Massively Exciting News!

This was originally shared in our newsletter (last Friday), but I wanted to make sure everyone got the news. If you aren’t signed up for our newsletter you should be! Sign up below 😊

So, last week I told you all a bit more about Zhanna and Vanya and about how much they have come to mean to our family and team. Well, you didn’t know it, but I was prepping you for this week’s news: Zhanna and Vanya will soon be moving into the duplex!! Ohhhhhh yeah, you read it right. They are officially becoming a part of our team and family here on the Homestead and we are so thankful and excited. 

Years ago, before we even had land in our village, before we adopted Vlad or had guardianship of any of our boys, we would sit and imagine how the dream God had given us would play out. We wondered who would come to help us, who would want to live with the boys, and Jed had an idea. He thought about how amazing it would be if parents who already had their own children with disabilities would want to come live with our boys in community. That way, our boys would have loving people in their lives who already see the value in every life, and our team could help support the parents as they raise their children into adulthood. We thought it could be a win-win for everyone.

When we met Zhanna last spring it was obvious from the start that she shared our same heart. We clicked right from the beginning. Back in the fall I shared our dream of parents like her living with our boys and offhand mentioned “Hey! Wanna come live with Anton and Sasha?” We laughed about it and moved on. Then on Chrismas day, when we were having a quiet day with the boys, Zhanna and Vanya were with us and she brought up that conversation. She asked me if I really meant what I said about parents like her living with our boys. I told her I definitely meant it! Parents like her already “get” our life. It is not a big adjustment to live with our boys, because she has already adjusted her entire life for Vanya. She is committed to him for life- she’s not going anywhere. Zhanna told me she was seriously considering it, and we started to discuss details. Then on New Years Eve, she came to me and told me “I want to live here with the boys. I feel in my heart that it is the right thing for us.” ❤️
We met later to talk details, and the decision was made. Our family just grew.

Next week Zhanna and Vanya will begin to spend their days at the duplex, and then sleep at home at night. We will all take our cues from the boys and over the next couple of months they will slowly transition to living full-time with Anton and Sasha. At the end of February Grant will join them. 💪 It will require each and every one of us to grow and change, but we are all ready. One of our values is to be a welcoming community- and we are ready to live that value out. Zhanna and Vanya will no longer be alone, and we will have more of the help we desperately need so that we can bring more boys out of Romaniv and into family life. 

I really can’t thank you enough for praying. God was working on Zhanna’s heart for months and we had no idea. Anton and Sasha are in the perfect spaces, emotionally, to be able to accept new people into their home. It is just right. 

God is so good to us and our boys. He doesn’t miss a detail. 

BeLOVE[d]

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Redefining Family

Back in May we had our first “Open Doors Day” for Dim Hidnosti, the Ukrainian arm of Wide Awake. Open Doors Day is a time for our organization to open wide our doors and invite people from the community to come see and learn about our work. Many of our volunteers have joined us after coming to an Open Door Day. We’ve had 3 so far, and each has been a success. I think it’s time to do another!

So back in May, we planned and prepared, anticipating our first time of opening up our doors. We had no idea who would come and if it would be worth all the time and effort. I remember the day of, it was a beautiful day- so sunny and warm- until it wasn’t. Just as people started arriving the floodgates opened and it began to pour down rain. We had planned to gather outside, so everyone was running around like crazy, bringing everything inside and adjusting plans last minute. We had a great turnout; the house was jam packed. It was not ideal to be crammed inside, but we were all just happy that so many people came.

That day turned out to be a super significant day, although we didn’t know it at the time! That was the day we met our dear friends who we now call family, Zhanna and Vanya. Zhanna is mom to Vanya and a psychologist. She has worked tirelessly in our city for the rights of people with autism. She has counseled moms who have a newly diagnosed child and worked with the high-ups in the city toward inclusion and support for families who have a child with autism. And all the while Zhanna has single-parented her son Vanya, who is 15 and has autism. I’m not sure how Zhanna found out about the Open Doors Day, but she came, and it turned out to be a life-changing day for all of us.

Zhanna and Vanya started coming to just about every single gathering and event that our team provided. They were present at every art class, every party, every outing. It was just a natural fit from the very start. We love them and they love us. It feels like we have always been together. Zhanna and Vanya spent Christmas and New Years with us, and yesterday we all celebrated Vanya’s 16th birthday together. It was really special. Vanya understood that it was a special day and he was so happy!

Yesterday at Vanya’s birthday Zhanna told us it was the first time she really felt like she and Vanya were accepted in a family just as they are. They are not expected to be something they are not, or something they can’t be. They are loved just because they are Zhanna and Vanya, and they are precious to us. They have become a part of our big Wide Awake Family.

When our family moved to Ukraine and left our biological families behind we began to redefine “family” in our hearts. We had no choice but to open our hearts to the possibility of finding family in Ukraine, or else be alone. Then, of course, we added our boys to our family and redefined “family” once again. When someone asks me how many children I have I always stumble on my answer. “Well, I have 6 Johnson kids, but then 4 more who call me ‘Mama’, but a couple of them are in their 30’s and they don’t actually live in our home…”

Nope. No. No more. I decided I’m done with that. I’m done with the stumbling and mumbling and explaining. If I am “Mama” to our boys, then they are my sons. In my heart they are my sons, and in their hearts I am Mama, so why do I need to stumble over my words? Jed and I are committed to them for life, and we have ultimate responsibility for their health and well-being, soul, mind, and body. They are our family. I am a mother of 10. 😆

We still dream that in the duplex there would be house parents (a mother and a father figure), but we also have learned over the past couple of years that the nuclear family is not the only type of family that can be amazing. Friends who are committed to each other through the good times and the bad can also create a wonderful family. When Max and Morgan moved back to the US we worried that Anton and Sasha would feel that loss of house parents and that it would affect them negatively, but we have learned an amazing truth over the past 4 months: our team is Anton and Sasha’s family. Yes, they have our Johnson family always and forever, but that’s not where their family ends. They have our entire team who is committed to them and loves them: Lesya, Masha, another Masha, Tanya, Tonya, Luda, Nina, Oleg, Maxim, Ruslan, and MIra. No matter who is sleeping at the duplex with them each night, they have been just fine, because it’s always someone from their family there with them, and they know they are safe and loved.

