Back to Romaniv- Finally!

Yesterday I finally returned to Romaniv. It had been at least 7 months since I was there last and it felt like a bit of a homecoming, to be honest. Grant and I were talking about it on the way home. He said it felt strange that he felt so comfortable there. I mean, we all know that Romaniv isn’t a “comfy” place to be, but I know what he meant. It’s a comfortable place for us because it’s exactly the right place for us to be in this time and space. Romaniv, the boys there, and other people like them, stuck in institutions out in the middle of nowhere are the reason we are here. God plucked us out of our cozy American lives and plopped us down here in Ukraine, at this time, for those boys and others like them. Knowing you are in the exact place where you are meant to be is a wonderful feeling, even if that place is terrible and smelly and unjust and sad. There’s just a comfort in knowing “This is my place. These are my people.”

When Jed and I first moved to Ukraine almost 9 years ago, we knew nothing. We had no language, only a couple of acquaintances, and everything was completely foreign. Banking, shopping, transportation, communication, school, church…we knew nothing about any of it. I felt like our apartment was a little American island. Every time I exited the building I was entering another universe, and I was destined to fail in that new universe. I made mistakes all.the.time. I still do, but they’re less of a big deal these days, or maybe I’m just used to it by now 😂. I would get heart palpitations just thinking about having to approach a stranger. My perfectionistic tendency to only speak when I was confident I was saying something correctly made me a silent bystander instead of an active member of society. The only places I felt like myself was at home and then with our boys at Romaniv. Sigh, “These are my people.”

Our boys don’t have impossible expectations of us that we’ll never be able to meet. I imagine their thoughts, “Just be with me. Sit with me and hold my hand.”

Our boys don’t care if we make mistakes with the language. “Call me by my name and tell me you love me.”

Our boys don’t hold a grudge if we’ve been gone from them for seven months. “You came back! I was waiting for you!”

Our boys love us just because we are. Our relationships have been built over years and years of just being together. Not accomplishing anything that the world values, but just sitting together, singing together, being present with each other. The friendship our boys offer us is a massive gift and one I am truly thankful for today.

The Dim Hidnosti team is returning to our rhythm of spending Thursdays with our boys and I’m so glad. They need us and we need them. They ground us. They remind us of our purpose here and of what’s truly important. Lucky us, to have friends like them.

Vitya, Sasha, and Kolya (photo by Grant ☺️)

If you are new to this community you might now know much about our boys at Romaniv. Romaniv is the institution where all of the boys in our family used to live. I have written about it a lot over the years here on the blog. I’m planning to do a podcast episode about Romaniv, so if you have questions about the place, the boys there, or our work there go ahead and ask! I’ll do my best to answer.

BeLOVE[d]

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On Going Home

Why would refugees decide to return home to a war zone? It’s a good question that I myself would have probably asked just a year ago. Now we are those refugees returning home to a war zone and it feels like the most obvious thing to do. It feels like the thing that makes sense. It feels right. It’s time. Yes, we and our team have decided to return to our home in Ukraine. Our Board of Directors is in agreement and have voted to that end.

There are so many reasons why people who have fled from war choose to return and I can’t pretend to know the mind and heart of every refugee. I can only speak for myself and the people closest to me. We have rehashed this a bazillion and one times and there are many reasons why we could stay in Germany, but there are so many more reasons why we should go home. We are blessed beyond measure that we even have a home to which we can return. When we left I wasn’t sure it would be the case. But as of today, our home still stands and awaits our return. We’ve explained here on the blog and in recent Youtube videos why life here in Germany has become unsustainable for our group, but that is not the only reason we have decided to leave. I know that returning isn’t the right decision for everyone, but it is the right decision for us, so I thought I would try to explain it to you.

