All About Sasha and Life in the Duplex

If you follow our team’s social media accounts or if you’re subscribed to our newsletter you already heard the wonderful news that Sasha is home! I’m finally getting around to writing about it in this space. Two weeks ago we got to bust him out of the institution for good. It was a long road of documents and jumping through too many hoops, but that’s all behind us, and our Sasha is now safe and sound in his forever home. We are so relieved and thankful. Thank you for all the prayer support along the way.

Sasha lived with his mother for his first 11 years and then was removed from her care and placed in the institution. I remember the day he arrived at Romaniv. He was so beautiful! He looked so innocent, so full of life. We were all devastated to see such a precious soul sent to such a dark place. He was affectionate, sought out eye contact, and could even sing songs; it was obvious that he had been loved. We knew his innocence wouldn’t last long, and sure enough, over the following months and years, we watched him quickly decline and turn into a shell of his former self.

Sasha’s first day at Romaniv

A couple years ago a social worker asked us to help find a home for Sasha, and since we knew we were creating forever homes for people just like him, it seemed obvious that he should be the first boy to come live in the duplex as soon as it was ready. Jed started on documents, Max and Morgan picked up and moved their whole lives to Ukraine, and the duplex was made into an absolutely beautiful home, all so Sasha could know love and be free. And FINALLY it is a reality. As I’m writing this he’s on his way to a swimming pool for the first time. He loves water, so I’m guessing he’s going to be pretty excited. 😊

Because Sasha’s history is different from the rest of our boys, having lived with his mother for so many years and having obviously known love at some point, we were hopeful he would have an easier period of adaptation. And so far he has! Also, he is just now 15, and the difference between taking a 15 year old out of an institution and a 30 year old is not small. His brain is more pliable. He is more flexible. He seems to learn more quickly. Yes, we are in for a marathon, not a sprint, but the head start of him being younger is a pretty big deal.

Taking Sasha home!

When Sasha first came to us he was afraid of everything. He resisted any transition to a different activity or a different location in the house. He was afraid to lay down to sleep and paced in his room till all hours of the night. On the first night, it took three of us to change his diaper because he was just so afraid. He didn’t really want to be touched. But he has already grown so much! It’s pretty miraculous how ready he was to be loved and cared for. He is so affectionate. He loves hugs and kisses and when he is sad he wants to be held and comforted. He is feeding himself- slowly, but safely. He smiles and has started to make some sounds. He is easily overstimulated and is pretty food-obsessed, but overall, he is really doing amazingly well. I think his development is going to explode over the next several months. It’s so fun to watch him open up and show more and more of himself.

Sasha is under the legal guardianship of Jed, but he lives in the duplex with Max, Morgan, and Anton. Max and Morgan could not be a better fit for Sasha. They love him so much and from day one they gave their hearts away to him. It’s clear that Sasha cares for them and feels safe with them. It’s just so beautiful!!! They are so attuned to Anton and Sasha and their moods, their needs. Max and Morgan are all in and they are doing a fantastic job. It’s a really wonderful thing to be able to trust them completely with the boys’ care. We are nearby if they need us, or if they have questions, but we don’t worry for one second about the boys because we know they are in capable, loving hands. I really can’t express how thankful we are that God brought Max and Morgan to us. What a gift!

Probably the biggest struggle we’ve been working through since Sasha came home is with Anton and his emotions about it all. Anton has big, big feelings, and any negative emotion is expressed with anger. It’s his go-to and he really hasn’t ever known another way. He’s had tons of transition over this past year and we expected that adding Sasha to the mix would be difficult for him. Sure enough, last week he really struggled with anger and aggression. Max and Morgan were super attentive and patient, we changed our schedule of assistants to give Anton more stability, and it seems like he has begun to turn the corner. Over the weekend he even showed some sadness with tears and crying. That’s something we haven’t really ever seen with Anton. It was super encouraging to see him working through sadness with tears instead of anger and aggression. If you remember, please pray for our Anton. He doesn’t want to hurt others, I really believe that. He just grew up his whole life in an environment where anger and aggression were the main modes of communication. Learning a new way takes time, but we won’t give up on our boy. He is learning. Please pray for Max and Morgan too. They really want to keep Sasha safe, and constantly being on the lookout for Anton’s mood shifts can be really exhausting. Pray for them for peace, wisdom, and perseverance. This work is certainly not easy. Worth it? Yes. But easy? Noooooooo. 😳

