Back to School 2017

September first came and went and Ukrainian schools are back in session!

Let me just tell you, the feeling that came with not being the new people was such sweet relief. We’ve been the new people at school for the past 4 years, and we were so over it. How wonderful to be known, to not be gawked at (mostly), to belong! Moving to a new culture has cured me forever of taking belonging for granted. Belonging is so hard to come by, and so amazing when it’s found. We found it for our kids and I’m beyond thankful!

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This year promises to be quite challenging, as full immersion can’t help but be, but we already feel the successes of last year’s hard work, so that’s encouraging.

Our goals for putting our kids in a Ukrainian local school are:

  1. Ukrainian language fluency.  This is our home and we want our kids to be able to communicate in every situation. While they are young, and their brains are growing so rapidly we feel it’s in everyone’s best interest for them to be immersed in Ukrainian language. I wish I had the opportunity! Their language has already far-surpassed mine.
  2. Integration into Ukrainian society. I’m a homeschooler in my heart. I adore homeschooling and I miss it like the dickens. BUT, I realize that homeschooling our kids here is not what is best for our family right now. It would be easy for them to stay home and live on our sweet little American island, but…they would be totally isolated. They need peer relationships. They need to learn how to function in Ukrainian society independently. They each need to find their place here, and as much as I want them all home with me, I know that I know it’s not what is best for them right now.

So, we press on with local school and all of it’s blessings and challenges.  It’s cool to look back on the first week of school last year compared to this week. We have come so far! Our kids’ language has grown by leaps and bounds. They have much more of an understanding of how Ukrainian school works (completely different from American school, if you’re wondering), and they’ve pretty seamlessly picked back up where they left off. Last year we had buckets of tears. This year we have kids who feel successful. My heart is full.

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Seth entered first class, so now all the kids are at the same school together. He seems to be ready, and three days in, so far so good. We anticipate some learning difficulties, due to his history, but we’ll just have to take each day as it comes. Socially and emotionally, he is ready, and for Seth that had to happen in order for him to have a chance at success. His teacher was Ezra’s teacher last year and she’s great. She knows our family and we “get” how to communicate with each other. I’m hopeful for my baby.

Hava is in second class. She has her same class of kids and same teacher (they keep the same teacher for the first four years) so she’s all set to go. She adores her teacher and already has friends, so we’re golden. 🙂

Ezra skipped a grade and is now in sixth class, which is appropriate for his age. We really wanted him to have a fresh start this year in a new class and with new confidence. He’s going to have to work hard to catch up, but he’s motivated, so I think he’ll be okay. Ezra’s our introvert, so Ukrainian school is pretty challenging for him. I’m so proud of how far he’s come!

Addy is the one who’s probably going to have the biggest challenges this year. She skipped two grades and is going to give eighth class a try- the appropriate grade for her age. Due to being the only foreigners and then spending a school year in the States, then entering a new school as the only foreigners again, poor Addy has been held back FOREVER! Last year she was two grades behind her peers and it was starting to be a big problem for her. I know that in the whole big scheme of life, it doesn’t really matter, but when you’re thirteen and you’re in a class with eleven year-olds, it matters a heckofalot. 😉 She’s a super smart girl, she has just never been given the opportunity to try to catch up and prove herself. We fought hard for her and Ez to be moved up, so hopefully we made the right decision. For Addy it was very important to have this chance, so she is super motivated to work her tail off to be successful.

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Vladik has the same set-up as last year. Our friend is teaching him individually, and then he will be integrated into some lessons with the same class as last year.  Our goal for Vladik this year is to be integrated a bit more into the fabric of the school. Socially, he’s ready for it. Academically, we are limited on what he is able to do, but we are working to give him opportunities to be included at the level he is able. Right now we’re hoping to have him join the sixth class in P.E., music, art, and handicrafts. He adores his teacher and he LOVES school. I’m so thankful he has a place there.