Regardless of War, Home is Home. We have lived in Ukraine for coming up on nine years. Our children consider Ukraine their home in every sense of the word. As a family, we don’t really belong in the US anymore. Jed and I can feel more at home there than our kids because we both lived there for more than 30 years, but still, every time we return it feels more and more foreign. We moved to Ukraine when Obama was still president! So much has changed in the US, but also so much has changed in us. We are not the same people who left Portland, OR with 9 suitcases all those years ago. (For one thing, now Jed has less hair and I have gray hair…😅)

Our little piece of the world, the Homestead, is the only place on earth where our family truly feels at home. We have lived a hundred lives in Ukraine, brought Ukrainians into our family, our kids call themselves Ukrainians, yet we know we will never truly be Ukrainian. Those closest to us, our team, don’t see us as “The Americans”. We are simply their family. But I know other Ukrainians don’t see us that way. There have been so many times here in Germany when I have been out and about in town and have heard Ukrainians around me. I always wanted to walk up to them, to talk with them, to feel that closeness with them, but the few times I tried they were only confused. Why was this American acting like she was one of them? Like she understood their plight? We will never be Ukrainians, but we don’t feel much like Americans. Yes, I know, heaven is our home. But here on earth, our plot of land in our village in Ukraine is our home, and we desperately want to be there again. It is where we are known, where we are understood, and where we are accepted as one of the family. We simply want to be home.

We Want to Stand With Our Country. I know there is such a thing as compassion fatigue and that it is real. There is only so much one person can actively care about day in and day out. I know the attention span of the world is incredibly short and Ukraine’s moment in the spotlight has just about run its course. But while the rest of the world can move along to the next big thing, while most people have the luxury of putting their phone down or simply turning off the tv and forgetting for a while, we don’t have that luxury. Every hour of every day we are thinking about Ukraine and the war. It is all-consuming. But we live in a country where life moves on like normal. That is no slam on Germany! Of course, life moves on. My life has always moved on regardless of wars happening in other countries. I get it. But now our lives don’t get to move on. We go through the motions and watch the seasons change, but our hearts and minds are stuck on February 24th- the day when the world fell apart. We don’t want to be in a world where life goes on like normal and we are mute spectators with our feet stuck in the muddy mess of things. We want to be in a place where we are standing strong in solidarity with others. We want to be in a place where people understand. We want to show up for our country.

The Work Must Continue. The vision of Wide Awake International is to bring hope, love, and dignity to people with disabilities in Ukraine. That vision is lived out through deinstitutionalization. Guys, we have to get back to work. The need for this work didn’t stop because Putin decided to invade. The plight of people with disabilities who are wasting away in institutions hasn’t changed or gone away simply because it has become less safe for us to go to them. The reality is actually quite the opposite. Our boys at Romaniv and others like them need rescuing now more than ever. Our work has always been a frontline work and now is a frontline time. We must not retreat. Ukraine needs helpers and our team is full of them. There is no way for us to continue our mission while in Germany. Yes, we brought Yaroslav and Vova out of Romaniv to us in Germany, but that is the limit of what we can do from here. We simply must get back to work in Ukraine. There is no other way. This is hands-on, boots-on-the-ground work, and our boys can not wait alone for the war to end. We must go to them. While the eyes of the world are on Ukraine and while more people are becoming disabled each day we have to be in there, helping, advising, lending experience. We feel the urgency in our bones. This is what we were created for and the work must go on.

Our Goal is Not to Stay Alive. A dear friend reminded me recently of an important truth: “Our greatest goal in life is not just to stay alive.” If our goal is to keep our bodies alive, then we will all eventually fail because every one of us will eventually die. Our goal is not just to stay alive, but to LIVE. Yes, here in Germany our bodies are safe and they are alive. But in a way, we are not truly living. And while we are here not doing the things we are passionate about it feels like we are slowly withering away. Of course, there have been many beautiful, precious, wonderful moments in Germany. We have lived here, but we have not lived to the fullest. It’s like we’ve been stuck in a waiting room. Waiting for the next meal or the next news story or the next distraction. We have been busy caring for our boys, but we know we can do so much more. Our spirits are so much more alive when we are fulfilling our mission, when we are creating something beautiful together, when there is redemption and light moving into dark places. Of course, it goes without saying that we don’t desire death. I don’t want to die anytime soon and I don’t want that for any of my loved ones. But keeping our bodies alive is not the highest goal. Because at one time or another we will all die. In the meantime, let us be doing the things we love.

