ve talked about Romaniv in this space! Sadly, that’s because it’s been so long since we’ve been able to regularly spend time there with our boys.

Every year, usually sometime during January and February, Romaniv shuts itself off to visitors. They call it “Quarantine”. They were doing quarantine long before it became a worldwide “thing”. ūüėČ It makes sense that they would do that each year. Jan/Feb is usually the peak of flu season and they want to protect the boys from people coming in with all the winter germs. So, this year, before COVID was even a thought in Ukraine, Romaniv was already in quarantine.

Then…COVID.

Romaniv was quarantined for many many months. Finally in the summer they told us we could come, but we didn’t feel good about it. We really wanted to make sure we didn’t unnecessarily expose the boys to the virus, and we just felt it wasn’t time. We decided to wait.

Then came the fall, and the realization that waiting is not going to do much good. As much as we hate to admit it, COVID isn’t going away anytime soon, and life must go on. Yes, going to visit could expose the boys to the virus, but not going is not a viable option either. Our boys need to see their friends. They need to be held and loved and safe for a few hours. There are risks to their health if we go, and risks to their mental/emotional health if we stay away. After much prayerful consideration, we felt the green light to begin visiting again.

For three weeks we tried to arrange a meeting with the staff so that we could begin visits, and by the time they were ready to meet, their region had a spike in COVID cases and they closed for another quarantine. NOOO!

All that to say, we still haven’t been able to visit. But, we are waiting (not so) patiently, and as soon as quarantine is lifted, we’ll be there.

One big development that happened in the late summer is that all the boys at Romaniv under the age of 18 were transferred out, to a different institution in Teteriv, and several new adults were transferred in to Romaniv. Those changes came about so the institution could be renamed and reclassified. It has always been called “Romaniv Children’s Home”, even though there were very few actual children there. Out of more than 80 boys, only 5 were legal minors at the time of the proposed name change. Once those 5 were moved out, the institution could be renamed and reclassified. So, “technically” it’s not an orphanage anymore, but we all know that changes nothing. It is still a dark place full of precious souls who desperately need to know the love of family, so a name change makes no difference to us.

We have yet to learn if the move to Teteriv has been beneficial or detrimental to the 5 young ones who were transferred. It’s hard to imagine things could be much worse than they were at Romaniv, although we know that any change is stressful for our boys- even if it’s good change. We don’t have any relationship with the administration there, so we have not attempted a visit yet. Also, all the orphanages are currently quarantined. Sasha, the boy who we hope will be first to live in the duplex was among the 5 that were transferred. Soon Jed will have legal guardianship of him, and then he will have a legal right to visit him at Teteriv. We are hopeful that will help open doors for us to see the other 4 of our boys who were transferred along with Sasha. That reminds me that I need to write a post about Sasha! I’ll do it next week. ūüôā

So, while the doors to Romaniv are closed to us, we will keep on keepin’ on here. Our team will keep loving our boys who are already free, and our builders will keep working hard to create a place of beauty for the ones who will soon know freedom.

Would you please join us in praying for our boys at Romaniv and at Teteriv? Pray that God would be so very near to them and that he would bring peace to their hearts. Pray for their safety and health, and that the COVID situation will improve in Ukraine, so that it will be safe for us to visit them again soon.

I promise to keep you updated whenever there is an update to give!

Are you signed up for our weekly email updates? Come on! ūüôā

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The First Time

Her heart pounded in her chest and her stomach churned as the van turned onto the gravel road lined with trees.

Two weeks earlier she and he had left their four small children and flew all the way across the world to visit that place. They had heard the stories and knew deep in their souls that they were supposed to DO something about the injustices being done in that place and others like it.

She had cried countless tears over the past year as she washed dishes and changed diapers and swept the floor in suburban America. Her heart was broken for the helpless ones who were trapped in their suffering with no future, no hope. Though she had never met them, in her heart she already loved them. Her mama heart ached to hold them and make everything better.

