Vlad the Worker Man

When we adopted Vlad we really had no idea what to expect for his future. He could say a handful of words, but they were pretty difficult to understand. His behaviors were VERY institutional. He would screech and scream in public, he flapped his arms and made strange sounds. He had zero concept of appropriate social norms and personal space. He was a little bit like a wild animal, to be honest. But he was curious and he wanted to learn, so we started to teach him. 

The day we adopted Vlad

Over the past 6 years, Vlad has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. He can read and write in Ukrainian and he is fluent in Ukrainian and in English. He’s grown from a 15-year-old who wore size 8 boys’ clothes into a 21-year-old man who is taller than me and still growing! He is responsible and smart and never forgets a face. Vlad is a miracle. 

One of the dreams we have for our boys is that they would each grow into their full potential. That they would be allowed, in this space of healing and love, to fully become the men they were created to be. For Vlad, we saw his great potential for growth, and an impossible dream began to grow in our hearts. We began to dream that Vlad would one day have a job. 

Vlad is a hard worker around the house and once he understands a task, he completes it in a timely fashion. We knew he would make a great employee, but the barrier to employment was a cultural one. People like Vlad, with significant intellectual and physical disabilities do not work here in Ukraine, in general. I mean, it would be extremely rare to see someone like our boys out in about in public, let alone working at a public establishment. You just never ever see it! But still, we dreamed of a future in which Vlad could work and grow in his independence. 

Then we met Dima. Dima owns an electrical supply store in Zhytomyr. Jed met him through the construction of the duplex. They did some business together and discovered that they had mutual friends. Dima had even visited Romaniv once! Jed and Dima developed a friendship and Dima became interested in our work. He came out to visit a few times and began to more fully understand what we are doing here. Then he told us he wanted to help. Jed heard those words and decided to not hold back. 😉 “You want to really help? Would you consider giving Vlad a job in your shop?” Without hesitation, Dima said that yes, he would be happy to give Vlad work. Oh.my.word. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Vlad as happy as he was the day he learned he was going to be a “worker man”, as he put it. 😆

Vlad and Dima on his first day of work

On May 11th Vlad began to work in Dima’s shop. For the first couple of days Tanya, our special ed teacher, joined him to help coach him on appropriate behavior in the workplace, and to help Dima find the best tasks for Vlad. He started out working twice a week for a couple of hours at a time, and now works 3 days a week for 4 hours each day. He is one happy dude. Vlad mostly works in the back of the store, bringing inventory from storage to the front and helping with counting inventory and such. Dima told me this week that he has to check up to make sure Vlad doesn’t make mistakes, but that he has progressed a lot in his abilities over the past couple of months. They are so patient there and truly want to help Vlad to be successful in his work. It’s become a bit of a mission for the store employees. It seems like they all feel joy and pride in the sense of purpose the work brings to Vlad’s life.

Vlad at work

This month Vlad became an official, documented employee. I can’t emphasize enough what a miracle that is. It just doesn’t happen! We are so proud of Vlad and so thankful to Dima and his staff for making this happen for our guy. Vlad is growing in independence and maturity and having an occupation is a priceless gift in Vlad’s life.

Yesterday we celebrated Vlad’s 21st birthday. He’s an adult. He has a job, responsibility, a paycheck. I think back to the little tiny 15-year-old we adopted and marvel at all God has done. He has brought the right people into Vlad’s life at just the right time. We are so thankful and so proud.

An Idea I’m Excited About :)

A couple days ago I got the best message from an American couple that live in Kyiv. I met them briefly on a trip to Ukraine before we moved here. Throughout the years they have followed the work and sent encouraging notes here and there to let us know that they pray for us. (Those kinds of notes are the best notes, by the way)

Last winter when it all hit the fan and we had to immediately remove Anton from our house, they let me know that they had been praying for Anton every night, and would continue to do so. In that terrible time, it was such a giant encouragement to hear that they were praying faithfully for our precious guy.

That brings us to a couple of days ago when I got another message from the couple letting us know that through all these months they have continued to pray for Anton every night. I was so shocked to read that! In that moment I was able to let them know that actually, Anton has really been struggling the past couple of weeks. They were thankful to know so they could understand better how to pray for him. It made me wish I had been sharing more about Anton with them all along.

