What Does the Next Yes Mean?

On December 15th a committee will meet to decide if we are allowed to take guardianship of our precious friend, Boris. The committee has never visited a case like ours before (non-relatives pursuing guardianship of an adult with disabilities), so we are totally unsure of the outcome. Jed has submitted all the requested documents and the law is on our side, along with institution administration. There is really no reason why they should deny our petition, but they could always ask for more documents and endlessly require more from us…there is just no saying! We are preparing our home and our hearts for the possibility of bringing Boris home on that day, but at the same time not setting our hopes too high. It’s an impossible heart situation that will only be solved with time.

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So what does this “guardianship” word mean, in our case? I’ll tell you!

Legally, Boris can not be adopted by us because he is almost 26 years old and US law does not allow international adoption of adults. Also, if the goal is deinstitutionalization of all our boys, international adoption of ALL of them is probably not the most effective solution. Adoption is extremely expensive and the restrictions of who can and can’t adopt would limit our options for help in the years to come. Guardianship seems to be the best solution.

Ukraine has the options of an individual gaining guardianship or an organization gaining guardianship. In the future, once we have more homes on our property and are bringing out more boys we will most likely go the organization route. That makes more sense when you are looking at maybe having helpers in the family-style homes that are not able to commit the rest of their lives to these boys and this place. Having Wide Awake Int. remain the consistent guardianship overhead makes sense. For the boys that will be living in this house with our immediate family, like Boris, we decided to go the individual guardianship route. For one thing Wide Awake is not yet registered as a Ukrainian non-profit, but only as a US one at this point. More importantly though, we see the boys who will live in this house with us as becoming our immediate family, and as they will become a forever part of our family, it is right that we should personally be their guardians.

By law, the transfer of guardianship is from one individual to another. So the assistant director of the institution must express his desire to transfer guardianship of Boris to Jed, which he has done. The administration is totally supportive of this. They are behind us and have only helped the process so far. We are extremely thankful for that! It’s super important that they understand this is something we can do with them, not something we are doing to them. This gives them the opportunity to be an active part of the solution. Win win! Jed will have ultimate legal responsibility of Boris and will have total legal authority to make decisions on his behalf, as Boris is at this time unable to speak for himself. Through the coming years, as Boris gains his voice we will partner together in helping him become all God has made him to be with as much independence as he can safely have.

So that’s the legal side of it. What does a transfer of guardianship mean for our family? Well, that remains to be seen! Of course we have no idea what this will look like in the coming years, but we are committed to our friend. In our hearts and minds, this is an adoption. Boris will not gain our family name, but he will gain our family identity and heritage. For all intents and purposes Boris will become a Johnson, with a different last name. 🙂 We are committed to him for life as if he were our own child, born from my womb. Sure, he’s only 12 year younger than us (ha!), but to us that makes no difference. Once he is with us he will be here to stay- forever, as a beloved son and friend.

It’s funny, Jed and I were talking the other day and realized we needed to decide how we would refer to each other when talking to Boris. On paper, we are way too young to be his mom and dad, but developmentally a mommy and daddy is what Boris needs. He is like a baby in many ways and has been neglected for so many years. He needs to cocoon with family like a newborn for as long as it takes for healing to come. We decided we will be Daddy and Mommy to Boris. He’s missed out on that relationship for far too long.

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Because we are not adopting Boris, he will not become a US citizen. Vladik has US citizenship because he is adopted, but Boris will remain a Ukrainian citizen. That does make things tricky, as far as when we need to visit family and partners in the US. As a family we usually plan to visit the US for two months every 2 years. As soon as we have legal custody we will get Boris an international passport and then apply for a US visa for him. It’s a total toss-up as to whether he would be granted a visitor visa, but it’s worth a try! It would be great if he could travel with us for visits, but if he is denied a visa we will ask loving friends to stay here at the Homestead with him while we are gone. It’s not optimal, but there really aren’t many options. We are hoping for and expecting great healing for Boris-spirit, mind and body. But we are not unaware that a big trip across the ocean might not be what’s best for him at any given time. So we are trying to be very open handed with all of that. God will give us wisdom.

Medically, Boris is a total mystery. We have no idea what is going on in his body. He is obviously in poor health and will need the support of many specialists. We are hesitant to pursue initial medical evaluations here, as we are simply not confident that Boris will be seen as valuable and worthy of the best medical care available. Simply said, we live in a society that does not, as a general whole, accept people like Boris, so we would like to take him out of Ukraine for some baseline testing and examinations. Thankfully, Ukrainians can now travel visa-free in the EU for 90 days at a time, and also thankfully, we have loads of friends in the medical profession in Germany who are ready to welcome Boris with open arms. We are excited to get our boy a passport and begin to sort out that body of his so he can be as healthy as possible.

