In Loving Memory

Two weeks ago we heard the news, but it’s taken me a while to write about it. I’m not sure if I’ll find the right words tonight, but I’ll try, because their lives deserve to be honored. They should be known and celebrated by as many people as possible, because they were valuable and wonderful and their lives mattered.

I’m so sad to share that we have lost two of our friends. Vitya and Vova, two of our dear friends from Romaniv, have died and are now with Jesus. We are just so sad. On one hand, we are thankful that they suffer no longer. We know they are now free and they have no pain, no tears, no fear. But on the other hand we mourn so deeply for what they had to endure here on earth. We mourn that they never knew the love of a family and we weep that we didn’t get them out in time. Lots of emotions- a different one each moment. I guess we all remember anew just how important this work really is.

I’d love to share about our boys, if you’d like to know them better. I want to honor their memories by sharing with as many people as I can, just how wonderful they were.


Let’s start with Vitya. 🙂 I didn’t know Vitya quite as well as I knew Vova. We spent less time together over the years because Vitya didn’t move to the Isolation Hall until the last couple years of his life, and the Isolation Hall is where our team spends the majority of our time.

Before he was moved to the Isolation Hall, Vitya was in the same group as our Anton. He was nonverbal, but he could most definitely communicate! He was really very smart. I think anyone who visited Romaniv with us will remember Vitya. He was always ready with a handshake or a hug. When he smiled his eyes would close soooooo tightly! Vitya loved to dance and when we did our weekly dance class, back in the day, he was in absolute heaven. He had big emotions and was either very happy, or very sad, but his face showed it all. Vitya loved to pray. Any time we were going to have snack, or anytime a class ended, Vitya made certain that we stopped to pray. I will always remember that about him.

A couple of years ago Vitya was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and as his symptoms progressed he was moved to the Isolation Hall. He would fall often and just didn’t understand how to keep himself safe. We really saw him decline before quarantine. It is good and right that he is suffering no longer. But oh, we loved our Vitya and will miss his smiling face and tight hugs. I really can’t imagine Romaniv without him. He was a star and our team will never, ever forget him.

And now on to our precious Vova. Deep sigh.

I can’t help but cry as I write this. It’s heartbreaking to know that our Vova is gone. He is with Jesus, and I’m so so happy that he is free and safe and loved. We all feel that joy. But Vova’s death is a tremendous loss to our team. We planned that he would be the first to move into the second side of the duplex. We dreamed of his future as a part of our big Wide Awake Family. We imagined how he would grow and change and thrive. We wondered how he would transition and if he would maybe ever speak. We fully intended to set him free here on earth, but it will never be. He left us before we could show him that love and our heart break because of it.

I remember the first time Jed and I ever saw Vova. It was when we visited Romaniv in the spring of 2012. We were in Ukraine for the first time, scouting it out and listening for how God would have us respond to this great need, this great injustice. We visited Romaniv with Mission to Ukraine and knew at once that those boys were our people. That first visit was a bit overwhelming, but Jed and I both remembered Vova. He stood out to us because he was in such terrible condition. I’ll be honest that my first emotion upon seeing him, was fear. He was self-harming and blood was running down the side of his face. He was groaning and rocking, fiercely avoiding all human contact. He was just existing, cast away by society. His days consisted of rocking, and searching for string to swirl between his fingers.

I remember his sounds and I remember my fear. But that was not the Vova we eventually came to know. That was just a shell of a man. Our Vova had a deep laugh and an infectious smile. If you could get Vova to smile, then your day was made. Our Vova was curious. He didn’t always love to be touched and he didn’t always love to interact, but I think I can safely say that by the end of his life he had learned that some humans could be loving and good and safe. I pray that he knew he was loved by us. I know that I know that Vova knew he was loved by God. I just have to trust God’s faithfulness on that one. He promised to be a father to the fatherless, so I trust that Vova felt and knew that love. To be honest, that’s a leap of faith because Vova died from something preventable and treatable. He lived a life of abuse and neglect and in a way, he never even got to begin living. I find myself asking God a lot of questions, but in the end I choose to trust that he was near to Vova in ways we couldn’t see.

Our team visited and loved Vova for 6 years, and during 4 of those years the interns were also working closely with him on developing functional skills. It seems to us that out of all the boys in the Isolation he is one of the ones who benefited the most from that time of relationship. He really did change over time. It’s beautiful to look back through pictures and see the change in him.

The loss of Vova was a big shock to our team and we mourn him because he was loved. We will miss our friend. We are honored and thankful that we were able to know him and be witnesses to his life. As we start to bring more boys into the duplex we will remember our friend and our great love for him. His life mattered. You were loved, our Vova. You mattered to us. I’m sorry we couldn’t get to you fast enough. We will never forget you.