Lately, I’ve been struck by how wonderful it is to have the gift of time with our boys. We are in no rush for them to meet some sort of developmental milestones. Of course, we want to encourage them to meet their full potentials and we want them to have as much independence as they are capable of, but we are in no rush. We have the rest of their lives to help them learn. The most important thing is that they are safe and they are loved. As long as they are safe and loved- and they know it, then we have met our goal. My favorite thing is to look out into the backyard and see Anton on the swing, Sasha playing with a ball (or eating grass…🙃 ), and Bmo just enjoying sitting out in the sun. They are free! They are loved! They are valued and surrounded by people who truly know them and see them as individuals worth fighting for. Life with our boys is a gift. Sometimes it’s really hard, but a lot of times it’s really beautiful. What an honor to be the ones who get to show them love. What an honor to be the ones with whom they feel safe and at home. We are blessed to have our boys and I really can’t imagine a life without them.

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About a Hero Mama and Her Son

It’s Story Time. 🙂 This story doesn’t have an ending yet. It’s ongoing, but the outcome is looking very promising.

Back in July, we were out working in the garden when we got a call from the Director at Romaniv. He had a mother with him in his office at the institution, and she wanted to give up her adult son. Because of COVID and institution restructuring, they weren’t accepting any new boys at that time. But, the mother was at her wits end, so he called us. He asked if she could come to our house and talk to us about her options.

An hour later we met one brave mama.

Have you ever wondered what kind of parent would willingly leave their child in a terrible place like Romaniv? Have you ever said the words “How could they? I would never ever.”

I have. I have wondered and I have judged and I have said “I would never ever.” But I’ll tell you what, it’s only by the grace of God that I have never. I used to judge those parents, and I judged them harshly. But, that was before I better understood their circumstances. Now I realize that if not for Jesus and the outrageously privileged circumstances into which I was brought up, it could be me. It could be you.

I would never condone a parent leaving their child in an institution. Never. I’m not saying I agree with the practice. Please don’t read that. What I am saying, is that in a country like Ukraine, with absolutely zero safety net for families with children with special needs, sometimes it seems they have little choice. Add in the fact that most of these families don’t know Jesus, are living in poverty, and are in a culture that absolutely does not value their child, – and calling their circumstances an “uphill battle” is putting it insanely mildly.

Take that mama who came to our house on that July day as an example. She is a single mama of 2. She and her husband are separated and he is not involved at all. Her older son, Siri, is 23 and has an intellectual disability. He also has some mental health issues for which she has found zero help from doctors. Siri used to attend a boarding school for children with special needs, and he was happy there. Then, when he turned 20 and aged out of that program she had nowhere else to turn to for help. Siri, a social guy who was used to spending lots of time with peers, was suddenly home alone all day in an apartment while mom had to work. He really isn’t safe to be home alone, but what other option was there? With no extended family willing to help, and no programs offering assistance of any kind, the family was forced into an extremely unsafe situation.

After many months of being home alone all day, trapped in an apartment, Siri began to decline. He stopped using the toilet, stopped feeding himself, and eventually stopped talking. This young man who used to thrive in the company of others, who could even read and write, was now dependent on his mother to (literally) run home every three hours to feed him, change him, and make sure he was okay, before locking him back inside for his own safety. Then an already impossible situation became even more difficult when Siri became aggressive and explosive. COVID forced his younger brother to learn from home, and the two boys at home alone all day was just absolutely not sustainable. But still, what could mom do? She was 100% on her own with no support and no help. In order to keep her younger son safe she felt she had to put Siri in an institution. This hero mama who had raised her son alone for 23 years was at the end or her rope.

It seems like a nearly impossible thing, to raise a child with special needs, alone, in a culture that has some built-in supports like Medicare and public schooling. But it is a whole other beast to raise a child like Siri alone in Ukraine. This society says our boys have no value. Finding appropriate medical care for them is daunting and nearly impossible (no exaggeration). The government gives zero help, and even walking down the street is a constant reminder that this culture will only accommodate the able-bodied and independently-capable. I find raising our boys here a super difficult task- and I have a whole team of help!!! I remember how scared we were when Anton became aggressive toward our kids. I had Jed there to help me- and it was still scary and confusing. We felt so helpless. I can’t fathom the hopelessness and fear that this mom has felt. Whichever decision she made, it was like she was choosing one child over another. Hers was 100% a lose-lose situation.

