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.

On the Move

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I started packing today. We’re moving! YIPPEEE!
(That yippee wasn’t intended for the move itself, but more for the end product of where we’re moving to)

On Saturday we are moving to a new home here in Zhytomyr. It all happened really fast, hence me just starting to pack today. Yikes.

When we moved here almost a year ago we moved into a home that suited us really well for this first year in Ukraine. Our current home is super close to Mission to Ukraine, it has plenty of space for guests, it was in our budget, and it has been fine for the past several months. But, we have known all along this wouldn’t be our place to settle down in. It was a stop along the way. 🙂

We decided to start looking for something that had a yard. Oh how we have missed having a yard and a garden!! Our current home has no land or yard at all. Any and all of the land outside our door belongs to the neighbors and is a constant construction zone. We also wanted some place that could be more easily wheelchair accessible. If possible, we really wanted a house, not an apartment.

Last week we looked at two houses and the second one seemed just perfect! So, we’ll move in on Saturday!

Pros:
-It is a one-level house. I LOVE one-level houses.
-It’s really well built and nicely insulated. Ukraine is supposed to have a crazy winter on the way, so this is very good.
-MORE COUNTER SPACE!
-It has a living room! Our current home has a big dining/kitchen area, but no living room. We’ve missed having a couch. 🙂
-It’s cozy and compact. I don’t like a lot of house to clean.
-Here’s the kicker: It has an ENORMOUS space for a garden. I mean HUGE! We thought we would have to move out to the village to get land like this, and we were willing to, but finding it in town is even better! There is a big front yard/driveway and then in the back there is garden space that just goes on and on. We are happy, happy, happy.
-We’ll be about 3 blocks from a small bazaar, which is super convenient for shopping.

Cons:
-We don’t know anyone in the part of town we’re moving to. We don’t know the shops or any neighbors…starting from scratch in that way is kind of intimidating.
-The new place quite a bit further from Mission to Ukraine. No more 3 minute walks to MTU- now it’s a bus ride away. Boohoooooo
-It’s a two bedroom house, so there’s no guest room. But don’t worry, friends! The couch turns in to a bed. We’ll still have room for you!

We’re happy and thankful to have found a cozy place that looks like it can be a real home. We’ll make sure to post pictures when we’re moved in!

Now, back to packing. Yayyyyy…..sorta.

Happy Birthday Z-Town!

Happy Birthday Dear Zhytomyr!

Today our city turned 1,130 years old. I guess that calls for a celebration!

Here's a peek at how we spent Zhytomyr's special day.

An organization that encourages mothers put up pictures of some of our local moms with their children with special needs. We were so happy to see many of our sweet friends looking so beautiful! So special.

We tried out some of the local scaryish, ricketier than you can imagine, rides!

Of course ice cream was a must. Duh.

There was so many elderly men playing music together. WE LOVED IT!

Somebody even put bubbles in the fountain! PARTAYYYY!

Seth made sure to wear his special cape for the occasion. We had to take a lot of pictures to prove how it flew behind him when he ran fast. 🙂

Happy Birthday Zhytomyr! We're big fans!

 

Coffee Chat

On the eve of tomorrow’s presidential elections here in Ukraine, there is much that could be said.  Things are getting more and more crazy in the East.  I can’t even keep up with the news properly.  People on both sides of the conflict are dying and no one knows what will happen next.  Please join us in prayer for tomorrow’s elections!  Pray that people would not be hindered from voting.  Pray that there would be loads of courage and wisdom on each person who decides to make their voice heard.  Pray for honesty and that corruption would be far away from these proceedings.  That almost seems impossible, but we are praying it anyway.  God is doing a new thing here and we choose hope.  

Let’s chat.  Let’s pretend you and I are sitting down for a nice, hot cup of coffee and you just asked me, “So, what have you guys been up to?”