The van pulled up to a gate and stopped. They stepped out of the van and instantly she heard them. She heard the sounds of the ones she had dreamed of and longed to know. The yelling, the moaning, the cries of excitement intensified- visitors had arrived!

She and he walked hand in hand down the sidewalk of the institution and the noises became louder. She saw curious faces peeking through windows and her heart skipped a beat. Would her heart deny her? Would her body betray her? Would all their preparations and prayers leave them reeling in the depth of their naivety? What if they met the boys face to face and wanted to run away from them instead of embracing them? What if this was not the YES they had hoped it would be?

But then a door opened and she was among them, punched in the gut by the smells and the sounds; all five senses assaulted in an instant.

As she and he were swarmed by faces and hands and bodies, fear melted away and her heart became alive. In that moment she realized that her soul had been longing for those souls in front of her. Her hands were covered in their saliva and their scent, and yet she couldn’t contain the joy and the “rightness” she felt in that moment. She glanced in his direction and their eyes met. He gave a slight nod, yes, he felt it too.

This was what they were put on the earth to do. These were their people. This was their path.

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That first day at Romaniv will forever burn in my memory. I met my boys that day. I met my future that day. I loved them instantly and fiercely that day and I promised myself I would fight endlessly for them. It was a naive love, most definitely, but it was true.

Mama Bear awoke that day. Circumstances and disappointments have made her cower in her cave these last months, afraid to love them like she did before. Living with them was harder than she imagined it would be. In the midst of their overwhelming trauma, her love has not been enough. Their hearts are like bottomless pits that can never be filled. No amount of her love will ever be enough. So she cowers in her cave, afraid to give more, afraid to bring more boys to freedom because of the damage, pain and disappointment that is sure to follow.

But she can not fight for them from her cave. She can not fight for them and remain safe from pain. To love them is to feel their pain and to walk with them through it, even if that walk takes forever.

I am their Mama and I will not be afraid.

The Best Kind of Story+ A Birthday Wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their reply “We love him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can give your tax-deductible donation here. 

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

The One Left Behind

Today our precious “Kayden” met his adoptive¬†family. That means that Aaron is the only boy available for adoption at the institution- and he ages out at the end of this year! SEVEN of our boys have been¬†advocated for and are now living in families. SEVEN boys who were once lost are now found.

Aaron is the only one left behind who has the chance for a¬†family. I wrote this post a couple of years ago. Will you please help me share Aaron’s face? He is so in need of the love of a mama and daddy.¬†

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Today I want to help you get to know our precious Aaron.

I haven’t done much advocating¬†specifically for him. ¬†Out of all of our boys who are available for adoption you probably know him the least. ¬†That’s my fault. ¬†My faith has been small.

This is the thing: some kids are really easy to write about. ¬†Every picture you take of them is adorable and people can’t get enough of their cuteness. ¬†Maybe they smile all the time and our cameras seem to find them on every visit. ¬†I can’t keep cuteness like that to myself! ¬†It just wouldn’t be right! ¬†ūüėČ

Other kids are more difficult to write about. ¬†Maybe they don’t photograph well, or maybe they just never sit still long enough for anyone to capture more than a blur of movement. Maybe their behaviors are really difficult to manage and it’s hard to know what to say. ¬†Maybe there aren’t many cute stories to share…maybe none of their history is known so it’s hard to paint a whole picture.

Aaron is one who has been difficult to write about. ¬†I haven’t quite known what to say.

One of my biggest concerns with advocacy is that I want to be very, very certain that I am writing with honesty. I have nightmares about adoptive families arriving at the institution, meeting their child for the first time and saying to me “You didn’t tell me this!” ¬†I know that adoptive families can never truly understand what our boys are like, or what Romaniv is until they arrive and see it firsthand: smell the smells, hear the sounds, feel the pain. ¬†But I’d like them to at least feel that I was honest in my description of the son they have fought so hard to rescue.

Because of that, it’s more difficult to advocate well for a child like Aaron.