After meeting with mom on that hot July day, we spoke with our team about how God might be asking us to step in and help. Mom was still pretty determined to place Siri in the institution, but was agreeable to our help while she waited for a spot to open up for him. We started including him in our weekly art class and group activities on Fridays. He was withdrawn and shy, but his mom seemed mostly happy for him to have the outlet.

The day we met Siri

Over the past several months we have watched Siri change into a different person. It’s actually pretty incredible. We are starting to see the boy he probably was when he was in school. He has slowly learned that our team and our boys are a safe place for him. He has begun to dance, to sing, to hug. He has a light in his eyes when everyone is all together. He has found his people. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows. There have still been some pretty rough times at home, but, thankfully, they are countered with good times- times of growth and happiness.

A few days ago mom called Tanya, our teacher, and told her that a place had opened up for Siri at an institution in our region. She was on her way to check it out. She had only a few days to make a decision as to whether she would place him there, or the spot would go to someone else. Tanya was at our house when she called. We stopped and prayed. We asked our team to stop, wherever they were in the city, and pray. So many people all over the world were praying! We cried out to God to intervene. We asked for his mercy over this family. We asked for His will to be done. After the visit, mom had a lot to think about. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, and we just waited and prayed. Then, finally, when our team was all together at the mountains Tanya got a phone call from her. She had decided to turn down the placement. Siri would stay home with her! Praise God. A few of us might have cried tears of relief. 😉

Now comes the road of figuring out how to help mom keep her son for the long haul. Now is the time to figure out how to make their living situation sustainable and safe for all. Now, more than ever, we need God’s wisdom for how to hold this mama’s arms up.

Would you pray with us for Siri and his mama and brother? Pray that God gives this hero mama strength. Pray that she would come to know Jesus and his never-ending love. Pray for our team, that we would have wisdom about the best way to help this little fam. Thank you!

Evie brings out the best in everyone 🙂

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Inside a Moment

Watch this 26 second video:

Our team sent us that video this past week and my heart melted. Tears filled my eyes and I couldn’t stop watching it over and over. Then I showed it to Jed and he kinda bawled his eyes out. I haven’t seen him like that for quite some time. It was a moment.

That video means so much to us because of the people in it, their stories, how our lives have become entwined and all that has led up to that beautiful moment in time. I’d love to break it down for you so you can see some of what we see when we watch.

The first boy I see is our friend Maxim. He is 34 years old and loves to tell that fact to everyone he meets by holding his fingers up in their faces. He knows how to count and is proud of himself when he counts correctly.

We met Maxim and his mama 6 years ago and have loved them ever since. Maxim is tall, quick to bear hug, only speaks a few words, but is as smart as a whip when it comes to math. He has always lived with his parents, but they are quite elderly, and after his older brother passed away they had no plan for who would care for Maxim after they are unable to do so themselves. A couple of years ago his mama approached us and asked if we would be willing to take Maxim into our Wide Awake family when they pass. “You don’t have to do much for him. Just help him with his clothes and make sure to cook him food.” Of course our answer was YES! And we’ll do more than just help him with his clothes and feed him. We will love him and care for him always. He will never be alone. He will never be placed in an institution. NEVER.

When we were at the sea in the fall our team felt like we needed to start incorporating Maxim into the life of our team, so every week, twice a week, he joins our boys for lessons and special time together. Because Maxim has always been loved and cared for, he doesn’t carry trauma like our other boys. His joy is like a little child. He adds something special to our family and is God’s gift to us all.

Next I see Ruslan, and then a glimpse of Anton: my precious boys. They wasted away for years- for decades- living like animals. Now they are celebrating Christmas, surrounded by people who love them and have given their lives so that they could live. They are known. They are happy. They are growing and thriving. In the good and in the bad, they are loved and accepted for who they are. BELOVE[d]

Then Kostya, sitting next to Masha, pops into the scene. Oh, my heart was so happy to see him there! Kostya lives with his courageous mama and is a great addition to our little group. Kostya has Down Syndrome and is also autistic. His autism makes it very difficult to engage with him. He is nonverbal and can get easily overwhelmed by new situations. But, oh man, he is perfect for us. He is just the kind of boy we love to love. He can be easily passed over in social situations, and it’s hard to know what’s happening in his mind, but our little company is great for him and his mom. Our teacher, Tanya, has worked really hard to keep connection with them and to help insure they are not isolated. They belong with us.