That’s the scoop on school! It’s a lot of work and a lot of figuring out what the heck is going on, but we’re ready. When I was first researching putting our kids in local school the stuff I found talked about how the first year would be super challenging and the progress would be slow, but then the second year was when you would really see progress and the fruit of all the hard work. I’m trusting that will be the case for our kids this year. They are all so brave. I’m so very proud of them.

Here’s to a new school year and a new year of growth. Let’s do this thing!

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Village Life

We’ve been living in the village for almost 2 months now, so I thought I should give a bit of an update on life here.

We FINALLY got our gas turned on last week, so that makes village life much happier!  I know many of our neighbors live without indoor plumbing, and therefore without hot water, but…yeah…I’m super thankful we only had to do that for a short while. I guess we’re a bit (a lot) spoiled.

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Our garden is MASSIVE, so much of my time and attention these days is directed toward managing the garden and all that it produces. Almost every day we try to can something so that we can make the most of the garden. So far we’ve put up several liters of pickles and several liters of cherry compote (a popular Ukrainian fruit drink). I’ve never done pickles before, so I’ve just picked out several different recipes from books and online and we’re trying them all! We’re labeling them with the recipe name so this winter we can decide which recipes are keepers and which aren’t. Figuring out how to can in Ukraine has been quite a challenge! Most people here don’t water bath their canned goods, and you can’t get the two piece lids we use in the US. So…we’ve had to compromise. The USDA might be horrified at our methods, but I’m sure all will turn out okay. (Fingers crossed!) Don’t worry, canning pros, we won’t attempt to can anything with low acidity.

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Village life for our little ones has been fantastic so far! Seth, Vladik and Havalah are outside basically every day from sun up to sun down. Seth and Hava both have little friends their same age that live right across the street and two houses down. Kids in the village have free reign and basically just run free all day long. It reminds me of what I imagine life was like in America a couple generations ago. The kids go from house to house, riding bikes, walking to the store to buy candy, and basically just running wild being kids. I LOVE IT. This is what we wanted for our kids, for their childhood. It just makes me happy that they can have that freedom here in the village.  Vladik spends most of his days watching the guys who are working on the house (they’re working on siding right now) and “building” his own special projects with scrap wood. Addy and Ez have a couple village friends, but they are around the house more than the Littles. They are good about helping me with the garden and taking care of our growing animal population (now including a dog, a cat, a hamster and the occasional neighbor cow who pastures in our back property).

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Our neighbors are kind, hardworking people. We don’t know them well yet, but most of them are parents of kids who are at our house all the time, so I’m sure over the coming years we’ll get to know each other well. We’re still quite a curiosity around here. I’m not sure that will ever change. 😉 The neighbors right next door butcher pigs, and the ones directly across the street butcher cows. Oh the sounds that come from those properties! Yikes. But, it sure is convenient when we want to buy meat! Also, the neighbor whose cow pastures on our property gives us fresh milk in exchange for letting his cow on our property. Village life has it’s perks, for sure!

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It’s not as convenient for our church friends to get to us as it used to be when we lived in the city, but oh man, this house is a far better gathering place! People love to be here. The house is cozy, the deck is perfect, and the air is fresh. We absolutely love our house. We can’t wait to bring our boys here! I can’t imagine how much they will grow and change in this environment. It’s going to be just awesome.

Village life is the life for us. We’re so happy here! THANK YOU a million times over to everyone who helped us get to this point. Our guest room is waiting for you. 🙂

family Johnson -21family Johnson -36family Johnson -42Thank you to our friend Andrey for the awesome photos of Vladik’s birthday!  

Moving Week!

It’s finally upon us!  MOVING WEEK! Be still my heart.

This week we move to the Wide Awake Homestead and my excitement can not be contained. IT’S REALLY HAPPENING. The “2-3 month renovation” that turned into a 9+ month massive overhaul (because, you know, asbestos and Ukraine complications) is finally coming to an end. I don’t think I can adequately convey to you the extent of my joy.