Then I had an idea!

As we’ve been planning our transition off of social media, we have been trying to think of ways for the Wide Awake community to stay engaged. I love the “back and forth” we have on social media and I really love that so many of you feel that you truly “know” our boys. That is a beautiful thing, to know our boys have cheerleaders in their corner that rejoice with us in every little victory and cry with us when times are tough. I don’t want to lose that part of community. It is an important piece at the heart of this work: to know and be known.

I would love to gather like-minded people together into groups that would celebrate, cheer on, pray for, and share the beauty of each of our boys. I’m thinking we need a “Team Boris”, “Team Ruslan”, “Team Anton” and “Team Vlad”. Then as more boys are added to our Wide Awake Family, we can gather teams for them as well. We probably need to gather a “Team Sasha” too, seeing as how Jed will soon be his guardian. Woot!

What does it mean to join a team?

  • We will send each team member a postcard of their boy that they can put on their fridge as a daily reminder of the precious life across the ocean.
  • I will email the teams each month with an update on their boy, prayer points and fun videos and pictures.
  • If we’re going through a rough patch I can let the team know and they can pray, support and encourage.
  • If there is a big gain for one of our boys, the team will know and be able to celebrate with us. I know it would mean a lot to our team here in Ukraine to hear that support and love from others for the boys that mean so much to them.
  • I even had an idea for a live chat with the team and their boy every so often…now that sounds fun!
  • Edited to add: I will still give regular updates about all the boys on the blog and in the weekly emails. The “teams” are more about targeted info about that specific boy. You can totally join more than one team!

What do you think? Wanna join a team? We would absolutely love for you to join us in caring for our boys in this way.

How to join?

  • Send me a message and let me know which team you would like to join.
  • Make sure I have your email address so I can send you the monthly updates.
  • If you would like us to send you a postcard, please send us your mailing address as well.

I’m so excited to see what comes of this. This idea was prompted because you all have shown so much love for our boys over the years. Thank you for loving them and for seeing them. Thank you for looking past the diagnoses and seeing the people. I can’t wait to keep sharing them with you and I really can’t wait till we have even more boys to introduce!

Wide Awake is leaving social media on Monday, October 12. But that doesn’t have to be goodbye! We are sending weekly email digests, so all the goodness you usually see on social media lands right in your inbox. Sign up below to get the weekly emails. I promise not to spam you. 🙂

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Wide Awake Summer

Tomorrow a big chunk of the Wide Awake Family heads to the US! We’re leavin’ on a jet plane… 🙂

It has been two years since our last visit, so it’s time. We try to visit Oregon every two years to see family, meet with our Board of Directors face to face, and spend time with our friends and supporters in the Pacific Northwest.

Another big purpose of this trip is to do reconstructive surgery on Vladik’s feet. We had planned to do the surgery when we were last in the US, but at that time Vladik was not ready for such a major procedure. He’ll be wheelchair bound for 8 weeks after the surgery, and at that time he didn’t have the understanding or emotional maturity to not be devastated by that. Now he is so much more mature in every way. He is ready and wants the surgery. He is also getting taller and heavier and walking is getting more and more painful for him. We just need to bite the bullet and get ‘er done.

I (Kim) leave for the US tomorrow with 5 of the 6 kids. We’ll get Vladik’s pre-op stuff done, and Jed will follow in June. Ezra will stay in Ukraine this month with Jed to help him care for Boris. At the end of May Jed and Ezra will go to South Africa for the World Congress for Occupational Therapy. Jed and Olya, our friend and OT, will present the interns’ work at Romaniv to the Congress. More on that in a later post!

Evie's going to miss her brother this month!

Evie’s going to miss her big brother this month! 

