It Just Keeps Getting Better

Once upon a time, four years ago, I happened upon a blog of an adoptive mom who had just returned from Ukraine with her two new daughters, both with special needs.  That night, sitting on the couch with my laptop and cup of coffee, my life was changed.  Our lives were changed.

Tears streamed down my face that night as I read every post of the adoption blog.  That night I learned about life in Ukraine for orphans with disabilities.  A whole world was opened to me that I hadn’t even known existed.  I learned about school age children, the size of infants, living their lives bedridden in their cribs.  I learned about mental institutions in rural villages that house the disabled- hidden from the rest of the world. I read for hours that night.  One blog led to another that led to a website that led to another site.  My heart was broken and I knew something big was happening.  God meant for Jed and I to do something about this issue and these children, and He was serious about it.

Now, four years later, I’m in Ukraine, sitting on my bed with my laptop and my cup of coffee, realizing just how serious God was that night.  Yeah, He wasn’t messing around.  🙂

All along the journey that began that fateful night, God has been growing and refining the dreams He’s given us for the orphans with disabilities here in Ukraine.  We knew then, and we know now that He has called us here with a specific focus on bedridden children.  That is a population of orphans that is extremely difficult to reach, but God has been very clear that they are our people.  They are the ones we are to fight for.  Of course we are absolutely in love with many, many people with disabilities here that are not confined to their beds.  The big vision of Wide Awake includes varying levels of ability, but we knew then and we know now that God has a special plan for us that involves bedridden children.

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The big question has always been “How will we gain access to the bedridden children?”  Those children are generally more hidden away and it’s difficult for outsiders to work with them at all.  Perhaps orphanage directors are afraid, maybe they are protective…we will probably never fully understand the reasons.  We have just known that it would be up to God to bring those children across our path.  After all, it’s not like we can just walk into any old orphanage and ask to be shown to the crib section.  Ha!  Access to medically fragile kids only comes with relationship and trust.  Those things take time, so we have not been in a hurry.

But God.

Last week our team arrived at Romaniv and learned that two new little boys had been transferred to our Isolation Building from the baby house orphanage.  When Jed saw them for the first time his heart skipped a beat (or two).  They are both five years old and the size of infants.  They are bedridden and have spent their whole lives thus far in their cribs.  They are exactly our target population.  For these boys, and others just like them, we have sold everything and moved across the globe.  After months (actually years!) of wondering how we would gain access to children like these they have literally been dropped in our laps.  We didn’t even have to find them.  They were brought to us! I still can’t believe it.

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 Mission to Ukraine has been faithfully serving at Romaniv for five years.  Over those five years they have loved and given and loved and given some more.  They have brought Jesus there and His light and love have changed everything.  It is not the same place it once was.  The staff are not the same.  The Directors are not the same.  The boys are definitely not the same!  Because of MTU’s incredible faithfulness we now reap the harvest.  We are standing on the shoulders of giants.  Because of the amazing work they’ve done over the years we have full access to our boys in the Isolation Room.  We can visit any time we want.  We can take boys to the Sensory Room.  We can try new things and interact intentionally with each boy.  The Directors welcome us whenever we can come and invite us to even come more often.  It’s a situation we could only ever dream about.

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Now we have new boys who are completely bedridden and we have full access to them.  We even got to visit on Tuesday and talk with the staff about some of their biggest concerns about caring for these new boys!  Today we got to bring them a pack n play so they are not confined to their room every minute of the day.  We got to bring them mobiles for the cribs.  We got to observe their feedings and give input and advice. We get to be actively involved in improving their quality of life and it’s unreal.

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Testing out the new pack n play!

Each one of our boys in the Isolation Building holds a special place in our hearts.  We are learning their likes and dislikes, their habits and cues.  I really can’t express in words how much they mean to us and how great our love is for them.  They are our babies, each one of them.  I can’t even believe we have the honor of knowing them and loving them.  And now we have two more to love.

I guess I just had to share how awesome our God is.  His plans are so perfect.  He is so wise.  He placed us right where He wanted us, knowing all He had in mind.  He brought us here with an impossible-to-reach population in mind, and then proceeded to drop them right in our laps.  Incredible.  I can not thank God enough for our dear friends at MTU.  They have paved the way through many hours of love and care, and they loved our boys before we even had a clue of their existence.   We will be forever grateful.  Now to watch and see what God does next!  🙂

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Our little celebrities 🙂

On Walking, Smelling, and Celebrity Sighting

Today was so full!  Full of funny moments, full of awholelotta walking, and full of joy.