We moved out of our house in Oregon in October of 2012, in preparation for our move to Ukraine. Since then we’ve been a family on the move. From house to house, and from country to country. We’ve packed, unpacked, repacked, unpacked…and on and on, never truly settling. But now, our time has come! We’re moving into our home. Home.

The house isn’t totally finished yet, but we have the first of our summer mission team visitors arriving this Sunday and they need to stay in the apartment where we’re currently living…so yeah, we gotta get outta here! Yikes! Good thing the construction crew are our friends, because we’re all about to get real cozy. 🙂

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Our furniture at the moment includes a small kitchen table, two chair beds, one set of bunkbeds, and some patio furniture. But hey, we’ll happily sleep on the floor if it means we get to do it at the Homestead. Who cares!

Oh, and one other small detail…the sewer system isn’t all ready yet, so we’ll need to be super conservative with water for a bit…and…we’ll be using the outhouse. But hey, lots of people in our village live with outdoor toilets. That’s really no big deal in village life. Let’s just consider it another lesson in learning to relate to our new neighbors. Ha!

The house is beautiful. Jed gets all the credit when it comes to the design. He chose just about everything in the house and I think he has great taste! I super super love all the wood. Can you believe that going with wood was the cheaper option???  I know. I could be wrong, but I feel like lots of wood would be really expensive in the US. Here, it is much cheaper, and we like the look of it better anyway. Most of the more expensive, popular-in-Ukraine designs are really not our style at all. So, for the most part we ended up with good deals and a great final product. Score!

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Also, special shout-out to Jed for managing this enormous project. He had no idea when we moved to Ukraine that his job-title would include “General Contractor”! This house has been his full-time job since September, in addition to all his other responsibilities here. He has been working day in and day out to get this first home done as quickly as possible so we could start getting our boys out. This is only the beginning and we’ll be doing building projects for who knows how many years to come, but this first one just feels really significant. I’m so proud of Jed. He has done an amazing job.

Yes, I’m freaking out excited to move in because my heart is so eager for a home. But the main reason I’m freaking out excited to move in is because once the house is fully finished and furnished we can begin the process to start bringing our boys home! After all, that’s what we came here for. The big dream when we moved here 3 years ago was to build family style homes for the boys. The big dream was to get them out. Deinstitutionalization. That reality is so close. It makes my heart beat fast just thinking of it. Guys, this is really going to happen!

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We don’t know who will be first. We are praying about that right now. The Homestead will be a forever home for the boys, so we really need God’s wisdom on who we bring out- especially when it comes to the first few boys who will live in the house with our immediate family.  We have a few boys in mind that we are praying about and deciding between. How do you choose?  They all need out. They all deserve rescuing. God is going to have to choose for us and show us very definitely because we just love them all. Some of the boys are not possible options at this time, while we have small children at home, but many are possible and I can picture so many of them living with us. Please pray for us in this decision-making process.

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How can I thank our supporters enough for making this possible? Thank you to each of you who have given towards the homestead project. Thank you for believing in this vision. Thank you for loving our boys and seeing their immense value. Thank you for trusting us to carry this out. We are so humbled in all of this. Humbled and thankful and rejoicing in all that God is doing.

Once we’re in I’ll give you a video tour of what you helped build.

IT’S HAPPENING. Let’s all give a collective cheer/squeal/whoot/holler/happy dance!

 

Parenting Overseas: When Kids Become Partners

Benefit #33 of our kids’ school: Extended Easter Break. Three cheers for Catholic schools! The kids are off today (Thursday), Good Friday, and the Monday after Easter!  It’s like Spring Break #2 and we couldn’t be happier.

I’ve been thinking lately about how my parenting has changed by us living overseas. I think it’s hard to differentiate between the changes that come from living outside our native culture, and the changes that come just by having older kids. I think one major difference that comes with our location is the freedom and independence our kids can experience at younger ages.