As time winds down till the committee meeting I find my heart in alternate states of peace and chaos. As I sat in his room folding all his precious, clean clothes and placing them at the ready on his shelves I felt such peace and anticipation. This is what we came here for. This is what the building project was all about. For Vladik and Boris and the ones yet to come, they are why we left everything and moved our family to Ukraine. FINALLY our boys are leaving Romaniv and my heart is so thankful and at peace. We love Boris and can’t wait to bear witness to his healing. What a privilege! What a joy! We can’t get him here soon enough!

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Then minutes later, when I’m missing my parents or feeling lonely for a friend my heart will jolt with the reality that this is forever. Once Boris enters our family everything changes. When Jed legally becomes his guardian we are effectively saying “Here we stay. Here we will live, ‘Till death do us part’.” That, my friends, is no small thing. We are not superhuman. We get it, what we’re saying, and it’s hard. It’s a heavy statement that we’ve been building up to for many years now. It’s not a decision that we take lightly. The weight of it can panic me a bit, to be honest.
But, this is our act of love. This is our service to Jesus. This is how we give of ourselves in the biggest YES we’ve said yet.

Right now I can’t think of forever or I might freak. So, I’m trying to plan for the future but not resting my heart there. I’m attempting to be fully present today and then tomorrow and ask God for the grace to live well in these moments right in front of me. I fail so often (daily), but living well in the present is the only way I’ll even be mildly successful at loving Boris well. And he deserves to be loved well- as do my other children, and my husband.

We have no idea what the day to day will look like, but we know it will involve lots of diapers, lots of pureeing food, lots of trial and error, lots of firsts, lots of sacrifices, lots of documents, lots of healing, lots of tears, lots of joy and laughter and lots of YES. We are as ready as we’ll ever be. Right now we just want our boy home for Christmas.

Thank you for your prayers and your love and support as the journey of YES is about to get a whole lot wilder. Please don’t ever underestimate how much your notes of encouragement mean to us. We need each other along the way, so thank you for loving us.

Hopefully I’ll be sharing good news on December 15th!

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Wide Awake Family Grows!

Happy Fall!

The trees are so so beautiful here right now and the weather is unseasonably  mild. The day before yesterday I roasted a pumpkin and made a pumpkin cheesecake treat and then yesterday cooked up some pumpkin soup. Fall has officially made it’s way to the Homestead. Bring on the cozy!

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Hava, school friends, and pretty fall colors

I always love to make a cozy home, but this year I have even more reason to create coziness. If you follow us on Instagram or our personal Facebook you already heard, but yes, our family is growing. We’re havin’ a baby!

I know, I know. We were rather shocked too. (to put it mildly)

In the middle of the crazy month of June when teams were coming and going and we could barely keep our heads on straight we found out the news. I remember the shock and the overwhelming feeling of “how in the world are we going to do this?”  We decided to keep our little surprise a secret until we could really wrap our brains around it.

We thought the baby days were long gone for us. Seven year old Seth was the last baby we had in our home, and after 7 years straight of newborns- bio and foster– we were more than ready to say goodbye to diapers, bottles, bouncy seats, and sleepless nights. We had moved into the magical season when no one needs to nap, everyone can potty independently and get their own drinks of water. And then BAM! The bomb dropped. 🙂

After the initial shock wore off and the crazy summer slowed down a bit we were able think straight. It didn’t take long for us to see the joy in our unexpected gift. How precious it will be to witness new life once again. Our lives here, our work here is surrounded by brokenness. Our boys are so broken. They have endured years upon years of abuse and neglect. The nurturing they missed out on as little babies is visible in their bodies even today. Our Vladik has come so far, yet every day we work with him to repair the brokenness inside.  It’s a hard and painful road, but one we are called to walk down and we do, with joy and sadness mixed. We pray that this baby will be like a healing balm to our family and to our boys. How amazing it will be to have the opportunity to nurture this little one, to meet his or her needs and to watch him or her grow- surrounded by love- the way God intended. How encouraging it will be to not have to fight against years of neglect, and how joyful it will be for our other kiddos to be a part of the process.

We are so happy and we are so thankful. God truly does know what we need.

So it is with great joy that we share our wonderful gift of new life.

I’m 23 weeks pregnant now (more than halfway!), and baby is due to make it’s appearance right around Valentine’s Day. We never find out the gender beforehand, so we’re keeping it a surprise this time around too. We already have boys and girls, so it doesn’t really matter- although our girls feel pretty strongly that they need a sister to even things out. It’s been 9 years since my body has done the whole growing  a baby thing, but so far so good, even if I am considered “advanced maternal age”. 😉 I definitely feel it more this time around, the discomfort and all that, but my body is generally pretty good at being pregnant, so I don’t have many complaints.