Here’s just a few moments of note.

1.  Addy and Ezra’s class went on a trip to the local puppet theater today.  We found out just yesterday that kids who wanted to, could go today.  I wondered why we always find these things out at the very last moment.  Then…aha!  I discovered an announcement board outside their classroom!  Yes, I know, it’s been there all along…but when all you see everyday is walls filled with things you don’t understand, it’s hard to know what to pay attention to and really try to decipher, and what isn’t worth your time.  I don’t often have the desire to stand in the school halls with Google Translate at my side, so I usually go with the “if it’s really important they’ll tell me” route.  No more!  I will now be vigilantly watching for new notes on the announcement board.  No more surprise field trips for the Johnson fam!  We will now be well-informed members of society.  (Here’s to hoping at least)

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The wonders you can find on this “Announcement Board”! Look, a spelling word list! Hmmmm I wonder how many of these we’ve missed. Oops.

2.  When I dropped the kids at school this morning their teacher asked me if I wanted to come along on the field trip.  Sure, why not?  She mentioned it was quite a long walk, but if I thought the Littles would be up for it they could come too.  Well, Jed was in Kyiv today, so if I wanted to be there then the Littles would have to buck up and and hike along with us.

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I gave Hava and Seth a pep talk about being strong, not crying and whining when we go on the long walk….blah blah blah…”If we whine and cry then Teacher probably won’t invite us on another trip, right?”

I’m happy to report that they did great on the walk.  🙂  It was about a mile walk from the school to the theater.  It was HILARIOUS to be a fly on the wall with Addy’s and Ez’s class.  It’s also funny to learn all the in’s and out’s of school here.  Like, for field trips, there’s no permission slips, no planning what parents will drive, no parents at all!  Their brave teacher just confidently lined up boys in one line and girls in another, and headed out on the walk with all of her students.  Along busy streets, across crosswalks, she walked in the front, trusting the kids would follow.   When school classes cross streets they hold up a red flag so cars will stop.  One kid in the front of the line holds a flag, a kid at the back of the line holds a flag, and the teacher holds a flag.  When crossing a street she just walks on out there, risking life and limb 😉 and stands in the middle of the street for her class to cross.  They do this every day when they walk from one building to another for lunch.  Today I got to see it in action.  I tell ya, that teacher is one brave woman.  One woman, taking a whole class on a mile walk through town to a field trip and back.  She totally rocks it.  I wasn’t a ton of help since I had Havalah and Seth, but I tried to keep the stragglers from straggling too far behind.

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3.  I’m a “smeller”.  Smell means a lot to me.  How things smell really matters, I can’t overlook a bad smell with much grace at all.  It’s a struggle.  But, being a “smeller” can also bring a lot of joy!  Good smells make me so happy!  Anyway, I do have purpose for telling you that.  While walking back to the school today I had such a strange moment.  I smelled a very beloved smell.  I smelled “Mission Trip” smell.

All throughout my teen years I went on mission trips.  I traveled all over the world during high school and college.  God put the world in my heart and I just had to go.  There’s a certain smell I remember from mission trips that I’ve never smelled in the US.  It’s a smell you smell when you’re walking on a city street.  I don’t know what all it entails, but it’s a mixture of gasoline, tires, foreign food cooking…and I don’t know what else.  I love that smell.  To me, that smell means Jesus.  It means being Jesus to the people He’s called you to.  It means going out of your comfort zone and giving your all for His sake.  It means loving people that you don’t understand and doing things you don’t understand, simply because Jesus said to, and it is what you were created for.

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Today I smelled that smell.  It hit me like a ton of bricks.  I looked around and saw my children walking ahead of me in a line with their class.  I heard the buzzing of Ukrainian/Russian swirling around my ears.  For a moment I thought “Oh my word.  This is really happening.  This is my life.  I CAN’T EVEN BELIEVE THIS.”  I was overcome with thankfulness, and completely humbled.  All my life I dreamed of this and now it’s happening. May I never, ever forget what a joy it is to serve Christ in this way.  The last couple weeks have been hard for me, personally.  My heart needed that smell to remember it’s purpose.  🙂

4.  Jed got to spend the day in Kyiv with some boys from Romaniv!  MTU took some of the highest functioning boys to see a dolphin show.  Jed got to go along and he had a great time.  I’ll let him tell you about that at another time.  I just have to share a sweet moment that happened on their way home.