He’s so difficult to photograph. His behaviors are extremely tricky to manage. ¬†He is not liked by many of the orphanage staff. His quality of life is so poor, I can’t even accurately describe it. ¬†He is loud. When we first met he was like a wild animal: a sensory-seeking boy in a sensory-deprived environment. ¬†His life is pure nothingness so he searches for sensory input however he can get it. ¬†If that means he has to literally climb up a team member’s body to get their attention, he’ll do it. ¬†He absolutely LOVES water, but never gets access to it, so we have spent many a visit with one team member’s sole task being to keep Aaron from ripping the sink apart in his desperate attempt to feel the water.

He needs so much more than he is getting- in every single area of his life.

But the thing is, all the reasons that make advocacy difficult are the reasons why Aaron needs a voice maybe more than any of the other boys who are available to be adopted.

It’s almost impossible to get a good picture of him. ¬†But I think he is absolutely beautiful.

He is loud and he screams and he has no words.  I hear the plea of a baby boy asking for his mommy.  I hear a sweet little boy whose voice is never heard.  I hear a child crying to be rescued.

He is a wild man who drives the nannies absolutely crazy with his quest for sensory input.  I see a little boy who is desperate for a big backyard and a dog and a hose on a sunny day.  I see a sweet soul who needs to be able to swing for hours on end, feel the wind in his face and the grass under his toes.  

God has given us a very special love for our boys that goes beyond reason. ¬†It’s a supernatural love that could only come from him. ¬†He gave us mommy and daddy love that sees the beauty of our boys, even when they do things that would not be considered beautiful, or even cute. He gave this love to us so that we would have the umph and the passion and the drive to fight for them. ¬†He gave us voices so that we could speak for the voiceless. He made us totally biased, because our boys need people who are on their side and are completely biased for them.

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I am biased in my love for Aaron. ¬†It’s true!

So today I speak for Aaron and I tell you that he is a treasure. He has boundless energy and so much curiosity. He wants to learn and soak in all that life has to offer. And this most precious treasure is desperate for a family. ¬†His situation is dire. ¬†He is unwanted and disliked and abused…and soon his time will run out. I want to talk all about the ways I believe he would change in a family, but I need to tell you how he is right now, because I can’t know he will or won’t change. A family that chooses him needs to come in with eyes wide open and love him just as he is.

See my boy. ¬†Please see him. ¬†Imagine if he was rescued and brought into a family where he could get love and care. ¬†No doubt it will be a difficult road to walk, and the adoptive family will need to be prepared to devote a lot of time to Aaron, but oh my, it will be so worth it! To watch him come to life would be an absolute miracle to behold. ¬†The parents who get that privilege are blessed indeed. I know from experience. ¬†ūüôā

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God knew Aaron before he was even born. ¬†He saw him in his mother’s womb and formed him there. ¬†He created him for purpose and destiny. ¬†He is as valuable as you. ¬†He is as valuable as me. ¬†He is as worth it as my Ezra, my Seth, my Vladik. ¬†He is someone’s son- they just don’t know it yet. ¬†He shouldn’t be spending his summers sleeping on a mattress to avoid attention and abuse. ¬†He should be running in the sprinkler and going down slides and eating Popsicles. ¬†Why not? ¬†He’s just a little boy. ¬†A little boy in a desperate situation.

So, please pray and please share. ¬†Please pause and ask the Lord how you should respond to Aaron. ¬†Don’t dismiss him because he sounds difficult, please. ¬†He is made in the image of God and he will bring blessing and joy to some lucky family’s home. ¬†Maybe yours?

 

 

You can read more about Aaron and donate toward the cost of his adoption here. Interested families are welcome to contact me with questions at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org

My Joy

I remember the first time Jed and I ever visited Romaniv. It was in the spring of 2012 and we were in Ukraine just checking out what God had for us here. We thought we wanted to work with institutionalized people here, but we had never even been here! We knew zero language, pretty much zero about the culture and had never stepped foot in an institution. We were clueless, but we just wanted to follow Jesus and we knew He had something for us in Ukraine.