“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things —praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (any microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

– C.S. Lewis Present Concerns

We would really appreciate so much your prayers as we make the move back to Ukraine. So many of you absolutely flooded the heavens with prayers as we were leaving Ukraine and since we’ve been in Germany. We are very, very thankful. Thank you for standing behind us. I know not all of you will understand this decision to leave physical safety and return to Ukraine, but I hope you will stick with us on the journey home. We are excited to get back to work in Ukraine. Your encouragement and support mean a lot to us, even though we can’t always reply to each one of you individually. This community is truly the best.

If you would like more details about our decision-making process, please feel free to check out these notes from our board chairman. For those of you who like details, it might help you understand how we and our board reached this decision.

Love to you, dear friends. Thank you for trusting us and loving us through this time.

BeLOVE[d]

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What Does the Next Yes Mean?

On December 15th a committee will meet to decide if we are allowed to take guardianship of our precious friend, Boris. The committee has never visited a case like ours before (non-relatives pursuing guardianship of an adult with disabilities), so we are totally unsure of the outcome. Jed has submitted all the requested documents and the law is on our side, along with institution administration. There is really no reason why they should deny our petition, but they could always ask for more documents and endlessly require more from us…there is just no saying! We are preparing our home and our hearts for the possibility of bringing Boris home on that day, but at the same time not setting our hopes too high. It’s an impossible heart situation that will only be solved with time.

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So what does this “guardianship” word mean, in our case? I’ll tell you!

Legally, Boris can not be adopted by us because he is almost 26 years old and US law does not allow international adoption of adults. Also, if the goal is deinstitutionalization of all our boys, international adoption of ALL of them is probably not the most effective solution. Adoption is extremely expensive and the restrictions of who can and can’t adopt would limit our options for help in the years to come. Guardianship seems to be the best solution.

Ukraine has the options of an individual gaining guardianship or an organization gaining guardianship. In the future, once we have more homes on our property and are bringing out more boys we will most likely go the organization route. That makes more sense when you are looking at maybe having helpers in the family-style homes that are not able to commit the rest of their lives to these boys and this place. Having Wide Awake Int. remain the consistent guardianship overhead makes sense. For the boys that will be living in this house with our immediate family, like Boris, we decided to go the individual guardianship route. For one thing Wide Awake is not yet registered as a Ukrainian non-profit, but only as a US one at this point. More importantly though, we see the boys who will live in this house with us as becoming our immediate family, and as they will become a forever part of our family, it is right that we should personally be their guardians.

By law, the transfer of guardianship is from one individual to another. So the assistant director of the institution must express his desire to transfer guardianship of Boris to Jed, which he has done. The administration is totally supportive of this. They are behind us and have only helped the process so far. We are extremely thankful for that! It’s super important that they understand this is something we can do with them, not something we are doing to them. This gives them the opportunity to be an active part of the solution. Win win! Jed will have ultimate legal responsibility of Boris and will have total legal authority to make decisions on his behalf, as Boris is at this time unable to speak for himself. Through the coming years, as Boris gains his voice we will partner together in helping him become all God has made him to be with as much independence as he can safely have.

So that’s the legal side of it. What does a transfer of guardianship mean for our family? Well, that remains to be seen! Of course we have no idea what this will look like in the coming years, but we are committed to our friend. In our hearts and minds, this is an adoption. Boris will not gain our family name, but he will gain our family identity and heritage. For all intents and purposes Boris will become a Johnson, with a different last name. 🙂 We are committed to him for life as if he were our own child, born from my womb. Sure, he’s only 12 year younger than us (ha!), but to us that makes no difference. Once he is with us he will be here to stay- forever, as a beloved son and friend.

It’s funny, Jed and I were talking the other day and realized we needed to decide how we would refer to each other when talking to Boris. On paper, we are way too young to be his mom and dad, but developmentally a mommy and daddy is what Boris needs. He is like a baby in many ways and has been neglected for so many years. He needs to cocoon with family like a newborn for as long as it takes for healing to come. We decided we will be Daddy and Mommy to Boris. He’s missed out on that relationship for far too long.