I’ll leave you with Vova’s laugh. This is how we want to remember our friend. Happy, curious, and gentle. Precious, and of immense value.

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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”. 😉 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. 🙂

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!

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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.

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. 🙂

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. 😉 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!

The First Time

Four years ago today we met our boys for the first time. 

On that day we had no idea that those beautiful boys would become the loves of our lives.  We had no idea they would become our mission, our dream, our passion, our dearest friends. 

Jed and I had arrived in Ukraine just days before on a crazy adventure.  We landed in Ukraine knowing not a single person, nor a single word of Ukrainian or Russian (don’t try that at home).  All we knew was that God was calling us.  He had children in Ukraine that we were supposed to respond to somehow.  We had been praying and dreaming and looking at pictures and it had become clear that we HAD to travel to Ukraine to see for ourselves.  We had to smell the smells, see the sights, touch, feel, listen.  Only then would we know God’s next steps for our family.

 

Our first day in Ukraine

 

We made a handful of email contacts, “We want to serve children with disabilities…can we come see what you do?” We stayed in hostels, fumbled with public transportation and had an adventure we would never forget. 

On the day we were to visit Romaniv for the first time with our now partner organization, Mission to Ukraine, we had butterflies in our stomachs.  I remember Jed and I both wondering how we would feel when we met the boys.  Our hearts had been broken for orphans with disabilities in Ukraine, but we had never actually met any of them.  What if we got to the orphanage and were too overwhelmed?  What if the sights and smells and sounds would be too much for us?  We so desired to give our lives to them, but what if our bodies rejected that dream?  What if our humanness held us back?  

I remember when we walked into the first room, empty of things except benches against the walls.  

And boys. So many boys.  Our babies.

They walked toward us with arms outstretched and soon we were swarmed by them.  

It smelled so.bad. The smell took my breath away.

The boys looked unlike any people I had ever seen before.  The neglect was unreal.   I had moments of panic as they reached for me, unsure how to respond to them, unsure of what they would do.

The sounds assaulted my ears: moaning, crying, and shrieking intermingled with laughter and words I didn’t understand.  

It was completely overwhelming in every possible way. 

And yet.

I remember so clearly the moment when Jed and I made eye contact through the crowd.  I glanced over at him wondering if I could tell from his face what he was thinking.  Personally, I was both totally freaked out and totally in love at the same time.  My heart was exploding and I knew.  I just knew THIS was what God made me for.  I looked over at Jed, his body surrounded by boys on all sides, and our eyes met.  His eyes were full of tears.  He nodded at me like “Yep, this is it.”

I wonder what we would have said if God had let us in on the little secret that we had met our future son that day?  Wow. 🙂

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The rest is history.  After that trip we came home, founded Wide Awake, left our jobs, passed off our church responsibilities, sold everything, and moved to Ukraine.  

We thought we would serve at Romaniv for a year and then maybe move on to an institution further south, but after one year we knew we could never leave.  We were made to love those boys.  Our lives were not complete without them.  Our children had grown to love them.  How could we walk away?  

And so, we press on.  We step forward with the dream to get our boys to safety.  It is our joy to serve them as long as God allows us.  

I am in awe of all God has done in four short years.  He has raised up a team of young people to join us in this beautiful work.  Their love and committment to the boys is incredible. He has given us relationship and favor with orphanage administration.  He has brought along partners to support the work. He has given us interns and teachers.  He has moved the hearts of adoptive families to come rescue their sons. He gave us our Vladik. He has provided funds in miraculous ways and Jed is in Ukraine right now looking at land to purchase for the first group homes.  Our God doesn’t mess around! 

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All the awesomeness that God is doing, we couldn’t see any of that on that day four years ago.  We couldn’t foresee how He would care for us and pave the way.  We couldn’t imagine how His love for the boys would trump every opinion that said nothing could ever change.  All we knew was that God was asking us to say yes.  We can’t see what He will be doing in four years from now, but it’s okay.  All he is asking is for us to say yes and to keep walking.  

So today, all you need to do is say yes.  You don’t need to know all the details.  You don’t need to have it all figured out.  Just listen to what the Father is saying and join Him in His work. SAY YES!  This life is short and we only get one shot at it.  We don’t have time to focus on our own comfort.  This life is but a blink of an eye. 

Look with eternal eyes.  Be brave. Have faith. 

It will be scary.  It will be hard.  It will be uncomfortable.  It might smell bad and be really noisy and dirty and messy.  Oh but the joy, the joy that comes with that mess is worth it all.  

Don’t be afraid.  Say yes today and trust your Father. 

He is good.  

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