I remember we walked into Romaniv and were instantly surrounded by men. They were grabbing my hair, stroking our arms, taking our hands. The smells and sounds were completely overwhelming. But I distinctly remember catching Jed’s eye though the mob and both of us having this sense like “Yep, this is it. This is where we’re supposed to be.” We didn’t necessarily know that Romaniv was the place for us to be, but we definitely knew that we were supposed to be in close proximity and close relationship with the vulnerable and the broken.

Fast-forward 7 years and here we are, livin’ the dream in our Ukrainian village. ūüôā

For the past couple of years my focus has had to be less and less on Romaniv, and the boys in the institution, and more and more here, at the Homestead with the boys in our home. I went to Romaniv at least once a week from the time we moved here until the fall of 2017 when I was more advanced in my (surprise!) pregnancy with Evie and it just didn’t feel safe to be there with a big belly. Plus, the terrible roads made my uterus very unhappy. ūüėČ I have visited some, over the past two years, but it has been infrequent and the visits have been too short for my liking.

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Then after Evie was born I still really couldn’t be at Romaniv because she was nursing and I couldn’t leave her for long enough periods of time to get there and back and to be able to have any time with the boys. We had Boris with us too, and I was simply needed at home. Then enter Ruslan and Anton and our lives were turned completely on their heads. Suffice to say, We’ve been rather busy. Oy.

During that time while I’ve been absent our awesome interns and our wonderful Vika have been serving as faithfully as ever, loving and serving the boys. Of course Jed has gone too, as time has allowed.

We always knew that the more boys we brought here, to the Homestead, the more our attention would need to shift toward home. There is just no way to be in both places at once. But man, we have missed our boys. We knew they were being well-loved by our team, but we have missed our friends.

That’s why I’m so so happy to say that I’ve recently been freed up to go regularly with our interns Romaniv! Vika has been overseeing the interns for the past three years and has been a wonderful leader and mentor for them. But over the past several months she has taken more and more of the lead on caring for Preston and at this point it is better for her and for him if she is able to focus solely on caring for him until his adoptive parents arrive. We want her to be able to give her best to Preston and not feel pulled in too many directions. So, for the time being, I get the privilege of working with our interns!

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Every other week I will go with them and spend the whole day with them as they work with the boys in the Isolation Hall. My role is basically to support them in any way I can. I’ll make sure they have everything they need, help liaison between them and administration, and mostly just be a supportive presence so that they know they are not alone in this difficult work. I’ve already gone twice with them and I’m JUST SO HAPPY!!!!

I’m so THANKFUL to get to spend time with the boys I love.

I’m so THANKFUL that Jed is behind this and is supporting me in this time away.

I’m so THANKFUL that Evie is a trooper and loves her brothers and sisters and daddy so much that she is okay without Mommy for a day.

A part of me that has had to lie dormant for a while is being brought back to life and it feels good and right to be there. Of course Romaniv is never going to be a comfy place or a ” nice” place to be, but it is one of the few places here in Ukraine where I feel completely myself. If you really think about it, the friendships we have there with our boys, some of the nannies, and administration are some of our oldest relationships here in Ukraine! We knew our boys before we knew our team! Sitting with them and just being with them, without distraction, without laundry to tend to or phone calls to make or meals to cook is a gift and I am not taking it for granted.

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Another gift that comes with going regularly to Romaniv is that the visits renew my empathy and compassion for the guys living in our home. When I am reminded, face to face, of where our guys came from I can see with fresh eyes just how far they’ve come. When I come home from a day at Romaniv I’m so full of gratitude that Vladik, Boris, Ruslan and Anton are safe at home and not back in that place. It also renews my purpose and passion to get the others out as soon as possible.

So, expect to see more of our Romaniv boys in this space in the coming months. I bet you’ve missed them too!