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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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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As Promised, Resources for Reevaluating Tech Use :)

Friday, Friday, Friday is my favorite day…

Did anyone else sing that song as a kid? I remember back in elementary school when my uncle was my teacher for a few years. He was my most favorite teacher EVER, and I remember him singing that song. 🙂 Now I sing it to my kids, and time moves on…way too fast.

Earlier in the week I shared our decision to move off of social media. We’ve gotten a lot of different responses, which was to be expected. I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with the decision, but ultimately it’s up to us to do what we feel is right for Wide Awake. I really want to thank you for trusting us in this decision. It wasn’t an easy one!

I want to make it super clear that I am 100% not saying that everyone has to agree with us. And I am 100% not saying that if you stay on social media I’m judging you and we can’t be friends. You know us! We aren’t like that. I’m okay with agreeing to disagree, and I’m okay with your perspective being different from mine. No worries, and no judgement from our end. Okay?

Many of you asked me to share resources that I have been learning from over the past year or so that helped lead us to this decision. So, here you go! I hope you find them as helpful and inspiring as I have. I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert. I have so much more to learn and think over. I’m open-minded and don’t claim to have the market on correct opinions. If you read, listen to, or watch any of these recommendations do let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For Everyone. These resources have helped me examine my own relationship with digital technology and social media. There is more to this life than the world inside our phones. Social media is one place, but it is not the only place to find information and connect with people. I highly recommend these resources if you would like to learn more.

Books

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (This is a book that I will need to read again and again. Not to be dramatic, but i kinda changed my life. Ha!) https://www.calnewport.com/books/digital-minimalism/

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Right Now by Jaron Lanier (This one sounds super extreme and fanatical, but it’s actually really informative. The author is not just ranting. He presents facts about how social media works and how it is changing us and our society.) http://www.jaronlanier.com/tenarguments.html

Film

The Social Dilemma on Netflix (This is WOAH.) https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_social_dilemma

Podcasts

An interview about digital minimalism: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/122-digital-minimalism-with-cal-newport/id1054817076?i=1000429472069

An interview about the science and dangers of social media: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/jaron-lanier-why-you-should-unplug-from-social-media/id1344999619?i=1000429216123

My favorite podcast on these topics: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-collin-kartchner-podcast/id1513817377

For Parents. As a mom of many, I find myself more and more concerned with the culture of screens and kids that I see around me these days. My heart breaks to see toddlers playing on iPhones and 5th graders on social media. I just can’t. I know we are all still figuring out how to parent in the smart phone world, and we have all made mistakes or done things we regret. I highly recommend these resources for parents, or anyone who someday hopes to be a parent. You can’t unlearn this information, so proceed with caution- but please do proceed! It’s never too late to make changes in your home. Our kids need us to be awake and alert when it comes to tech use. This is an area of parenting we don’t get to ignore.

Books

Reset Your Child’s Brain by Victoria Dunckley, MD (This book discusses the risks and dangers of exposing our kids to a lot of screens, and has many practical tips on how to make changes in your home.) https://drdunckley.com/reset-your-childs-brain

Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids – and How to Break the Trance by Nicholas Kardaras (I think the title says it all…hehe) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27883215-glow-kids

Film

Childhood 2.0 (I have not watched this, but it has been recommended by many reputable sources. I plan to watch it this weekend. I wanted to make sure to let you know about it in case you wanted to give it a go.)

Podcasts

The Collin Kartcher Podcast (He has so many good episodes. This is a podcast not to be missed. I’ll link below to a couple good ones to start with.) https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-collin-kartchner-podcast/id1513817377

In this episode the host explains why his 14 year old daughter doesn’t have a smart phone: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/collin-kartchner-podcast-7-reasons-why-my-14yr-old/id1513817377?i=1000476047501

This is a great episode about the benefits of reducing your kids’ screen time and tips for how to do it: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/collin-kartchner-podcast-how-to-screen-detox-your-kids/id1513817377?i=1000488763813