Jed texted me as I was cooking dinner and let me know the boys’ bus was stopping at MTU on the way back to Romaniv so the boys could use the bathroom and volunteers could go home.  He asked if I wanted to come say hi.  YES YES YES!!!!!  I hurried the kids to put on their shoes, paused on the dinner-making, and flew out the door.

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On their way to the Dolphins!

Oh.My.Word.  Dream come true.  Watching my own kiddos meet some our “Our Boys” was so, so sweet.  They Boys were so curious and kind.  They attempted the kids’ names and shook all their hands.  Valera, our “helper”  (highest functioning boy) in the Isolation Room was there and I was so happy for the kids to meet him!!!  We talk about him all the time.  I feel like “The Boys” have been like some big mystery to our kids.  Now they have faces for some of the names.  Now they see they are real people.  Ezra and Havalah were pretty shy. Seth was curious.  Addy was smitten.  Her eyes were glowing.  It was like a celebrity sighting! As soon as we walked out of the building to head home she said “Mom!  When do I get to start helping at Romaniv???” Soon I hope.  🙂

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McDonalds in Kyiv, complete with balloons!

So, that was today.  There were other small funny moments too, like when I walked in to gymnastics to pick up Addy and one mom that I see all the time finally blurted out “Why did you come to Zhytomyr??”  Hahaha!  Like it’s been bugging her all this time and she finally just had to ask.  Hilarious.  Or when the kids were getting ready for bed and Hava and Seth tricked me.  They acted like they had their jammies on, but then on the count of 3 pulled back their covers to nakey little bodies.  Oh they laughed so hard!  Meanwhile Addy died laughing as Ezra screamed over and over at the top of his lungs, “Слава Україні!  Слава Україні!”  (“Glory to Ukraine!  Glory to Ukraine!”)

Is this life for real?

Fantastic Game Night

Okay, so a day late, but better late than never, right?

If you follow Wide Awake on Facebook, you probably saw that I promised to share about the very special night we had on Tuesday.  I have to say that “special” is an understatement.  I put off writing about it because I was still so giddy about it’s wonderfulness, that to sit down and try to write about it just seemed tedious (plus we’ve been busy little bees around here).  I just wanted to smile about it.  But, I want you all to be able to smile about it too, so it’s time I share!

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Mission to Ukraine (MTU), the organization we serve here in Zhytomyr, has several branches of work they focus on.  One of these branches is the education of children with disabilities.  There are preschool classes, school-readiness classes, and life-skills classes that are coupled with Bible lessons.  There’s also beading, drawing, and other crafty classes for the crafty type (NOT ME).  🙂

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There is one particular group of people that have really been weighty on the hearts of the staff of MTU lately.  That group is the young adults with disabilities that have been a part of MTU for many, many years.  These guys and gals have grown up with MTU, and for many of them it is the social center of their lives.  It is the place, besides home, where they are accepted and loved just as they are.  They are treasured at MTU.  They are known.  MTU has been their school, their youth group, and their family.  And now they are getting older.  MTU’s focus is children.  What to do?  Many of them attend a class on Tuesdays called “Youth Group”.  They study the Bible together there and build their relationships.  The staff want to do more for this group, but they are already stretched thin with responsibilities.  There is simply no time left in the day, or staff left in the day to provide them with more time to be together.

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Enter, Game Night!  Woot!

Some of the staff approached us and asked Jed and I if we would be interested in hosting some sort of monthly, special night for this group to have fun together.  This was a duh question.  Of course we wanted to help!

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Tuesday night was the first Game Night and it was beyond fabulous.  I kid you not.  I haven’t smiled that much since I was last in Disneyland!  Heehee 🙂

At 5:00pm sharp the guests began to arrive.  They were dressed up and lookin’ good, ready for a party.  Seeing their excitement made us even more excited!