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Because we are not adopting Boris, he will not become a US citizen. Vladik has US citizenship because he is adopted, but Boris will remain a Ukrainian citizen. That does make things tricky, as far as when we need to visit family and partners in the US. As a family we usually plan to visit the US for two months every 2 years. As soon as we have legal custody we will get Boris an international passport and then apply for a US visa for him. It’s a total toss-up as to whether he would be granted a visitor visa, but it’s worth a try! It would be great if he could travel with us for visits, but if he is denied a visa we will ask loving friends to stay here at the Homestead with him while we are gone. It’s not optimal, but there really aren’t many options. We are hoping for and expecting great healing for Boris-spirit, mind and body. But we are not unaware that a big trip across the ocean might not be what’s best for him at any given time. So we are trying to be very open handed with all of that. God will give us wisdom.

Medically, Boris is a total mystery. We have no idea what is going on in his body. He is obviously in poor health and will need the support of many specialists. We are hesitant to pursue initial medical evaluations here, as we are simply not confident that Boris will be seen as valuable and worthy of the best medical care available. Simply said, we live in a society that does not, as a general whole, accept people like Boris, so we would like to take him out of Ukraine for some baseline testing and examinations. Thankfully, Ukrainians can now travel visa-free in the EU for 90 days at a time, and also thankfully, we have loads of friends in the medical profession in Germany who are ready to welcome Boris with open arms. We are excited to get our boy a passport and begin to sort out that body of his so he can be as healthy as possible.

As time winds down till the committee meeting I find my heart in alternate states of peace and chaos. As I sat in his room folding all his precious, clean clothes and placing them at the ready on his shelves I felt such peace and anticipation. This is what we came here for. This is what the building project was all about. For Vladik and Boris and the ones yet to come, they are why we left everything and moved our family to Ukraine. FINALLY our boys are leaving Romaniv and my heart is so thankful and at peace. We love Boris and can’t wait to bear witness to his healing. What a privilege! What a joy! We can’t get him here soon enough!

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Then minutes later, when I’m missing my parents or feeling lonely for a friend my heart will jolt with the reality that this is forever. Once Boris enters our family everything changes. When Jed legally becomes his guardian we are effectively saying “Here we stay. Here we will live, ‘Till death do us part’.” That, my friends, is no small thing. We are not superhuman. We get it, what we’re saying, and it’s hard. It’s a heavy statement that we’ve been building up to for many years now. It’s not a decision that we take lightly. The weight of it can panic me a bit, to be honest.
But, this is our act of love. This is our service to Jesus. This is how we give of ourselves in the biggest YES we’ve said yet.

Right now I can’t think of forever or I might freak. So, I’m trying to plan for the future but not resting my heart there. I’m attempting to be fully present today and then tomorrow and ask God for the grace to live well in these moments right in front of me. I fail so often (daily), but living well in the present is the only way I’ll even be mildly successful at loving Boris well. And he deserves to be loved well- as do my other children, and my husband.

We have no idea what the day to day will look like, but we know it will involve lots of diapers, lots of pureeing food, lots of trial and error, lots of firsts, lots of sacrifices, lots of documents, lots of healing, lots of tears, lots of joy and laughter and lots of YES. We are as ready as we’ll ever be. Right now we just want our boy home for Christmas.

Thank you for your prayers and your love and support as the journey of YES is about to get a whole lot wilder. Please don’t ever underestimate how much your notes of encouragement mean to us. We need each other along the way, so thank you for loving us.

Hopefully I’ll be sharing good news on December 15th!

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All About Vladik: One Year Free

Two days ago we celebrated one year of freedom for our sweet Vladik.  Our miracle boy spent the day at a Hungarian water park (long story…for another post) discovering his great love for enormous water slides.  He ran and played and splashed, yelling “Mom, look!  Dad, watch me!” He watched his brothers and sisters do things he was nervous to do, then conquered his fears and tried for himself.  He ate ice cream and pizza and laughed and asked “Blue slide again?”  

He truly lived.  


On one hand I can hardly believe a whole year has passed since Vladik came out of Romaniv forever, but mostly it feels like a lifetime ago.  When I go to Romaniv these days I can hardly picture him there.  He is truly a different child.  