Oh, and then there’s Sergei! Look at that sweet smiling face. He’s showing us the ornament he’s made and he’s so proud of his work. Man, he looks so good, so healthy.

We met Sergei and his mama a few months ago when they were referred to us by the director of the institution. Sergei’s mama has been raising him all on her own and had reached the point of overwhelm many months earlier. Their situation seemed impossible, and his mama felt the only situation was handing him over to the institution. She couldn’t see any other way to move forward. Since then our team has worked so very hard to help keep Sergei in the home. They have encouraged mom, included Sergei in our classes and activities and brought him into the life of our team. We are praying and acting, doing whatever we can to keep this family together. We don’t know what the end of the story will be, but for now Sergei has new friends and he and his mama are a part of something bigger than themselves. Oh, my heart leaped when I saw his smiling face- happy and loved by friends. Please pray for his mama. She has been brave for so long. Pray that she will open up to our help and that she would know the Father’s love.

I see our team and Kostya’s mom, looking on with love and care. I know them and I understand what they had to do behind the scenes to make a little gathering like that come together. Oleg must have traveled all over town, picking everyone up and transporting them from their homes. Masha arranged the work schedule so there would be enough helping hands. Tanya planned the craft and made sure it was ready and developmentally appropriate. Max was there next to Anton, helping him to regulate his emotions within the bigger group. The candle was lit. I know music was playing- the atmosphere of love and warmth thought out and intentional. A gathering like that, with a group like that doesn’t just happen. It has to be thoughtfully created. But it is worth it that our boys would know they are loved and valued, and that they would feel Christmas cheer. 🙂

When I watch that video I remember the stories of how God brought so many different people together, people that 7 years ago we had no idea even existed, but are now our family.

Now go watch those 26 seconds again. Look into those faces and see what I see. I see beautiful, precious friends who were overlooked for too long, but are now celebrated. I see lives changed and I see love in action. Annnnd I’m thankful.

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About a Dog (Or a couple of them, rather)

Way back before COVID was in our lives (the beginning of last year, or 5 lifetimes ago…I’m not even sure anymore) our family made a plan to visit the US in the summer. We had this great idea to buy ourselves another dog, and then bring him back home with us to Ukraine when we returned in the fall. 

Our dog, Bluebell, is an English Shepherd and the best dog on the planet. We felt like she needed a companion, and was also the perfect age to teach a new pup how to behave. Our friend Paige, breeds English Shepherds and gifted us our Bluebell 5 years ago. She had a new litter of pups that would be the perfect age to travel to Ukraine at the end of the summer. Paige even had a sweet, sable pup that she thought would be a perfect addition to our family and he hadn’t been claimed yet. The stars were aligned- it was time to get ourselves a puppy! 

Bluebell

We purchased our puppy, Auggie, and Paige graciously agreed to keep him until we arrived in Oregon in June. 

Then COVID. (How many times have I written that sentence in my storytelling over the past few months??) 

The borders closed and flights were cancelled. It quickly became apparent that we were not going to be heading to the US for the summer. But what about our Auggie?  Well, a wonderful family that are also English Shepherd owners stepped in and agreed to care for Auggie till we could come to the US this winter. Problem solved! We were bummed to miss out on puppy time, but knew he was being well-cared for, and that the time would fly by quickly.  

Then came time to buy our tickets for our winter visit. And…surprise, surprise…COVID! 

Come to find out, many airlines have suspended pet travel during the pandemic, so our options for getting Auggie back to Ukraine dwindled and dwindled till we realized the only way to get him home would be by paying a pet shipping company like $1500. Needless to say, our “pet budget” doesn’t extend that far. Yikes. We were so sad to finally admit to ourselves that Auggie wasn’t going to be coming to Ukraine.

In the meantime, another pup had entered the picture. Our Seth, the saver of all strays, brought a puppy home off the street. This wasn’t the first time Seth has tried to adopt a stray, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. His soft heart can’t bear seeing an animal all alone. We told Seth that we didn’t need another dog because Auggie would soon be coming home (we were still fighting that battle). We tried to turn the pup out, but he wouldn’t go away. He stuck around, sleeping on our porch and even barking at strangers who would pass by! I guess he felt he had found his home. Pretty soon we started feeding him, giving him soft blankets to sleep on, and…it all kind of snowballed from there. At one point I told Jed “If we’re feeding this puppy we need to decide if he’s ours.” There are too many stray dogs around our village to start randomly feeding them all!

