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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Created In His Image: Matthew

The name of this precious boy has been changed to protect his privacy, per orphanage administration request, as his family is still involved in his life.  I’m choosing to call him “Matthew”, which means “gift from God”.

I’d like to introduce you to Matthew. 

  

I’ve wanted to introduce you to him before, but I never knew quite what to say.  Most every picture we have managed to capture of him has been  blurry, or scary, or even sometimes a bit disturbing.  Our Matthew has been so tormented.  Our hearts have been broken time and time again as we have watched Matthew suffer. 

Matthew came to the institution in the spring of 2014. He had been living with his family, but his aggressive behavior became unmanageable and his parents simply had no idea how to care for him or how to keep the rest of their family safe.  Their family was being torn apart. So they did the only thing they felt they could do- they sent him to the institution.  

I have no judgement for these parents, only sadness at their plight. They obviously love their son, and his father still visits him frequently. They just felt there was no way for him to live in their home.  If I were in their position I honestly can’t guarantee I wouldn’t have done the exact same thing.  With no social support, no medical support, and limited resources, what is a family to do? Matthew was SO aggressive.  He hurt himself.  He hurt anyone in arms reach.  He destroyed every.single.thing he could get his hands on.  He growled and bit and punched and screamed and cried.  I have never met another child so tormented and in such agony as Matthew.  Dealing with him, let alone actually helping him was beyond our scope.  Since we first met we have learned to understand Matthew’s behaviors, and we are still learning. 

   
    
 

When we bring teams to the orphanage we can only get Matthew out of bed if we have enough team members for one person to be solely devoted to Matthew.  Once taking him out of bed it is a toss-up to whether we will be able to interact with him or not.  In the early days if he would tolerate us and let us bring him out to the group for bananas and music it was a great success!  We would stand behind him, arms wrapped around him for his safety and the safety of the other boys, and sway back and forth to the music.  He knew he needed those arms around him and would often grab our arms to make sure we weren’t going to let go.  He would sway and growl and yell and bare his teeth.  At first it was hard to know if the growls were good or bad…but you could tell by the tenseness of his body if he was handling the stimulation or if he needed to go back to bed.  We know that Matthew’s sounds and his movements are his way of processing the different sensory input coming at him.  We have since learned which sounds mean that he his happy, what Matthew’s scared sounds like, what it looks and sounds like when he is overstimulated.  These were not just noises, but his way of communication, his way of making sense of his environement and the people in it.  

These days he knows that our teams are good and safe.  One team member will try to get him out of bed and take him for a walk.  We know that the nannies don’t have enough time to give Matthew the attention he needs, and he spends almost every single minute of every single day tied to his bed.  He’s not safe to be left with the other boys without supervision and he has frequent seizures, which make his own safety a concern as well.  It’s not that the nannies don’t care at all, but when you have two nannies caring for 23 boys with severe disabilities and medical needs you just can’t let a child like Matthew on the loose.  So he sits.  His quality of life is heart wrenching.  We know there is not an easy answer.  You have to visit Romaniv to understand why children are tied up. It is horrible and wrong and inhumane and unjust.  We know that.  We hate it. Yet, at this time, with the way things are there, we simply can not change it.  Tying a child back up in their bed is something that will haunt us all of our days.  Tears run down our faces as we tie the knots.  It’s just not right.  Come Lord Jesus. 

 

One nanny has a special bond with Matthew.  She truly sees him and when she works she will take the time to get him out of bed and walk the halls with him.  She is a hard worker and has a big heart.  I love her for loving Matthew.   

Boys like Matthew are why the new internship program is so vitally important.  Matthew needs consistent people in his life who can take the time to know him, to see what makes him click, to connect with him.  

   
 

Our team sent us this video of Matthew today, working with Mira, his intern, and I just started weeping.  This can’t be Matthew. How is it possible?  This is a completely different child.  Sitting calmly, making eye contact, following directions.  This video is a precious glimpse into the future that is possible for Matthew.  

Matthew is beautiful.  Yes, I think we have all had moments when we’ve been afraid of him and his sharp teeth.  🙂 But those aggressive behaviors are not Matthew.  Matthew was created in the image of God; a gift from God. He was created with purpose and destiny.  He is known by God and loved so fiercely by Him.  So right now we are praying for more.  More healing, more peace, more life.  No one is beyond the reach of our Father.  

Let hope rise.  

  

Introducing…Interns!

The vision of Wide Awake is to offer hope, dignity, and improved quality of life for some of Eastern Europe’s most marginalized children.”

If you’ve hung around here for a while you know that our big, God-size dream is to open small group homes for our boys to live out their days.  The dream is to remove the boys from their horrible reality and insert them into safe, loving, warm environments where they can get all the love and help they need for the rest of their lives.  They will play and receive therapy and sleep in soft, warm beds.  They will be surrounded by music and laughter.  If they are able to work they will garden and care for animals and work with their hands.  Our boys need occupation.  They need to contribute to the world around them.  It brings meaning to their lives.  The dream is for them to be IN the city, not hidden away from society.  The dream is for them to have the opportunity to become all that God has created them to be, surrounded by people who love them and treasure them and believe in them. 
We’ve got big dreams around here. We’re dreaming big, believing that God has great futures in mind for our boys.  

We will not believe that God’s best for them is to lay in bed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, staring at blank walls. We will not believe that spending the next 20 years rocking back and forth on a bench is God’s hope for their future.  
We know God wants more for our boys and we know that He uses people as his hands and feet in the world.  