It’s interesting because if you ask anyone who visited Romaniv and met Vladik there they would all tell you how happy he was.  He was always laughing and smiling.  ALWAYS.  But now that we truly know him we can see his behavior then for what it really was.  Yes, he was smiling, and yes he laughed a lot, but he was also afraid- ALL THE TIME.  His body showed his fear in the way he held himself; his shoulders scrunched up, his head down, full-on protection mode at every moment. His laugh seemed happy, but now we know that laugh as the nervous, afraid laugh that shows up when he is unsure. If you asked him for a hug he would sort of back up toward you and lean a shoulder in. You could see he was compliant but he didn’t feel comfortable and he didn’t enjoy it.  He was afraid of physical contact and always on guard.  He had a bright countenance that I believe came from the Lord, but it was just a dim flicker compared to how he shines now.  

The boy we knew at Romaniv was a shadow of the boy we know now.  And the boy we know now is amazing.  

Passport photo 2015

Passport photo 2016


He is funny and loves to make his siblings laugh. He comes up to me several times a day with his arms open as wide as possible, asking for a hug. He adores Bluebell, our puppy, and could play with her for hours. He likes ice cream and potatoes and pizza and soup. He’s a daredevil and wants everything faster and higher and louder. His bike is his most prized possession. He and Seth are still thick as thieves and when they get too quiet I know something is up…typical brothers. 😉 He speaks English and Ukrainian and a mish-mash of the two that can only be described as “Vladik speak”. Oh, and he pretty much never stops talking.  Motor.Mouth.

We think Vladik is doing miraculously well.  His transition to our family has been amazingly smooth.  BUT 15 years of institutionalization, 11 of those in a bad place, can not be erased in one year.  We have so many wonderful moments, and we also have so many difficult moments.  Parenting a child who has lived a lifetime of trauma is no joke.  It requires constant reassurance and truckloads of patience (of which I am guilty of running short).  Just when you think you’ve conquered a certain behavior or fear something triggers and you go ’round the mountain again…and again.  

Put your arms down. No beeping. We’re going home soon. Put your arms down.  No beeping. If you want to talk to someone just say “hi”, you don’t need to make strange noises to get attention. No beeping. Put your arms down. And on and on…

It’s no secret that extra struggles come with the fact that we are back in Ukraine.  Most every other internationally adopted child I know leaves their institutional life and it is over and gone for good; new life, new memories, old life gone forever.  That will never be Vladik’s reality.  Romaniv has stayed and will stay a part of his life.  It is our life.  As much as we would love for him to, he doesn’t ever get to fully forget. We will never ever take him to Romaniv again, and we tell him that all the time, but he knows we go there and he hears us talk of it daily. Some people might think it’s cruel of us to bring him back here where he is constantly reminded of his past.  We know that.  We know, and our only response is “God said so.”  Just like our other children have an unusual life because of what God has called our family to, so it is with Vladik.  And just like we trust that God is caring for our other children and giving them what they need, so it is with Vladik.  When we chose to say yes to adopting Vladik we knew this would be his reality and still we knew that we knew God was saying to make him our son.  So we did.  

Annnnnd God is making a way for our boy, even here in Ukraine.  He is surrounded by our team who knew him when he was an orphan and know him now.  In their eyes he is a celebrity.  He is what we dream of for all of our boys, in the flesh.  His presence in our church here in Ukraine brings hope and refreshment to those who work tirelessly on behalf of the ones Vladik left behind.  He brings joy wherever he goes.  🙂 


A local private school welcomed all our kids with open arms, including Vladik.  He gets to do PE, music, and art with the fifth grade, while having individual lessons the rest of the day.  I get to make his lesson plans and our dear friend has agreed to teach him.  She loves Vladik and sees him for the beautiful soul that he is.  Their lessons start next month and I can’t wait to see how he thrives.  So far the kids at the school have been kind and accepting of Vladik.  We are thankful. 

He gets to attend a weekly class at Mission to Ukraine where he will be treasured and valued.  Full circle. 