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Back when we lived in the US I used to read about “Free Range Parenting” and wish that was more possible for my kids. I’m pretty sure no one could have ever accused me of being a helicopter parent, but I did always wish for more opportunities for my kids to learn independence at a younger age. That sounds great, but is stinkin’ hard to do in American suburbia! It’s hard to teach independence when the city bus routes are super inconvenient and expensive. It’s nearly impossible when the city plans are made for driving and not for walking. Cell phones are expensive and pay phones are nearly non-existent. In my humble opinion, the culture of ultra-protection of kids also makes it really difficult for well-meaning parents to provide opportunities for their kids to learn and make mistakes and recover without repercussions from outside sources. It felt like for our kids to learn their way out and about without adults they would need to wait until they were 16 and could drive! I know there are creative workarounds for parents who are really intentional about teaching independence, but it just never felt quite natural like I wished for. You know?

I didn’t realize how moving to Ukraine would make it easier for me to be the kind of parent my heart longed to be, in that regard. In Ukraine we have opportunities a’plenty for our kids to explore and learn and even be forced into situations where they have to think for themselves and be independent. It’s just built into the culture! There are some parts of Ukrainian culture that I imagine are similar to American culture back when my parents were kids. I like that.

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Public transportation in our city is cheap and super easily accessible. Our kiddos come home from school by themselves on city buses most days. It’s totally normal to see a kid Hava’s age (8) on the bus alone or walking alone down the street. Hava and Seth can go to the store by themselves and get me a few grocery staples. No one bats an eye that my 6 year old is at the store by himself (unless he’s not dressed warmly enough..hehe). It’s AWESOME. I love it because I KNOW my kids can do it, and they feel so proud of themselves when they are successful.

The little store down the street from our house is an old Soviet type store where you have to go up to the counter and ask the cashier for what you want. The thing is, there aren’t really lines. Whichever customer is the quickest or loudest gets their voice heard first.  Our Seth is super shy. The first time he went by himself to get me bread he must have been gone for more than 20 minutes.  I kinda started to worry a bit, but I knew he was fine, so I just waited. When he finally came home I found out he had been too embarrassed to pipe up and ask for the bread so he just stood there and waited until the store was completely empty and the cashier finally asked him what he wanted. 🙂  But he learned that day and he was so proud of himself when he came home with the bread!

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Our Addy is 13 and is off right now with two friends from school, out and about in the city. She took the bus to meet them and later they’ll find a bus that will take them to youth group. She has a cheap little phone that she uses to call me and let me know she’s okay. It’s AWESOME!  She has learned which buses to use and how to get where she wants to go most places in the city. I’m so happy for her that she has that chance to be independent and I’m also happy that we don’t have to drive her all over town so she can see her friends! Ha!

The big ol’ language issue also changes our parenting, and I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about it. 😉 Back when we lived in the US and I worked as a nurse on the pediatric floor of our hospital it was extremely common for us to treat Spanish-speaking families.  I remember so many times when the parents couldn’t speak much English and they would have their child translating for them. We would use a medical translator for official communication, but for just basic conversation I remember always feeling relieved when there was a school-age kiddo in the room who could help us communicate with mom and dad. I also remember thinking in the back of my mind “Why don’t these parents learn English?  Certainly they don’t want to live their lives with their kids better understanding the world around them and translating for them!”

Yeah, I can give a definitive answer on that one. Those parents didn’t want their kid in the driver’s seat of communication, but guess what? You get desperate and it happens. And in those important moments it’s better to have your kid there to help you rather than no one at all.  Guess how I know?  Yep. Been there done that. Last week.

We’ve gotten to the point where our kids’ language is better than ours. NOOOOOOOO!  I swore I wouldn’t let it happen, but it has. They are immersed in Ukrainian 5 hours a day and I’m not. It was bound to happen. I guess I just didn’t expect it to happen so fast. Now when we’re out and about and I need to understand something I’ll make sure all the kids are listening too, so that if I miss it I can know that somebody will understand. Addy has the best language and I find myself looking to her for help way more than I’d like to admit. The other day I had the kids at the dentist and the dentist actually looked at Addy and said “I want you to listen really good so that you can help your mom understand.” OMG. Low point. I made sure Addy knew, after the fact, that I had indeed understood the dentist (well, at least 70% or so…). Ahem.