Last year it became apparent that less money needed to be spent improving the physical living conditions of the boys, and more money needed to be spent placing loving, consistent people in their lives.  To answer that need, through a three-way partnership with Hands of Hope (funded by their child-sponsorship program), Mission to Ukraine (local non-profit acting as fiscal agent), and Wide Awake (hiring and training) we were able to hire two full-time teachers who teach the bigger boys Monday through Friday.  That  need is also being answered by an increase in the amount of time our team spends with the boys each week.  Since last spring there are teams going to visit the boys 3 days a week.  The team has grown in number and in love.  It is a truly beautiful thing.

Now I am so very happy to report that the need is being answered in yet another way.  INTERNS! 
 

Tanya, Mira, and Maxim

 

Our family attends a wonderful church in Zhytomyr: Христианской Молодежной Церкви (Christian Youth Church).  Youth Church is our family in Ukraine.  God has done a wonderful thing in partnering us together.  Almost all of our team comes from Youth Church, and Wide Awake gave Youth Church a grant to carry on the work of bringing teams to the boys while our family is here in the US.  Youth Church has done a FANTASTIC job of growing the team, and now the work in Romaniv has become an official ministry of our church!  Vika, the team leader for Romaniv, has just rocked it.  We are so proud of her and the whole team, and are honored to call Youth Church our Ukrainian home. 🙂 

Youth Church, in partnership with Wide Awake is now sending three interns to Romaniv three days a week!  The interns were picked from our team.  Maxim, Tanya, and Mira have been volunteering at Romaniv since October of 2014.  They have been faithful, loving, extremely dedicated and committed to the boys.  This is not a project for them.  This is their love.  The three interns are university students who are doing this paid internship in addition to their schooling.  They will be with the boys for six hours, three days a week and are an answer to prayer.  Jed began their training when he was in Ukraine in October, and then our dear friend Olya, an OT, continued their training when Jed came back to the US.  Thank you to Salem Vineyard, our sending church in Oregon, whose child-sponsorship helps to pay for this exciting new venture! 

Yesterday was their first day on the job and we are all so excited!  Maxim, Tanya, and Mira’s focus is on the boys in the Isolation Hall, since the teachers are not working with those boys.  They have divided the Isolation boys up between themselves  and will each work with the same boys every day they are there.  They are beginning with performing functional assessments on each boy and then setting individual goals for the development of each boy.  Their work is more focused and therapeutic because they have the ability to give their time and attention to the same boys each day.  

  
   
 

We are looking forward to awesome results!  Even just their consistent, positive presence is life-changing for our babies.

Do you know what that means?  That means that between our teams and the interns we have loving, energetic, amazing youth spending time with the boys SIX DAYS A WEEK!!!!!!  Freaking out excited!!!!!  That’s not even counting the teachers who are there Monday through Friday and teams who visit from other churches.  PRAISE GOD!

I remember back to the spring of 2014 when Jed and I decided to start going to Romaniv a second day each week. It was just the two of us going to Romaniv alone, asking God to bring more help…and now this.  God is so amazingly faithful.  

We believe that all of this loving presence is preparing the boys for the lives of freedom that await them.  

Soon my babies, soon you will be free. But in the meantime, I hope you can see how many people love you so dearly.

 

Romaniv Through Addy’s Eyes

  
Addy, our 11 year old daughter, has gone with us to Romaniv the past couple of days for day camp. She is an awesome helper, and today we gave her the camera so we see her view of the Boys. I absolutely loved looking through her photos. I’m always the one taking pictures, so for me there’s just something kind of special about seeing the boys through someone else’s eyes, especially someone as special as our Addy. 🙂 

Enjoy! 

                           

A Week in Photos: May 4th

Spring has sprung!  I know, I know, I said that before- but then it snowed a couple days later.  I think I can say it with confidence this time.  SPRING HAS SPRUNG.  I declare it!

This is one of those weeks when so much happened that I don’t even know where to start.  I don’t think I’ll try to describe it all, I’ll just put it out there and maybe the descriptions will come out over the next couple of weeks.  

-Grammy and Papa are here visiting from Montana.  YAY!!!!  They leave on Wednesday.  BOO.

-We drove to Lutsk last weekend (a town about 3 hours away)  to visit some of Grammy and Papa’s friends who pastor a church there.  It was fun to take the van on our first family road trip.  🙂

-A team from Hull Vineyard in the UK came to Ukraine for a Vineyard conference and spent a few days with us here in Zhytomyr.  They got to meet our Boys, encourage our church, and just be all around awesome.  Their visit was such a HUGE blessing to us as a family.  We were so sad for them to leave!  We posted an awesome video of the team on our Wide Awake Facebook page.  Check it out!

-One of the Vineyard team members was a speech and language therapist and she and I got to spend two days at Romaniv observing meals, helping with feedings, and advising the staff.  It was a very valuable time and the staff seemed very receptive.  Follow-up will be key.  Being at Romaniv for meals and in the early morning hours was very insightful for me, personally.  Peeling back the layer of what makes our boys and that place who they are and what it is.  I’ll probably blog about that at length on another day.

-We had a super fun game night with the young adults with disabilities.  How awesome to be able to meet outside in the sunshine!  Our pasty white skin needed that!

-My fingerprints were rejected again for our adoption- this time they were rejected for US immigration approval.  SO FRUSTRATING.  So, now I might be flying to London to get them redone.  Grrrrrrrr.  Apparently women who do a lot of dishes and nurses have a higher likelihood of having poor quality fingerprints.  Double whammy for me. 😦

Now for pics.  If you have any questions, of course you know you can always ask!  🙂