Last but most definitely not least…

For the heart. I can read all the books and listen to all the podcasts and watch all the documentaries, but this decision was ultimately made because of what God has been speaking our hearts. We can do this work on our own terms and work completely off of our own ideas and what makes sense to us, and I’m sure we could create something nice. We can do all the newest, greatest therapies and build our online “platform” and “audience” and take the best photos, and that would be fine. It might even be really cool. But, we can’t ignore this whisper from the Holy Spirit to do things differently. We can’t ignore this invitation from the Father to do things his way. God has promised us that if we would follow him, one YES at a time, that he would create something really special here. Maybe whatever we could create here on our own could be good, but we believe that God wants to do something better. We don’t know the concrete differences between his ways and our ways, but we aren’t willing to miss out. We don’t want to do what everyone says we “should” do. We want to say YES to God.

If you would like to learn more about our hearts behind this, I recommend the book In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2520.In_the_Name_of_Jesus

Nouwen was a very well-known author and professor when he left his career to become a priest in a community for people with disabilities. This book is his reflections on christian leadership after making the move. In it he discusses the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be popular, and the temptation to be powerful. Those three temptations are what kept us from leaving social media a year ago when we first felt we were supposed to. Yikes. It’s a short read and a wonderful treasure of a book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

As always, if you have any questions you can contact us any time. We are excited and a little nervous about this new way to communicate. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how it all pans out! Thanks for joining us on the ride. 🙂

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Why Quit Social Media?

Oof. This is a doozy to write. Ha! But, I just have to be me and be real and honest with you, just as I’ve attempted to be all along this journey. There’s no point in trying to be someone or something I’m not. I just don’t have it in me. 😉

A couple years ago I started really disliking how attached I had become to social media. I didn’t like the comparison game I allowed it to incite in me. I didn’t like the time I wasted on it. I didn’t like the demands it made of me to give “all or nothing”. If you want to do well at running social media for a nonprofit you can’t just “kind of” do it. Because of the all-powerful algorithm, you are bound to posting very frequently, or your posts go on the wayside, missed by most people and buried under the next political debate.

I bemoaned the need for social media and wanted to quit, just for my own mental health, but felt I had no option to opt out because of Wide Awake. We HAD to be on social media or we would become obsolete. That’s what I told myself. So, we stayed, even though I often didn’t feel good about it.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been deep-diving into all aspects of tech and how we, as a family, interact with technology (By tech, I mean screens and devices. We’re still okay with washing machines and lightbulbs). Tomorrow we’re concluding a 30 day screen detox as a family and it has been really cool. During our detox Jed and I used screens for our work, but as a family we did zero screen time. We said no to tv, movies, video games, and browsing online. But we said YES to playing tons of games, yes to evening conversations on the couch, yes to just being together and yes to fighting boredom with things besides screens.

During the detox I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself on the impact of screens and social media on our society today. I’m a mom of teens, so I don’t get to turn a blind eye to these things. I need to know what is happening online and I need to be savvy about it. I went into the education aspect of it with a desire for a game plan for how our family would move forward at the month’s end, but I came out with so much more.

Like I said yesterday, social media can be great. Some of our boys’ lives have literally been saved because of the reach of social media. Wide Awake has been on social media since our beginning, and we have experienced great friendship and wonderful blessing from people we have met via social media.

But, Friends, there is so much wrong with social media. So so much. Sex trafficking and pornography and hate and incitement of fear is right at our fingertips. If we at Wide Awake value every human life, and if we believe in bringing dignity and hope, how can we rely on social media to relay our message? Social media can be great for some, but honestly, it greatly benefits a very few and brings great harm to many.

When I started to feel that gut feeling, that prodding from the Holy Spirit that we needed to change course and share our message in a different way, it scared the heckouttame.

A glimpse of my stream of consciousness: I mean, isn’t that like non-profit suicide??? How can you even have a successful non-profit if you aren’t on social media??? People will think we’re some kind of fanatical crazy people. People might think we’re lazy. No one reads emails anymore. People will forget about us. People will forget about us. People will forget.