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Baby and me at the halfway point

Navigating a pregnancy here in Ukraine is definitely an adventure I never expected to have!  Of course the whole system is vastly different than what I’ve been used to in the past, but so far so good. I’ve mostly encountered a bazillion blood tests and a bazillion documents. I go to one doctor now, and then will switch to a “delivery doctor” when we are closer to the due date. Many people have asked if we will fly to the US for the birth, but that’s really not practical, for a number of reasons. Ukrainian women have babies here every day and do fine. I don’t see why it should be any different for me.

So I’m cozying up the house, taking advantage of quiet moments when the kids are at school (soon the quiet will disappear again!), and trying to be kind to my advanced maternal age body by putting my feet up when I need to (not easy to do when dishes pile up and boxes need unpacking STILL and 5 kids need me, but I’m trying). I know soon everything will change again, so I’m attempting to not rush this time, but to treasure the moments we have as a family of 7. Hopefully it won’t be long before our first Romaniv friend joins our family, and the baby soon after, so living in today is becoming an important skill to develop. It’s so interesting how the physical and spiritual align themselves. As we have been preparing the home for our boys and expecting them, things around us have changed. We have long compared the building of the Homestead and now the legal process of gaining guardianship as a kind of “pregnancy”. Now we also have a physical pregnancy. We are joyfully “expecting” in more ways than one.

Thank you to all who have shared our joy. Your encouraging words have blessed our family. We will be so excited to introduce our new baby to you in just a few short months! Yay for seasons of growth! (literally!) 😉

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Back to School 2017

September first came and went and Ukrainian schools are back in session!

Let me just tell you, the feeling that came with not being the new people was such sweet relief. We’ve been the new people at school for the past 4 years, and we were so over it. How wonderful to be known, to not be gawked at (mostly), to belong! Moving to a new culture has cured me forever of taking belonging for granted. Belonging is so hard to come by, and so amazing when it’s found. We found it for our kids and I’m beyond thankful!

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This year promises to be quite challenging, as full immersion can’t help but be, but we already feel the successes of last year’s hard work, so that’s encouraging.

Our goals for putting our kids in a Ukrainian local school are:

  1. Ukrainian language fluency.  This is our home and we want our kids to be able to communicate in every situation. While they are young, and their brains are growing so rapidly we feel it’s in everyone’s best interest for them to be immersed in Ukrainian language. I wish I had the opportunity! Their language has already far-surpassed mine.
  2. Integration into Ukrainian society. I’m a homeschooler in my heart. I adore homeschooling and I miss it like the dickens. BUT, I realize that homeschooling our kids here is not what is best for our family right now. It would be easy for them to stay home and live on our sweet little American island, but…they would be totally isolated. They need peer relationships. They need to learn how to function in Ukrainian society independently. They each need to find their place here, and as much as I want them all home with me, I know that I know it’s not what is best for them right now.

So, we press on with local school and all of it’s blessings and challenges.  It’s cool to look back on the first week of school last year compared to this week. We have come so far! Our kids’ language has grown by leaps and bounds. They have much more of an understanding of how Ukrainian school works (completely different from American school, if you’re wondering), and they’ve pretty seamlessly picked back up where they left off. Last year we had buckets of tears. This year we have kids who feel successful. My heart is full.

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Seth entered first class, so now all the kids are at the same school together. He seems to be ready, and three days in, so far so good. We anticipate some learning difficulties, due to his history, but we’ll just have to take each day as it comes. Socially and emotionally, he is ready, and for Seth that had to happen in order for him to have a chance at success. His teacher was Ezra’s teacher last year and she’s great. She knows our family and we “get” how to communicate with each other. I’m hopeful for my baby.

Hava is in second class. She has her same class of kids and same teacher (they keep the same teacher for the first four years) so she’s all set to go. She adores her teacher and already has friends, so we’re golden. 🙂

Ezra skipped a grade and is now in sixth class, which is appropriate for his age. We really wanted him to have a fresh start this year in a new class and with new confidence. He’s going to have to work hard to catch up, but he’s motivated, so I think he’ll be okay. Ezra’s our introvert, so Ukrainian school is pretty challenging for him. I’m so proud of how far he’s come!