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I wish I would have taken a picture of the food table.  Jed and I are feeders.  We feed people.  It’s our love language.  Sooooo if the amount of food we brought to the party was an indicator of our love, it was fairly obvious that we love these guys VERY much.  There was cookies, more cookies, magic cake, crackers, meat, cheese, veggies, some more cookies, candy, bread, tea, and juice. We may have gone overboard, just a wee bit.  Several of MTU’s finest volunteers came to help and join in the fun.  We had the group sit, then the volunteers and we served them food.  That was a great time for our kids to help out too.  They were able to interact with people right away, and also feel useful.  Addy and Ezra in particular, really wanted to help throw the party.

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We ate and laughed.

It was gooood.

Then it was game time!  There were all different physical ability levels in the fairly small room, so it was important to choose games that everyone could participate in.  We started out asking some fun “Would you rather?” questions.  We just wanted to break the ice, be silly, and laugh together.  We chose some crazy questions and then asked various people to explain their decision.  It was so funny!

“Would you rather wrestle a lion or fight a shark?”

“Would you rather eat a bar of soap or drink a bottle of dish soap?”

“Would you rather be born with an elephant’s trunk or a giraffe’s neck?”

“Would you rather be a GIANT hamster or a tiny rhino?”

Oh man, our poor friend Natasha who was translating!  We gave her translating skills a major workout.  Good thing she’s pretty much amazing.  🙂

After “Would you rather?” we played a game with yarn.  Jed asked the group different questions and whoever answered “yes”, had to grab a hold of the yarn.  Pretty quickly we had a big web of yarn which nearly entrapped Jed!  Luckily, he barely escaped with his life and all was well.  Jed just shared a bit about how we are all different, but united by common loves and ideas.  It was fun, and a good visual of the beauty of friendship.

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Next was free play game time.  We gathered small groups around tables and brought out various games.  We played Dominoes, Jenga, and Memory.   Once again, I have to brag about the most amazing volunteers.  Seriously, they rock.  They knew what needed to be done and just did it!  Many of them have volunteered quite a bit, so they are familiar with the group and know their needs.  They helped people eat, served tea and food, moved chairs and tables, translated, and assisted in the games so that everyone was able to participate and have a good time.  The night would have been impossible without their help.

Natasha translated for our family and she is just the best.  She loves this group and has known them for many years, so not only is she a great help, her heart is deeply invested as well.  Oh, and what about Alyona?!!!  Alyona works at MTU on “special projects”.  Alyona did so much to make the night possible.  She gathered volunteers, called the group to remind them about the date, arranged transportation for those in wheelchairs, helped set up and clean up…basically she’s super woman.  I didn’t get one non-blurry picture of Alyona because she’s such a hard worker she’s just a blur in each picture!  I wish so badly I would have gotten a picture of each volunteer.  Grrrrrr…next time.  Thank you dear friends!!!  We appreciate you!

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Note the Alyona blur in the background. 😉

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I didn’t get the best pictures because I was too busy partying it up, but I hope these pictures have given you a glimpse of the wonderfulness of the evening.

What a honor to be able to serve these dear ones.

What a joy to watch our own children learn to love and serve others.  What a joy to see  them learn the value of each and every life.

What a delight to see the faces of the parents as they came to collect their children at the end of the night.  When someone loves on your kid there is no greater gift.  How much more for these most courageous parents who have fought against all odds to give their kids the best shot at a fully lived life.  Humbling.

I am so incredible thankful for the years of MTU’s faithful service.  With God’s help they have created a haven in Zhytomyr like no other.  What a privilege to serve their vision and link arms.

Game Night is now officially a monthly event.  The group has requested next month’s gathering be a Karaoke Night!  OMG.  Bring.It.On.

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Addy was in her element COMPLETELY. She was simply glowing all night. Thank you Jesus for kids who are catching Your heart.

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Volunteers Extraordinaire! THANK YOU!!!

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This is Sergei. He also works with us at Romaniv in the Isolation Room. He is so wonderful with the boys, so loving. Hero material right here, folks.

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Our Boys: All of Our Boys, Part 1

Hey there!

Every month we send out an email newsletter and for this month’s newsletter Jed asked me to write about what a Friday looks like at Romaniv orphanage.  Welp, I started writing, and approximately 2700 words later I had a post.  Ahem….2700 words might be a tad long for an email newsletter.  2700 words is also far too long for a blog post.  So, we decided to make it a series!