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It’s funny how that lack of understanding, or handicap in communication kind of changes your relationship with your kids in small ways. Adults will look to my kids when relaying information, assuming they will understand better than I will. And sometimes they’re right- especially at school. In some ways, and in some moments it changes our role to more like partners with our kids, rather than us moving in the more traditional roles. We’re all working together to make sense of a strange new world, rather than us adults understanding the world and teaching our kids how it all works.  It can be a bit unnerving, especially when we’re talking about partnering with a first-grader, but I think I like it. It causes the kids to take more responsibility for themselves, rather than all the responsibility being on us parents. I know I like that.

All of this learning and growing and digging in roots in a different culture that we are still learning to understand is a heckuva lot of work. It’s stretching and confusing and painful much of the time. But, there are also beautiful parts of it that are unexpected blessings. The partnership with our kids and family teamwork is one of those unexpected blessings. The natural independence training is also an extra blessing. Sometimes it’s mind-blowing to consider how extremely different our kids’ childhoods are than our own, but I have to believe that there are things they are learning by living this curious life that they absolutely need for their futures.

So, steady on, my friends. This parenting gig is no joke, but God will give us everything we need for our specific children. We can trust Him on that one.

Winds of Change and a Voice

A couple weeks ago at church, a friend introduced us to her friend, who then met Vladik, and this story began.

The friend we met, Vera, is a local activist here in Zhytomyr.  She is involved in some local politics and has a passion for children and adults with special needs. She is particularly passionate about developing inclusive education in our city.

“Inclusive education is based on the simple idea that every child and family is valued equally and deserves the same opportunities and experiences. Inclusive education is about children with disabilities – whether the disability is mild or severe, hidden or obvious – participating in everyday activities, just like they would if their disability were not present. It’s about building friendships, membership and having opportunities just like everyone else…Inclusion is about providing the help children need to learn and participate in meaningful ways.” source

Inclusive education, as a general practice, does not exist in our city, nor throughout the rest of Ukraine. There are places where inclusion is more possible than others, and of course I can’t speak to the whole country or to every school, but in general it is not practiced. Here in Zhytomyr, at this point in time, inclusive education is only available to very few children with disabilities, and generally it is only available to children who’s parents have fought, and continue to fight, a very hard fight to make it possible.

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At a press conference about inclusive education

The schools and school system in our city are simply not set up at all for children who need extra help.  We have learned that just from having our own non-native speaker children in school here! Our kids’ “special need” was that they lacked language, and the schools just were not sure at all what to do with them because they didn’t fit the mold.  It is not the fault of the teachers, or even the schools themselves, it is the fault of a social system that has spent decades hiding those who are different. If children with special needs do not exist in a society, then there is no need for society to adapt for them. For many years it was the practice to institutionalize people with disabilities, but that is slowly changing.  More and more Ukrainian families are choosing to keep and raise their children. As more children with special needs are living at home, the need for education and inclusion for them is becoming more and more apparent.

This is not an issue isolated to Ukraine. All developing countries must face this issue at some point. In the US we have come a long way, but we really didn’t start addressing the issue of inclusive education until a few decades ago. So this is not me pointing a finger at Ukraine- as if the Ukrainian people are alone in this injustice; this is me knee deep in the fight for my son, here in Ukraine.

Now, back to the story. 🙂 Vera, our new friend, had heard about Vladik, about where he came from, and about the fact that he attends school. She was fascinated by it and asked if we would be willing to speak to the local news about our quest for education for Vladik. We agreed to meet, a bit leary in the beginning, but open to a discussion. We want to be very careful with how we expose Vladik to the news. His story is painful and tender and deserves to be shared in it’s entirety. Vladik is too precious and he has fought too hard to be reduced to a sound bite that induces guilt or pity. In my opinion, he deserves a standing ovation!