Addy is the one who’s probably going to have the biggest challenges this year. She skipped two grades and is going to give eighth class a try- the appropriate grade for her age. Due to being the only foreigners and then spending a school year in the States, then entering a new school as the only foreigners again, poor Addy has been held back FOREVER! Last year she was two grades behind her peers and it was starting to be a big problem for her. I know that in the whole big scheme of life, it doesn’t really matter, but when you’re thirteen and you’re in a class with eleven year-olds, it matters a heckofalot. 😉 She’s a super smart girl, she has just never been given the opportunity to try to catch up and prove herself. We fought hard for her and Ez to be moved up, so hopefully we made the right decision. For Addy it was very important to have this chance, so she is super motivated to work her tail off to be successful.

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Vladik has the same set-up as last year. Our friend is teaching him individually, and then he will be integrated into some lessons with the same class as last year.  Our goal for Vladik this year is to be integrated a bit more into the fabric of the school. Socially, he’s ready for it. Academically, we are limited on what he is able to do, but we are working to give him opportunities to be included at the level he is able. Right now we’re hoping to have him join the sixth class in P.E., music, art, and handicrafts. He adores his teacher and he LOVES school. I’m so thankful he has a place there.

That’s the scoop on school! It’s a lot of work and a lot of figuring out what the heck is going on, but we’re ready. When I was first researching putting our kids in local school the stuff I found talked about how the first year would be super challenging and the progress would be slow, but then the second year was when you would really see progress and the fruit of all the hard work. I’m trusting that will be the case for our kids this year. They are all so brave. I’m so very proud of them.

Here’s to a new school year and a new year of growth. Let’s do this thing!

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Village Life

We’ve been living in the village for almost 2 months now, so I thought I should give a bit of an update on life here.

We FINALLY got our gas turned on last week, so that makes village life much happier!  I know many of our neighbors live without indoor plumbing, and therefore without hot water, but…yeah…I’m super thankful we only had to do that for a short while. I guess we’re a bit (a lot) spoiled.

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Our garden is MASSIVE, so much of my time and attention these days is directed toward managing the garden and all that it produces. Almost every day we try to can something so that we can make the most of the garden. So far we’ve put up several liters of pickles and several liters of cherry compote (a popular Ukrainian fruit drink). I’ve never done pickles before, so I’ve just picked out several different recipes from books and online and we’re trying them all! We’re labeling them with the recipe name so this winter we can decide which recipes are keepers and which aren’t. Figuring out how to can in Ukraine has been quite a challenge! Most people here don’t water bath their canned goods, and you can’t get the two piece lids we use in the US. So…we’ve had to compromise. The USDA might be horrified at our methods, but I’m sure all will turn out okay. (Fingers crossed!) Don’t worry, canning pros, we won’t attempt to can anything with low acidity.

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Village life for our little ones has been fantastic so far! Seth, Vladik and Havalah are outside basically every day from sun up to sun down. Seth and Hava both have little friends their same age that live right across the street and two houses down. Kids in the village have free reign and basically just run free all day long. It reminds me of what I imagine life was like in America a couple generations ago. The kids go from house to house, riding bikes, walking to the store to buy candy, and basically just running wild being kids. I LOVE IT. This is what we wanted for our kids, for their childhood. It just makes me happy that they can have that freedom here in the village.  Vladik spends most of his days watching the guys who are working on the house (they’re working on siding right now) and “building” his own special projects with scrap wood. Addy and Ez have a couple village friends, but they are around the house more than the Littles. They are good about helping me with the garden and taking care of our growing animal population (now including a dog, a cat, a hamster and the occasional neighbor cow who pastures in our back property).

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Our neighbors are kind, hardworking people. We don’t know them well yet, but most of them are parents of kids who are at our house all the time, so I’m sure over the coming years we’ll get to know each other well. We’re still quite a curiosity around here. I’m not sure that will ever change. 😉 The neighbors right next door butcher pigs, and the ones directly across the street butcher cows. Oh the sounds that come from those properties! Yikes. But, it sure is convenient when we want to buy meat! Also, the neighbor whose cow pastures on our property gives us fresh milk in exchange for letting his cow on our property. Village life has it’s perks, for sure!

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It’s not as convenient for our church friends to get to us as it used to be when we lived in the city, but oh man, this house is a far better gathering place! People love to be here. The house is cozy, the deck is perfect, and the air is fresh. We absolutely love our house. We can’t wait to bring our boys here! I can’t imagine how much they will grow and change in this environment. It’s going to be just awesome.

Village life is the life for us. We’re so happy here! THANK YOU a million times over to everyone who helped us get to this point. Our guest room is waiting for you. 🙂

family Johnson -21family Johnson -36family Johnson -42Thank you to our friend Andrey for the awesome photos of Vladik’s birthday!  

Seventeen.

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

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

He is daring and funny and creative and talkative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We love you Vladislav Christopher. Happy Birthday!!