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We’ve been great!  I’m so glad it’s almost summer break.  One more week of school and we’re done!!!  Addy and Ezra had testing last week in reading, writing, and math and they both did fine on all the tests.  Yay!  They both recited poems in their class program and did awesome. FIVE MORE DAYS!!!!!  Good thing too, because it’s really hard to think about school when it’s 80 degrees with blue skies and all the neighbor kids get to stay out playing till after 9:00 every night.  🙂

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Speaking of neighbor kids, we have a couple that have started to come over faithfully to invite the kids to come outside and play!  They are sweet little girls that are both 11, and they really enjoy playing with the kids.  They usually bring an assortment of siblings and other tag-alongs with them.  One day they were so desperate to communicate that one of them actually ran inside her apartment and came out with an English-Russian dictionary!  Thank you Jesus for fun kids to run around with.

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The little girls made our kids this picture as a gift. Notice the bottom, “Set, Hava, Ezra, and HARRY” Hahahahahaha!!!! Looks like Addy’s got a new nickname!

So, in case you didn’t know, Ukrainians have a thing for hedgehogs.  Everyone loves hedgehogs here.  You can find candy named after hedgehogs; they are a super common theme in kids’ books; many families have stuffed animal hedgehogs in their houses, and the kids have homework that involves hedgehogs at least once a week.  I love it!  I don’t get it, but I enjoy it.  Well, a couple nights ago there was a hedgehog on our street!  I’d never seen a real one before!  Coooool.  One of the neighbors lightly kicked it until it rolled in to a ball and then he picked it up. I’ve got to admit, I’m becoming a fan!

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We had our second Youth Night at MTU last week.  It was karaoke night and we all had a blast.  We got to be outside, we ate food, chatted, sang, laughed, bowled.  So many smiles…I am absolutely in love with Youth Night.

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Jed even pulled out the air guitar. Intense.

Last week classes at MTU ended for the school year.  Now we enter the summer schedule, which is shaping up to be pretty stinking fun.  I’ll do a post about that later.  Over the past couple of months my friend Tanya and I had the best time meeting with some of the moms whose kids are served at MTU.  Normally while the kids are in classes, the moms meet with Olya, a staff member of MTU.  They chat, pray, and study the Bible.  Olya is pretty busy, so Tanya and I took a couple of her groups and have met with them several times.  We had such fun!!  We drank tea, prayed, chatted…I absolutely loved getting to know some of the moms of the children and youth we serve.  These are some awesome, strong, brave, and loving women.  I adore them!

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Mommies and Me

Today was such a fun day here in Zhytomyr!!  They hung up a record-breaking, HUGE HUGE HUGE Ukrainian flag on a building in our city center.  There was a big gathering today at the flag to hear from some important people in the city, to hear some beautiful music, to sing the National Anthem, and basically just to show support and love the for this wonderful country.  Many, many people were dressed in traditional clothing, there were flags everywhere…it was AWESOME.  I was so thankful we got to be there to participate!  Zhytomyr, as a city, has honestly been a bit sleepy when it comes to all that has been happening these past few months.  But now, a few days after the attack and deaths of some of our own Zhytomyr soldiers who were fighting in the east, Zhytomyr is sleeping no more.

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The view from the other side of the city center. Massive!!!

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University students in traditional dress marched and chanted in the streets.

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Johnson kiddos feelin’ the love…

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Our dear friend Olya helping Havalah in the sidewalk chalk competition. Kids were supposed to draw something to symbolize their love for Ukraine.

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Addy, hard at work. Her writing says “I love Ukraine” -in Ukrainian! Nice job sis!

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Showing our flowery support with traditional hairbands 🙂

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Some of our favorite people: Oksana, Nastya, Tolik, Victor, Katya,Olya, Oleg, Tanya, and baby Zakhar. (Seth was sooooo done. Haha)

Thank you for loving the Ukrainian people alongside us.  May God have His way and may many hearts be turned to Him during this time.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  Ephesians 3:20, 21

The New Digs

We have some pretty fantastic news to share!

We know where we get to live in Zhitomir!!!!!  THIS IS HUGE!!!!