We met with Vera and agreed to share Vladik’s education story, but we wanted to make sure the focus was about how he is thriving, and not only about where he came from. She agreed, and two days later our boy was cheesin’ it up for a camera crew, charming them all with his awesomeness.

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We thought he would be nervous, but boy were we wrong! He absolutely loved the camera! He proudly showed how he gets ready for school, how he knows which bus to take and where to walk. Most of all, in my very biased opinion, he showed that he is a wonderful boy who is valuable and smart and deserving of an education, just like every other child. Here is the video:

When we decided to adopt Vladik, we felt like the Lord was telling us that Vladik would be a voice for those who have no voice. At that time we thought maybe that meant that someday Vladik would become a speaker who would share his story with others, many years down the road. And maybe that is still going to be true someday, but, wow have we been surprised how God has decided to use Vladik as a voice already!  Here in his own country! Vladik is not necessarily being a voice with his words and speech, but with his life, with his joy, with his courage. He is showing his own people what is possible. He is showing how someone who was locked away for all of his childhood is still capable of learning and growing and changing, if only given the chance. He is a voice of hope for all of the children left behind.

The follow-up to the short news story about Vladik was a live interview on a local evening TV show. Gosh, I wish I would have realized it was going to be live before we got there. That was a bit of a shock! Ha! Anyway, we survived. 😉 In the first half of the show Vera interviewed Jed and me, along with one of the teacher’s from the kids’ school. We got the opportunity to share why it’s important to us that Vladik go to school. In that we were able to naturally share about his value and his worth as a human. It’s important for Vladik to go to school because he is a child and he wants to learn! He wants to be with other children and have experiences and gain independence and learn new things. He was robbed of so much in his life and we, as his parents, are obligated to help him grow to his fullest potential- however that may look like. It is our privilege to fight for him and the ones who will come behind him.

The second half of the show was what rocked my world. Vera interviewed a foster mom (our friend who fosters sweet “Baby A”) and three local mothers of children with special needs. Those moms shared about their experiences with fighting for inclusion in schools, and they said so many things that needed to be said- by Ukrainians, not by us foreigners.   They spoke about the first need being an inclusive society. Inclusive education is not possible without an inclusive society. They spoke about the value of their children and their desires for them being the same as every parent’s desire for their children. We were cheering them on (literally clapping and bouncing up and down in our seats) from the green room.

Many parents of children with special needs in our city, and throughout this country keep their children at home almost all the time. They are afraid to take them out because society as a whole does not accept them. Whether that means inaccessible public transportation and buildings, or just basically unaccepting people, the results are the same. It’s easier and less painful to just stay home. We have experienced this feeling many, many days here in Zhytomyr. Sometimes I get a horrible sinking feeling in my gut when I know we are about to go somewhere with Vladik. I know the stares and the finger-pointing and the mocking will come. I know that all my kids, including Vladik will hear it. I will wonder at his understanding and my heart will break for him. I know I will need to steer clear of groups of kids because that is when the staring is the worst. I know the cruel comments will come and I will wonder how to respond. It has become our reality- and yes, some days it seems like it would be better to just stay home. Vladik is loved at home. He is safe and understood.

BUT change will not come without exposure. People can not learn if they are not given the opportunity. Vladik, with his sparkling personality and loving, cheerful nature is the perfect person to teach others. To know him is to love him. If we keep him at home, hidden away, we are contributing to the problem, not being agents of change, as God has called us to be. Vladik loves to go out! He loves adventure and going on buses and seeing new things, meeting new people. If he is brave enough to face an intolerant world every single day- and do it with joy, then we can do it too.

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Our boy is a voice. In his own, unassuming way, he is standing up for all the families and children hiding in the shadows. As one of the local moms in the interview said in encouragement to families watching “Come out! Come out! Don’t hide anymore.”

The winds of change are coming. May God open and change hearts and may He receive all the glory.