The other day we were visiting a beautiful basilica in Budapest.  We decided to pay the fee and go see the inside of the building. We approached the cashier and when he saw Vladik he smiled so warmly.  He almost pushed us into the church, “You don’t pay!  Please, please go for free” he exclaimed with a kind pat on Vladik’s back, and a look of tenderness in his eyes. I could see there was no pity there, only love. Oh man, the tears were flowing.  That man, he saw the beauty of our boy.  There was no look of disgust, no disdain, no mouth-hanging-open staring.  There was love.  For me that moment was a gift from God.  It felt like God was whispering over us “See, I see your boy, and I’m watching over him.” 

Vladik’s healing is a long road, but he is definitely well on his way.  He is absolutely flourishing and growing and LIVING.  We will never ever be the same because he is our son.  He is our gift and I pray we never take him for granted. 

Fatherless Friday: Isaiahu

A friend told me that I had neglected to blog the big news!  BEN HAS A FAMILY!  An adoptive family has stepped up and are working as fast as they can to get to him.  Praise God.  Adoption will save his life.  We are so thankful!   The family is private for now, but when they are ready I’ll make sure to introduce you to them.  To keep best up to date on our boys make sure to follow us on Facebook.  I update there several times a week.  🙂

Introducing…Fatherless Friday!  I’d like to take Fridays to share about children we love who are still waiting for adoptive families.

First up is our precious Isaiahu.

  

Pure sunshine.

Jam-packed with potential.

Beautiful baby boy.

This is the thing: I am confident that if you could all just meet Isaiahu in person, look in his eyes and hold him in your arms, he would be snatched up in an instant.  Everyone who meets him falls in love with him.  His diagnosis sounds scary, but he is so wonderful!  He is absolutely a delight.

I mean, think about it.  This little boy lays in his bed in one single room day after day after day.  He only leaves that room when the weather is nice and his nanny takes him for a walk, or if one of our team members carries him out for a stroll down the hall.  He most likely hasn’t left his small building since the early days of fall, before winter set in- except to visit the hospital.  His world is so so tiny.  Yet he still smiles.  He still makes small gains.  He is awesome.

  

Wide Awake International and Bible Orphan Ministry have teamed together to hire two special nannies that alternate days, caring for Isaiahu and Ben from 7am-7pm.  Those nannies keep those baby boys alive.  Literally.  They care for their needs, hold them, feed them, bathe them, all in that little room.  They keep them safe from other boys who have not been taught to be safe.  Those nannies are such a blessing to our little ones.

  

Three times a week our teams come to spend time with the boys, and then three other days a week Wide Awake Int interns work with specific boys, providing therapeutic interactions that help to move the boys forward in development. His potential is ENORMOUS!  This is the first time he has had consistent therapeutic interactions and he is blossoming.

But it’s still not enough.  

Isaiahu will never really thrive in his current environment.  A mental institution is no place for a 7 year old boy- especially one as helpless as Isaiahu.

He is learning to hold his head up and to sit with support.  He smiles and laughs when his name is called.  He prefers his nannies over others and seems to have obvious attachment to them.  He is ticklish and loves to be praised when he’s working hard.  The doctor’s say he is losing his sight, but it’s obvious he can still see.  Oh how I pray for a mommy and daddy to come for him before it is too late and his world fades to black. 

  

Someone see this precious treasure and say YES.  He may be dependent on you all his days, true. That is no small thing.  It is a very big reality.  Another big reality is that he will bring his family so much joy.  He is a ray of sunshine in a very dark place where he does not belong.  Think about what blessing will come from serving a sweet one like this.  Think about the rejoicing and cheering and smiles that will come from seeing him hit new milestones.  Think about the beauty of watching him truly live with a mommy and daddy that treasure him and fully see his value.  

Sweet little Ben has a family coming for him, and now it’s his roomate’s turn.  

Please watch this video of Isaiahu and Zita and share this post far and wide.  Thank you for loving our boys! 

 

 

You can read more about Isaiahu in these posts: The Day We MetFighting for my Babies, Guest post for Isaiahu.

If you can’t adopt, but would like to help, you can donate to Isaiahu’s adoption grant here.  This will help relieve some of the costs of his adoption when his family finds him.