Although we successfully got Boris a visitor visa to the US, we have decided the best thing for Boris is to stay home at the Homestead. A trip of such magnitude would be very difficult for him. He thrives on routine and familiar surroundings, and there will be nothing routine or familiar about our summer in the US. It is so hard for us to leave him. I shed quite a few tears over it, knowing that he won’t fully understand where we all went. 🙁 But at the same, I realize that it would not be kind to bring him along. Our hearts are officially at home in two places and there’s just nothing easy about that. Seriozha (Jed’s assistant) and his wife, Romana, will live at the Homestead with Boris for the summer so he can be in his home with all his favorite things. If you could pray for them for wisdom in caring for Boris, and also for peace in Boris’ heart while we are away, that would be so great. Thank you!

Side note: Boris’ visa is a 10-year multiple entry visa, so maybe we can bring him with us in a couple years when we visit again!

So, that’s the Wide Awake summer plans. While we are traveling to and fro the team and interns will continue to visit the Boys at the institution regularly, just like always. The construction crew will work on developing the new land at the Homestead and preparing it for the next homes to be built, and Boris will be safe at home with people who love him. It’s awesome to know all the work will continue while we’re away. That leaves us the ability to focus on getting Vladik healthy, the opportunity to rest with family, the chance to connect with sponsors and the time to dream and plan with our Board.

Gettin’ the garden ready for planting

Thank you all for your incredible love and support of our family and this work. Knowing that people are praying and sharing and giving of their hearts and finances makes all of this possible.

Seventeen.

Today our Vladik is 17 years old. SEVENTEEN! What in the world?

He has grown so much in every way over this past year. Soon we’ll celebrate 2 years home for our boy and I’m amazed at what a different person he has become.

He is daring and funny and creative and talkative.

If anyone in our family loses anything or is looking for any item they know they just need to go ask Vlad. He knows where everything is.

Vladik speaks more Ukrainian than English these days. He is fluent in both, can understand and speak both, but his go-to language for speaking is Ukrainian. I’m sure our home sounds funny to outsiders. The rest of us speak English at home, but then Vladik is always inserting his funny version of “Ukrainienglish”. I don’t even notice it anymore and we can understand everything he says, so it’s no problem for us. It’s only really a problem when he is speaking to anyone outside of our family that hasn’t spent much time with him. Then our family becomes translators. I can say “Speak English” or “Speak Ukrainian” (depending on the audience) a million times over, but Vladik is going to say what he wants to say, how he wants to say it. He’s stubborn like that. 😉

His favorite foods have stayed the same since Day 1. His birthday food requests were “kasha” for breakfast (Cream of Wheat) and borscht with mashed potatoes for dinner. Some things never change. Hehe.

Speaking of food, in true teenage boy form, he is going to eat us out of house and home. Vladik eats more than any other person in our family- by far. He is a bottomless pit. BOTTOMLESS.

He was sure that when he turned 17 he would be able to drive a car. Sorry bud. Not happening.

Moving to the village has been the best thing ever for Vladik. He’ll spend hours outside building things with spare wood he finds around the property. He loves to ride his bike up and down our road, giving rides to the little neighbors.

Emotionally he is growing and changing as well.  We have a ways to go there, and will probably always be working toward healing, but he is coming along bit by bit. Vladik is starting to exert more of his will, arguing a bit and back talking a little, but those are good things! Annoying in the moment, yes (grrrr), but actually good. He isn’t so super eager to please out of fear or insecurity. He knows his place in our family and isn’t afraid to speak up. Those are big changes.

Vladik is so loved by our community here. It blesses our hearts. Our church family adores him. The neighbor kids in the village accepted him from the moment we moved in. We’ll have a party for him on Saturday and his guest list is super long. He knows he’s a popular dude.

Overall Vladik is happy and thriving. He fits perfectly into our family and we love him dearly. His journey, our journey has not been easy. We have many hard times and parenting Vladik takes a ton of effort. But, in general, he has transitioned into life in our family better than we ever could have imagined. He is just so smart and wonderful. I can’t even imagine him still living at Romaniv. It’s absurd! His life is so full!

I can’t wait to give the same opportunity to many of his friends who were left behind. I can’t wait to share blogs about their birthdays and Gotcha Day anniversaries. Soon, soon, soon. 🙂

But today we celebrate our boy and the wonderful gift that he is to us.

We love you Vladislav Christopher. Happy Birthday!!

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.