I’m still battling many of those thoughts as I sit here writing to you. A big part of me is so afraid of what this will mean for Wide Awake- BUT I know that I know that this is what God is asking of us. He is asking us to do things HIS way and not our own way. He is asking us to redefine success. He is asking us to rely on Him for our provision- and not Instagram and Facebook. He is asking us to trust Him to bring us the helpers we need. He is asking us to allow Him to be our provider, our friend, our source, our encouragement, our reason. He wants to be all those things and when He follows through on His promises He will get all the glory. It won’t be because I posted at 1:00pm Monday through Friday. It won’t be because a post had a beautiful photo or a high engagement. It will be because this is God’s work and He is for it. He is FOR US and He will complete His work here in Ukraine with or without social media.

So, we are choosing to trust, even when it may seem ludicrous to some. It’s okay if you don’t understand. We can still be friends. (Just not FB friends…hehe 😉

The work will continue here and we will continue to faithfully share the joys and the pains- just in other ways. I hope you will join us because it’s gonna be AWESOME.

PS: I was thinking of doing a post with resources I learned from on this journey. Would you be interested in me sharing those in a future post?

We’ll be sending out weekly email digests with all the photos and updates you would normally see on FB and Instagram. Sign up below!

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As always, if you have any questions, ask away! We are open. You can message below or reach me by email at kjohnson@wideawakeinternational.org

Back to the Basics

It’s hard to imagine that I started writing on this blog more than 9 years ago. It feels like not long ago, but it also feels like 5 lifetimes ago. Back in those days Seth was our foster baby and we were hoping to adopt from Ukraine. We had 4 small kids, owned a house, worked our jobs. We had a pretty typical American life.

Now, 9 years later we have 6 kids, plus 3 adults under our guardianship. (Also a dog, 2 cats, 14 chickens, 2 bunnies…and a partridge in a pear tree) We live in a village in Ukraine and our life is kind of the opposite of typical- by American and Ukrainian standards. We’re some kind of strange, no matter how you look at it. 🙂

When I started this blog we had no intention of moving to Ukraine and I started it just as a way to get the word out about our adoption. Then when the tides turned and we ended up started Wide Awake International and moving to Ukraine, the blog remained a great way to communicate. When I felt inspired, I wrote. When I had nothing to say, or when times were particularly rough, I was more quiet (hence the “more quiet” of the past year or so). It was easier to post on social media during those times, because social media posts didn’t require the “inspiration” that I’ve always felt the blog deserved. So, the blog has kind of fallen a bit along the wayside.

But now, now it’s time for the blog to shine again. 🙂

After much consideration, prayer, and studying, we have decided that in two weeks time we will remove Wide Awake from social media (Facebook and Instagram).

I think social media can be a great thing when it is used in the right way. It can even be beautiful and it can help save lives. Almost all of our boys, who now live in loving families, were found through advocacy on social media. A big number of Wide Awake supporters would have never found out about this work were it not for social media. We will always be thankful for how those platforms helped us share our dream of dignity and love with so many people.

At the same time, we find ourselves more and more at odds, personally, with what social media has become over the past couple of years. We have wanted to “pull the plug” numerous times, especially over this past year, but have felt like it was impossible to have a successful nonprofit without social media. But I guess it all comes down to how you define “success”. If we measure success by the size of our audience and the amount of applause, we may be throwing away our chance of success by leaving social media. But if we measure success by our obedience to Christ, then this is the path to ultimate success. So, this is the direction in which we will walk.

Over the next couple of weeks I plan to share more about how we came to this decision, but I wanted to at least get the word out there so people will know where to find us online and we don’t lose any friends along the way.

Here’s where you will find us online:

  • Here on the blog! I plan to write here at least once a week. Make sure you subscribe below so you never miss a post.

  • In our email newsletter! I’ll admit, we’ve not always been the best at newsletters. But that’s about to change. We always want to be transparent about our work here and we always want you to be able to follow what is happening here in Ukraine. So, we will be sending out a weekly email digest with all the photos and updates that you would normally find on social media. Fill out the form below to sign up for the weekly newsletter. I promise to never send you spam. I would never do that! 🙂

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Thank you for loving us and trusting us along this journey. We aren’t going anywhere, we’re just switching up the mode of communication. No need to say goodbye! If you have any questions don’t hesitate to comment or send us a message below.

BeLOVE[d]