You can head over to the official Wide Awake website to read the first installment.  I was going to post it here, but then that would involve lots of cutting and pasting and formatting and I just don’t have it in me.  Dinner won’t make itself ya know!  😉

Follow this link to give it a read if you like:  http://wideawakeinternational.org/blog/2014/3/30/our-boys-all-of-our-boys

We’ll probably be posting the second installment tonight, so I’ll make sure to post the link here when it’s up.

Happy reading my friends!

 

A Christmas Miracle- Part 1

*Photos courtesy of the extreme cuteness found at an MTU Christmas party*

Upon coming to Ukraine there was one thing that was hanging over our heads: VISAS. We'd heard nothing but nightmare after nightmare about the process of getting visas to live in Ukraine. It's kind of like when you're pregnant with your first baby. Suddenly every woman with a bad, or extra difficult birthing experience comes out of the woodwork to let you know their horror. Every gruesome detail is recounted, as the squirming Mommy-to-be tries to gracefully escape the clutches of the bitter birther in front of her. Terror fills the preggo's mind and she can't imagine how she will survive the inevitable. Yeah, that pretty much sums up our pre-entry feelings about visas. “So and So was denied at the border…So and So had to pay x amount of money to FINALLY get their visas after traveling to 52 different government offices in one day, trudging through the snow uphill both ways….and so on and so on.” You catch my drift. The visa process was not something we were looking forward to, per se. BUT, like a birth, painful as it may be, it had to happen.

While in the US we fretted about our visas. We tried to pursue getting our visas while in the States so we would have them in hand upon arrival, but that didn't work out. In trying to ease our minds and get things taken care of in advance we just could not feel peaceful. We got the feeling that God wanted us to just wait and trust Him. He had brought us this far, so He wasn't about to start failing us now. The visa situation was never out of God's control and that's all we had to go with. So we did!

Here's a simple run-down of the not-so-simple visa process here in Ukraine:

1. US citizens can stay in Ukraine without a visa for 90 days.

2. So, within the first 90 days upon arrival you must obtain the official documents you need for your visa, and then you leave Ukraine to head to a Ukrainian consulate outside of the country to apply for your visa.

3. For the “D Visa” (long-term visa) basically the only way we could go about it was to be invited by a church that is registered here in Ukraine. The church doesn't have to be registered in the city you live in, but it is a considerably easier process if you can take care of everything in the city where you reside.

4. The registered church writes an official letter of invitation, complete with stamps and signatures (stamps are muy importante here). That letter must then be submitted to the Ministry of Culture (a local government office) for approval. Everyone we talked to told us that the office generally takes around 3 weeks to give their approval.

5. After you have both approvals you take those letters, and some other official stuff to another country and apply for your visa.

6. Once you have your visa you come back in to Ukraine and then have 45 days to register where you live and such with the local government offices. That involves awholelotta documents with awholelotta stamps. The end results of all the documenting and stamping is a temporary residency that is good for one year, but may be extended for another year (with rumors of a second renewal???).

All that to say, once we got to Ukraine we knew we had our work cut out for us, and with all the holidays looming right after our arrival, the clock was not on our side. Mission to Ukraine (MTU) has strong relationship with a couple churches here in Zhitomir that said they would consider inviting us. The Vineyard churches here are not registered, so that was never an option. Shortly after our arrival in Ukraine the pastor of the Central Baptist happily agreed to inviting us for our visas, so that was a HUGE answer to prayer! Pastor Pavel is such a kind man with a huge heart. He has already blessed us so much, going above and beyond to help. 🙂 MTU is an amazing service here in Zhitomir and people who love MTU are happy to help however they can. Yay for that! Praise God for MTU's influence and good standing in this community. It really says a lot about the people who work there and the quality of care they give. It even says more about God's Kingdom and it's expansion in to Zhitomir through MTU. He is at work and it's an awesome sight to behold.

So, on Christmas Day (In Ukraine Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, so December 25th wasn't a holiday for offices here) Jed and our friend Oleg headed over to Pastor Pavel's office to work on the invitation letter with the hope of submitting the letter to the Ministry of Culture before the 31st.
And the miracle began to unfold!
To be continued…
 

I know, I know, how suspenseful can a visa story really be? We've got a real nail-biter here folks! 😉 I just want you to be all fresh when you read the really exciting part, so I didn't want to make this a marathon post. Just you wait. God's goodness is about to blow your mind!