Last week Jed and I met with Zhanna and we were talking about our future together with her and Vanya. We discussed our commitment to them as a part of our family, how in our hearts “family” is not reserved just for those who live in our home or who share our blood. We have team members who have basically no biological family and we are family to each other. Zhanna and Vanya have been very much alone and there is no reason they should stay that way: we can be family for each other. ❤️

Family is a place to know and be known.

Family is a place to forgive and be forgiven.

Family is a place to serve and be served.

Family is a place to love and BeLOVE[d].

I thank God for the beautiful family he has given us, both here and in the US. We are blessed to be loved by many people, and to be able to open our hearts to others who have been alone for so long.

Do you know of anyone who is need of family? Maybe your next YES is opening your heart to someone who is lonely. ❤️ Why not give it a try?

BeLOVE[d]

BeLOVE[d]

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Ruslan and Anton: Three Years Free

This past week was a big milestone for our family. We celebrated three years of freedom for Anton and Ruslan. Three years!! It seems like they have been with us for so much longer. It’s a little hard to remember life without them. Three years ago when we brought them out of Romaniv to join our family we committed to them for life. We committed to love them and care for them always. We naively thought we knew them then. Now I think of how much they’ve changed and I can see that we really didn’t know them at all. They had never had the opportunity to truly be known, and I’m incredibly thankful that now they are loved and known and treasured by many, many people.

If you’ve followed our journey for a while you know that life with Ruslan and Anton has not been an easy one. We have had our fair share of struggles along the way. When we committed to them for life we thought we knew what that would look like. We thought they would live with us in our home, like Boris, forever. Well, that dream lasted a year and a half, and then we realized it was 100% not sustainable. Together we have journeyed through times of great joy and great sorrow, great healing and great pain, great suffering and great hope. It has been a massive rollercoaster. BUT- I am happy to report that God has always been with us. He has never left us or our boys and he has always given us exactly what we needed. He has taught us and helped us and we are all better having traveled this path.

The day we took Anton and Ruslan home ❤️

Ruslan is living with Luda, a member of our team, and her teenage son, Nazar. They live in an apartment about 10 minutes away from our village and Ruslan is doing FABULOUSLY well. He is happy and thriving. Since living in the apartment he has grown so much in independence. We are seeing now the man that God created Ruslan to be and we are so proud of him. He brings us lots of laughs and his love for “cappuccinkos” rivals the biggest coffee fanatics’ out there. 😂 Ruslan still struggles a lot with the trauma of his past and life with him is not all butterflies and unicorns, but Luda has great patience and they really are suited so well for life together. God blessed us abundantly when he brought us our dear Luda. What a gift.

Anton is living in the duplex, right outside our back door, with Max, Morgan, and Sasha. Life in the duplex is the best of both worlds for our Antoshka. We learned that he’s not well-suited for life in a big family, and over time it became unsafe for him to live with our family since we have small children in the home. But, he really does best when he is close to us and can see us every day. He’s a mama’s boy and I love him right back, so the duplex is the perfect place for him. Also, the proximity allows Jed and I to be a support when Anton is struggling. Man, I’m so thankful for that home! Anton has also grown and changed so much in the past three years. He is saying more words and we are all learning how he communicates and what he needs in his environment to thrive. He still struggles with anger and aggression, but he is also learning about sadness. He is learning that it’s okay to be sad and not every negative emotion he feels needs to go straight to anger. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to make mistakes. Over and over our team shows him that he is loved no matter what. His road to healing has been a steep one, but we love him dearly and we will not stop walking with him.

Last Sunday, on the anniversary of Ruslan and Anton’s freedom, our family picked them up before church and took them out for coffee. It was the first time it was just the 11 of us since Anton and Ruslan lived with us. I can’t even tell you what a precious time it was. Every time I think of it I get all emotional! We have all come so far together. I just kept looking at their faces and feeling overcome with thankfulness that they are our family. I was reminded of what blessings they are and what an honor it is to love them and be loved by them. When our boys love, they do so without restraint. They have like a sixth sense about people and when they feel that you truly love them you will have a friend for life. They are our precious, precious gifts from God and I so needed that reminder.

Our Boys

Sometimes in the daily grind of life here our focus can shift. We can get caught up in problem-solving, scheduling, budgeting, and team management. Our boys can easily become problems to be taken care of or tasks to completed. We always love them, but their demands and needs are so great that if we aren’t careful they can become our “burdens” when God is inviting us to recognize that they are our blessings. They are so valuable and our lives are forever changed because of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I have had seasons of feeling burdened by the responsibility of our boys. The responsibility for their lives is huge! But that responsibility is an honor- not a burden. My prayer is that our hearts would always remain soft to our boys. That in the good times and the bad we would recognize that they are our blessings- our gifts. They bring us joy. They teach us to love unconditionally. In loving them and caring for them our own weaknesses are brought to light and we have the great privilege of working that stuff out and not being allowed to just sit in that place of weakness and selfishness. As their lives are changed, so our lives are changed. Not one of us remains the same on this journey of bringing the lonely into family. Praise God for that. ❤️

BeLOVE[d]


BeLOVE[d]

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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.

BeLOVE[d]

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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 🙂

BeLOVE[d]

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