We were still tossing around the idea of keeping the puppy when we came to the conclusion that it was literally impossible for us to get Auggie to Ukraine this winter. I asked Auggie’s foster family if they wanted to keep him and they were more than happy to comply! They love Auggie and had become quite attached to him. Our hearts were at peace. Auggie was with a loving family, and “the puppy” was an orphan. He needed us. The whole situation seemed pretty “on brand” for our fam. Hehe. 😉

That’s the story of how Wendell joined our family. Life in the times of COVID- you just never know which strange turns it will take. Am I right? Our little Wendell will always be a reminder of our strangest year yet.

PS: When we were choosing a name for Auggie, Jed was really pushing the name “Wendell”. No one in the family agreed with him. None of us were fans. Then when the pup started hanging around our porch he started covertly calling him Wendell. I guess Jed came out as the winner on this one.

Bluebell and her new buddy

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Help is On the Way

I have the most incredible news to share with you! A wonderful couple from the US has decided to join our team as Live-In-Assistants!  I still can’t believe I actually get to write that. I kinda thought it would never happen. My smile is so big right now. It’s more than a little unbelievable that something we have prayed for for so long is actually happening- and right on time. But, I actually shouldn’t be surprised because that’s how God has worked in every step of this journey. He rarely sends what we need early, but he has yet to ever send it late. His timing is absolutely perfect. 

I am so happy to introduce you to Max and Morgan Martinez. Max and Morgan are a newly married couple that we actually met here in Ukraine. About a year and a half ago, a team came to visit us from Vineyard USA’s Heroic Leadership Institute, and Max and Morgan were on that team. The Heroic Leadership Institute is a discipleship program that lasts a full school year, and ends with an outreach overseas. Their team was sent to Ukraine for their outreach and spent about a week with us here at the Homestead. They helped us in the garden, played with our boys, spent time at Romaniv with our interns and made us laugh for basically the entirety of the week. 

Max and Morgan were deeply affected by their time in Ukraine and over the past year and a half, the work here hasn’t left their hearts. They just haven’t been able to shake it. That often happens with people who come here. Our boys and our team just have a way of grabbing on to your heart, and they don’t let go easily. Sooooo if you’re considering a visit, proceed with caution. 🙂 Max and Morgan got married this past spring, and as they looked forward into their future they found themselves talking about Ukraine and wondering if someday they would join us here. At some point the conversations became less “Maybe someday” and more “Why not now?” They are in a time of transition and find themselves as free to adventure as they’ll ever be. We are so honored and happy that they have chosen to adventure with us.

 At this point they are beginning to gather prayer support and the funds necessary. It’s an exciting time and a faith-building time. Max and Morgan are hoping to join our team around the first of February. So soon!!  It’s really perfect, because our family will be in the US for the holidays, and then once we return to Ukraine we’ll have a bit of time to prepare for them, and then it will be go-time! They will live in the duplex, helping us bring boys out of the institution to live with them there. Our team will work together with them to help our boys learn the love of family. It’s going to be awesome and hard and beautiful and stretching. The current plan is that Sasha will be the first boy to come live with Max and Morgan. He will be one blessed boy. Then as he adjusts, and as the team feels ready, we will add three more boys, one at a time, over the course of several months. We always feel a sense of urgency, but we refuse to rush. All will be done prayerfully and we will follow peace in the process. 

At this point, Max and Morgan are committing to living in the duplex for one year, and as time passes they will prayerfully consider another year. Again, no rushing out ahead. We are all really trying to move forward prayerfully, knowing that God will give wisdom as it is needed. 

Max and Morgan are beginning to reach out to their community for prayer support and financial support. They will need to raise money for plane tickets, visas and residency costs, translation help, and then just personal money to have on hand here for their days off, for time to take care of themselves and such. The total needed for one year will be $8,000. If any of you feel like you would like to help get Max and Morgan here you can give a tax-deductible donation at the link below. The funds will be separate from the Wide Awake General Fund, so 100% of your donations will directly support the Martinez family. 

Thank you to all of you who have joined us in praying for the right people to come along to help. God hears our prayers and he loves this work. He is always for us and we are just in awe of his provision. Exciting times are ahead!

PS: We are still in search of people who would like to join our team here in Ukraine. The need for Live-In-Assistants will be ongoing- forever. Ha! As we finish the second side of the duplex and plan to bring more boys to live there, more willing hands and hearts will be needed. If you are interested or have more questions, please do reach out! 

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