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.

17308794_769582943197580_4398551735533503512_n

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.

17426404_770057496483458_1931670565601964582_n

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.

17498814_770057489816792_1712566663117986973_n

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.

Advertisements

In Loving Memory

I was sitting at the doctor with Vladik yesterday when I got the text.

Our sweet Dima had left this earth, gone to be with Jesus. He was twenty-seven years old and he was my love.

img_6918

Dima had been ill and away in a special hospital for the past several months.  We missed him desperately and couldn’t wait for him to get well and return to us.  He did return last month, but to our dismay he looked terrible.  He was so much worse, not at all healthy.  He was thin and yellow and just so sick.  After only a few days he was taken back to the hospital, several hours away.  He died there a couple of days ago and was buried yesterday at the cemetery in the town of Romaniv. We went to see where his body was laid, surrounded by the graves of other boys gone before him.

We are shocked and just heartbroken. It wasn’t supposed to go like this.  He was supposed to be with us. We were so excited for the day when Dima would come live with us at the homestead.  We pictured him in our family forever. He was my special boy and I just knew that someday I would get to mother him the way my heart longed to mother him.  I so desperately wanted to watch him blossom and grow and come to know the love of a family here on earth.  But, God had another plan.

img_0901

Can I tell you about my Dima?  I want as many people as possible to know him and to see him for the precious, beautiful treasure that he was.  He was amazing.

When we first started going to Romaniv we hardly noticed Dima.  He was always tied to his bed because he wasn’t able to walk and was a fall risk.  He usually looked drugged and out of it, and just wasn’t able to connect with other humans on pretty much any level.  He was like a dead person. I’ve seen an old video of him from years ago and know that he wasn’t always like that, but somewhere along the way he was lost. 

In the summer of 2014 we started taking a few boys at a time to the Sensory Room to get them into a quiet environment where we could try to connect with them one on one.  I remember our team debating if we should even try to take Dima there.  He couldn’t walk, but was long, awkward and heavy.  One of the guys would have to carry him. Whenever we did take him there he would just sleep or zone out and it felt almost like a waste of time.  There were so few hands available, shouldn’t we be focusing in on the boys who seem to enjoy our company, or at least seemed to benefit from it?

img_1029

No, no, no.  Dima had been passed over for his entire life.  Drugged and left to sit in his own excrement for hours on end, his whole life he had been cast aside.  Would we be the next in a long line of people who had passed over him and thought of him as unworthy?  NO.

So, we kept taking him to the Sensory Room. And one day that summer, a miracle happened. Nina, one of our team members, was sitting on a bean bag with Dima in the Sensory Room.  She was just sitting near him, being with him, when she picked up a little toy xylophone.  She tapped tapped it next to his ear and he sat up! He looked at Nina with wide eyes, made some sounds and gave her the hugest smile.  Our Dima was awake! Nina was crying and laughing. In amazement we all jumped up and ran over to see. I will never ever forget that beautiful moment.

How is it possible that after a lifetime of suffering, when Dima finally awoke, his first response was a smile?  JOY. I can’t even comprehend it.

img_1319img_5295

Over the next two years we had the awesome privilege of watching Dima come more and more alive.  He still had many days when his mind was somewhere else, not wanting to, or not able to engage with us, but he also had many days when he was funny and smiley and would babble your ear off.  We all absolutely adored him. He learned to say “banana” and “Lala” (the Ukrainian word for a doll). Roma, one of our team members had a special love for Dima and was working to teach him to feed himself independently.  Every time he was at Romaniv, Roma would make sure to pick up Dima and get him out of his bed.  He would cuddle him on the couch and just enjoy being near him.  Our baby.

12295320_553514264804450_2674355060624041058_nimg_4478img_9096

I know that our grieving and mourning is more about us than about Dima.  He is finally free.  He’s definitely not grieving and he knows no pain.  He is made whole.  He can run! He can speak! He is healed and right now he knows the great love of the Father better than we can even begin to comprehend.

Still, we grieve.  We miss our friend and we always will.  My heart aches for the suffering he had to endure in this life.  I wonder if he was alone when he died?  Did he suffer?  Was he in pain? Did anyone at that hospital far away truly care for him?  Was he treated well?  Did anyone see him for the treasure he was? My heart longed to show him every day that he was loved, even adored.  I dreamed of how much he would blossom in the love of a family.  I so wanted him to experience that joy and peace here on earth. Why was so much of his life spent waiting for life to begin?  It’s hard to trust God’s ways in times like this. 

img_9206img_3137

But then I remember his joy that day, years ago in the Sensory Room. For many years humans had not been a positive thing in Dima’s life.  Humans had hurt him and neglected him and cast him aside.  But when awakened and faced with humans- he smiled.  The only way that was possible was if God was near to him in a way that we couldn’t see. God promises in His Word to be a Father to the Fatherless, and we have to trust that He keeps his Word. We have to trust that God showed his love to Dima in the deepest places of his mind and soul. We have to trust that even if he seemed to live this life so alone and abandoned, his Father in heaven never left his side, even for one second.

img_2108

It was the joy of the Lord that brought the smile to Dima’s face.