When we were in Zhitomir in May we stayed in a house that we talked about in this post.  Let me jog your memory.  We stayed in a house that is owned by a Ukrainian who lives in Israel. The house was renovated to be used as a small guest-house, or hostel for people who are coming to serve Mission to Ukraine (MTU), like mission teams, and people like us!  The house has 4 bedrooms and is literally like a 4 minute walk away from MTU.  People can rent the house out by the night, or just rent a room.  We loved staying there, and while we were house-hunting my smarty pants Mother-in-Law suggested we ask if we could rent that house for a year while we’re living in Zhitomir.  Duh!  Great idea!  So, we asked Ira, the director of MTU if she would talk with the owner about us renting.  Ira, being the wise one that she is, was already a step ahead of us.  She had a feeling we would like the house so she had already contacted the owner.  🙂  Well, we found out just a few days ago that the owner said yes!  Thank you Jesus!!! AND, he’s renting it to us for well within our budget.  THANK YOU JESUS!  God is so good to us.  

It would have been so super smart of me to take pictures of the house while we were there, you know, in case the owner said yes…but of course I didn’t.  We thought it was such a slim chance we would be living there- kind of like a pipe dream, I guess I just didn’t think of it.  Lame.  Oh me of little faith, right?  So instead I guess I’ll try to describe it to you.

The house isn’t it’s own free-standing structure, it’s kind of connected/a part of a big building that I *think* is other houses.  You walk around the back of the building, along a pathway of 2×4’s covering rubble, and our entrance is there in the back.  There’s an un-used shed back there…hmmm, not sure if that comes with the house or not.  

Downstairs:
When you walk in it’s a pretty nice open space.  To the right is a dining room table and the kitchen.  The kitchen is one counter with sink, a little counter space, stove, and fridge.  What I love is that the kitchen is open to the dining area and entryway!  Most of the other kitchens I saw were a small separate room.  Having the kitchen in an open space will help us tremendously with homeschooling, and with just the fact that we have 4 kids.  🙂 To the left of the entrance is a bathroom with a tub, shower, and clothes washing machine (ooooooh so teeny tiny! Haha!).  Right next to the bathroom is a bedroom.  The house has no living room, so we’ll turn that bedroom into a living room.  And then directly in front of you when you enter the house is the staircase leading upstairs. 

Upstairs:
Upstairs is so great!  You walk up the stairs to an open hallway.  There are 2 bedrooms to the right and then on the left is a bigger bedroom with a shower in it.  Also on the left is a small bathroom with just a toilet.  Straight at the end of the hallway is an enclosed balcony where we will hang our laundry to dry.  We’re thinking our kids will all share a room, like they do now, and we’ll use that third bedroom upstairs as a guest room (hint hint)/Wide Awake International office space.  

Quirky things of note:
-The kitchen cupboards are made of bright purple metal.  Yesssssssss
-The stairs in the house are hazardous.  We’re taking bets now on who’s going to be the first Johnson to take a tumble down the ol’ stairs.  They’re like just a little too short for your feet, so you have to turn your feet sideways to walk down them.  They’re also slippery, shiny wood.  This should be interesting…
-There is a drying rack for the dishes in a cupboard right above the sink.  So smart, right? 
-There are no closets in the bedrooms.  There are wardrobe thingies.  Addy is pretty excited about having a wardrobe.  Can you guess what book she’s been reading?

Amazing things of note:
-It’s a hop, skip, and a jump from MTU.
-It’s like a 10-15 minute walk to the city center of Zhitomir where there are fun things to see, nice places to walk, and easy access to bus lines.  
-It’s ground level; as in, it’s not a flat 9-stories up.  YAY!  
-It’s clean.
-It’s furnished!  We were anticipating having to buy everything needed for a home when we arrived in Ukraine.  Now we can slowly accumulate the things we’ll need for a future place over time.  The kitchen is stocked with the necessities for cooking, there are beds, linens, towels.  All we’ll need to buy at the beginning is the fixin’s to make the downstairs bedroom into a living room.  Easy peasy.  

What a huge answer to prayer.  This is just another way that God is laying out the path before us.  What a blessing that I can picture where we’ll be living.  We can describe it to our kids.  We won’t have to take a bus to MTU.  I could go on and on.  We are just so extremely thankful to the Lord.  He is too stinkin’ good!!!