It was the peace of God that followed him when he traveled to the hospital far away.

And it was the goodness of God that allowed his suffering to end.

We will never forget our precious Dima.  We will miss him forever.  But may we never ever forget his joy in unimaginable circumstances.  Please, learn from his life. Choose joy today. 

Precious Dima, you were loved.  You were treasured.  You were longed for and wanted. We saw your beauty and we will never be the same because of you.  

Run free, my love.

img_0194


 

The Most Important Post, Revisited

November is a good month. We have two family birthdays, it’s Thanksgiving, the holiday season begins, the weather is cozy, and it’s National Adoption Month! Did you know? Have you heard? There is a whole month designated for sharing about the plight of orphans and the blessing of adoption. Yep, that sounds just about perfect to me.

I wrote this post last November.  I wanted to share it again (revamped a bit) in honor of National Adoption Month.  It’s crazy because when I wrote this a year ago I had no idea we would adopt Vladik.  Now this post means more than ever to me.  There are many different great responses to the orphan issue, and your response will likely be different than mine. But for the sake of our Boys, every response is important.

  

The work we do, and Mission to Ukraine has done for many years at Romaniv is important and necessary. It is life-altering for our Boys. Boys who were once strangers that flinched at touch and cowered from any human interaction are now dear loved ones who come scooting and crawling and hobbling as soon as they hear our voices. One boy who used to avoid eye contact at all cost now seeks out our gaze and will sit forehead to forehead with Jed as the guitar is played- just looking into Jed’s eyes. No words, just a look. It is enough for us to see that God is doing miracles.

And yet.

No work we do could ever be more beneficial than a family.

No treatment could ever be as effective as the love of a family.

No weighted vest could be more comforting than a mother’s arms.

No helmet could offer better protection than a father’s embrace. 

This work we do is a stopgap. It is the next best thing possible in this situation. But it is not a family, and it is not nearly enough. There is no future for our Boys here. Even when our dreams come true and we build group homes where they can be loved and cared for, it still won’t hold a candle to a life spent as part of a loving family. There are nannies at Romaniv that do care for the Boys deeply, but they face an impossible task. How can 2 nannies care for more than 20 boys with severe disabilities and do an even satisfactory job?

Most of the boys and men at Romaniv are not legally free to be adopted. Either their parents still maintain their parental rights, or the boys are over the age of 18 which prevents them from being adopted. To those boys and men we commit to doing whatever we possibly can to love them, care for them, and give them a future worth living until they day they are made whole in heaven.
  

Some of our Boys, though, ARE available for international adoption.  After some hesitation, and prayerful consideration we shared them with you.  There are many layers to this. We feel protective of our Boys and the work that is being done; we want to avoid any exploitation; we have a relationship to maintain with the orphanage directors that requires vigilant care. Nothing about this is simple, so we have been treading lightly with steps full of prayer. And yet, our boys are just not thriving, and they never ever will in an institution.  They need families.  ALL our boys need families, but Alex, Micah, Stephan, Aaron, Ben and Isaiah actually have the opportunity for family- a life saving opportunity.

So I’m asking that you see our Boys. I’m asking that you stop and see them for the treasures they are. See their immense value. See their precious beauty. Consider their lives as weighty as your own and ask the Lord how you should respond to this knowledge that some of them are waiting for families. If you follow Jesus you are called to care for the orphan in some way. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus I bet you can agree that this is a justice issue that can not be ignored.
                                                                    

                                                                 “Learn to do right; seek justice.

                                                                            Defend the oppressed.

                                                                 Take up the cause of the fatherless;

                                                             plead the case of the widow.” Isaiah 1:17

Maybe you are supposed to pray. A million times thank you! Prayer is important and essential. Any of the progress that’s been made has only come through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Boys need prayer!

Maybe you are supposed to give financially to help improve the quality of life for our Boys. Yes! Thank you so very much! None of this would even be happening if we didn’t have faithful financial supporters on the team.
Maybe you are supposed to adopt. Please don’t dismiss this response. I am confident that some of you who read this are called to respond through adoption. Children were made for families! Children were not made for institutions. One hour spent at the institution will prove that point. I must warn you though that any romanticism concerning the adoption of one of our Boys ends with the fuzzy feelings you may be feeling as you read this post. It will not be romantic. It will be a hard road and much faith will be required. But- it will be a road worth walking. I am confident of that. Orphans are very important to our God and He has gone to great lengths to prove His love for these particular Boys. He will not allow the world to forget them now, and He’s not about to forget them when they step out of Romaniv’s gates.

  

I have spent hours with these boys. I have held them in my arms. I have kissed their cheeks. I have held their hands so they won’t harm themselves. Now I call one of them my son and he is asleep, warm and safe in the next room.  They are real people. They were created with purpose and God has good plans for them. When I look at Vladik now and think of the life he lived there and was destined to live for the rest of his days had he not been adopted I can’t help but cry.  Friends, he is precious.  He is a joy in our lives.  He is smart and funny and loving and worthy of this life he’s been given.  All the love and attention and cuddles we can heap on him- he deserves them all.  Hopes and dreams of retirement and empty-nester days fall flat when weighed against the life of a child.  

There you have it. Now you know, and I now I humbly ask you to respond. I ask you to stop and pray and ask the Lord what He would have you to do. Say yes and don’t look back.  Please pray that adoptive families would step out with boldness and faith. Any serious inquiries can be emailed to kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org and I would be happy to talk with you more. 

Please share this post and give our Boys a voice this month. Thank you!
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Proverbs 31:8


Alex, Micah, Stephan, Aaron, Isaiah, and Ben all wait for families of their own.  A friend of ours is doing a wonderful fundraiser/giveaway to help raise adoption grants for them, so that when their families do step up the expense will be defrayed a bit.  If you feel that your response is to give financially, then please, please visit this website and drop some dollars in their accounts.  Thank you!  

 

Alex

  

Micah

 
 

Stephan

  

Aaron

  

Isaiah

  

Ben

 

 

 

 

 

Together At Last

Our family of seven is together at last.  Vladik and Jed arrived from Ukraine on Thursday night.  The wait is over!!  After months of loving our Vladik and leaving him behind a gate, he is out and ours forever.  We are so full of joy.

   
   

So it’s been 4 days home together and I’m just in awe that he’s really here. 

Vladik sitting at our kitchen table.  Vladik shooting hoops in the driveway with Seth.  Vladik shopping with us at Winco. Vladik on the carousel. Vladik at church.  Vladik NOT at Romaniv.  

   
 

He loves to play, watch cars, and take showers.  After 15 years of constant filth and neglect, he just beams when he knows he is clean.

    
 

It’s like a dream.  

He’s doing awesome.  Of course there are adjustments to be made and there have been a few tears, as we all process yet ANOTHER transition, but in general he just fits us like a glove.  This is a love that has grown and developed over two years, so there is a lot that is natural about it.  

I’ll talk more about the details of his adjustment later in the week, I just wanted to let you know that he is home and we are blessed.  I can say with complete honesty that we are eternally grateful and humbled that God gave Vladik to us.  He is a precious soul that has been hidden away for far too long, and we are the ones that get to watch him come to life.  It’s the best thing ever.  

Every day, multiple times a day, Vladik asks each member of our family if we love him.  “Mama, do you love me?  Papa, do you love me?  Addy, do you love me?  Ezra, do you love me?  Hava, do you love me?  Seth, do you love me?”  When we answer that yes, we love him forever, he laughs and claps his hands with joy.  That love, that belonging, all of our Boys deserve that.  My heart breaks that even though Vladik is out, they remain.  

A wise adoptive mama friend said this, and it is also my heart’s cry: 

“I have become convinced that to be indifferent, to do nothing, to ignore, to refuse to act, to stand back and allow broken and wounded populations to continue to suffer…this is the great sin of our lifetime. We are a generation of emotionally paralyzed people, and thus our behaviors become paralyzed. We spend so much time waiting for a sign, a signal, a calling…that we forget to DO. This simply must change. We as humans, as fellow travelers in this life, in this moment, must work, and work HARD to change what is unjust. The moment is now. Stalling has only ever cost us liberties, time, and lives. The procrastination just isn’t worth the price.

GO and DO.

Change the world.

Change a life, and in so doing change YOUR life.

Pay attention to the brokenness. 

Give generously. 

Love big and refuse to look back.

Even when it is hard, you will never regret it”

  

Introducing…

  
Vladislav Christopher Johnson- orphan no more! 

Today, in a courtroom in Romaniv, Ukraine, Vladik was legally declared to be our son. We are officially a family of seven! 

Ours was the first international adoption in the town of Romaniv and we are praying it helps to pave the way for many more to come after us. The court went well and although it was a long, serious affair, there was nothing scary or tense about it. All the parties represented agreed that our family adopting Vladik was in his best interest. The representative from the orphanage said “You can see they love him like parents.  It’s almost like he’s already a part of their family!” 

Ain’t that the truth. 

Remember when I wrote this post about Vladik being found by a super lucky family? So yeah, the secret’s out: we are that most lucky family. It was KILLING us to keep the secret for all those months. Whew! I’m so glad we can now share our joy with the world. 

The story of how we came to adopt Vladik is wonderful and beautiful, and tomorrow I’ll begin to share it all with you.

Now we have a 10-day wait (Ukrainian law), and then we will be able to take Vladik out of the orphanage FOREVER. 

The first of our Boys, redeemed. 

Once he was abandoned, but today he is a beloved son, brother, grandson, nephew, and cousin.

Our hearts are full and we pray many families will come after us. Our Boys are absolutely treasures. How blessed are we that God gave one of those precious treasures to us for our very own?? We are the luckiest. 

Praise God. He sets the lonely in families!!!!