A School Story

Big news folks.  My sweet Addy and Ezra are starting school on Monday.  Hold me.

How did this come about?  Wanna know?  Okay, I’ll tell you.  🙂

During Christmas time my friend Tanya told me about a gymnastics class at our neighborhood public school.  The daughter of one of her family members attends the class and she knew we were on the lookout for some sort of activity for our kids where they could hear language and interact with other kids, so she asked if we were interested.  Sure! Natasha, the mom of the girl attending, asked the coach if some crazy Americans could try out her class and she said yes!  So we did.

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Oh the hilarity that ensued.  Seriously, to be a fly on the wall.  It is VERY entertaining.  I think Tanya and I laughed nonstop during the first class.  Picture a very old gym with bare wall, barred windows and dirty mats.  Picture flexible Ukrainian kids flipping and cartwheeling and doing the splits and the bridge like they were birthed on to a balance beam.  Then picture the Johnson children (minus Seth) entering with all their clumsiness and lack of coordination (I’ll take all the genetic responsibility for that); not understanding a lick of the language, not able to cartwheel, but doing their very darndest to follow along.  Then picture the coach calling out orders in loud Russian.  It’s like a three ring circus I tell ya.

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Believe it or not, the kids LOVED gymnastics class and continued to attend all during the school’s Christmas break.  Technically the class is only for the students of that particular school and is free for them.  But, the coach likes our kids (she is so kind) and said she would ask the Director of the school if he would allow them to continue in gymnastics once school was back in session.  She even said Hava could stay in class, even though she’s technically too young.  🙂

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We were in Switzerland getting our visas when Tanya emailed to let us know that the director had agreed to the kids continuing gymnastics!  Woohoo!  He had also asked why they don’t attend school.   Everyone had been telling us that the schools wouldn’t accept our kids because they don’t speak but a few words of Ukrainian and Russian.  As far as we know, our kids are the only foreigners around, so the schools are not at all set up to work with non-native speakers.  The director said that was no problem and that he wanted to talk with Jed and me when we got home from Switzerland.

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A couple days after we got home from the visa trip we went to the director’s office for a chat.  He doesn’t speak any English, so the school English teacher translated.  He asked us the ages of the kids and where we live.  He asked if we plan to be in Ukraine for a long time or just short term and if the kids are vaccinated.  Then he got on the phone and talked about the situation to a higher up at the Ministry of Education.  At the end of the meeting he told us the kids are welcome to attend his school if we want!

We are a homeschooling family to the core.  We love homeschooling.  Addy went to kindergarten at a Christian school in Oregon where my mom teaches, and Ez went to one year of preschool there, but otherwise they’ve only been taught at home.  Homeschooling has just become a way of life for us and we have never thought we would do anything different.  If you’re curious why we homeschool I can talk about that in another post.  I LOVE to talk all things homeschool, so don’t be shy!   All that said, things got a bit tricky once we got to Ukraine.  Our kids’ brains are wired for language learning right now.  Everyone says “Your kids will learn the language so fast!  You won’t believe it!”  That’s probably true, but how can it happen if they are home all day?  They certainly aren’t going to learn it quickly from me!  Ha!  We put them in gymnastics, and they attend Awanas, and Sunday School, all in Russian and Ukrainian.  They have picked up quite a bit, but it’s slow.  They need to be immersed in the language while their brains are in this forming stage.  I wish I had that opportunity! We don’t really know of an option for a tutor that can teach them as many hours as they need here at home, so we were at a bit of a loss.  We were asking the Lord what to do to help our kids with the language.  We considered checking out the two local, Ukrainian Christian schools in town, thinking maybe they would have the ability to be more flexible with us, but they are both pretty far from our house.  Then this school fell in our laps.

On Thursday Jed and I went back to the school to check out the classroom they would be in and meet the teacher.  We asked the Lord to guide us and give us peace if this was the way to go.  What can I say?  It was great.  We decided to give it a go.  The school is about a 5 minute walk from our house.  Addy and Ez get to be in the same class, and school only goes from 8:30-noon.  Totally do-able!  The director wants to put them in first grade because they need to learn to read and write in Ukrainian, and those students are still learning those skills. Most of the students in the class will be 7, so Addy and Ez will be older than them, but we aren’t worried about that.  The main goal here is language acquisition,  and having them with kids younger than themselves will probably help take away some of the social pressures that would distract them from learning.  Plus, first graders get to do more fun stuff 🙂


The thought right now is that they will attend school from 8:30-noon, and then come home to continue plugging along in their normal homeschool work.  We’ll only focus on the basics when they get home, like English and math, since I know their brains will probably be a bit fried when they get home from school.  Their school is taught in Ukrainian and their teacher speaks no English.  This school also specializes in Polish, so they’ll be studying Polish three times a week.  Oh my…this should be an adventure!


Our Teacher

This is the plan that seems most peaceful right now.  We’ll finish out this school year and then re-evaluate for the fall.  I most definitely don’t want to abandon homeschooling, since the reasons why we school at home haven’t changed.  I guess we’ll take it a year at a time and see what God says.

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So, Monday is the big day!  School books have been purchased and the kids are excited to go.  I’m excited for them…but also quite nervous for them.  I’m so extremely thankful they get to be in the same class.  Praise God for His kindness.  He opened this door when we weren’t even looking and totally paved the way.  We are praying that this leads to divine relationships and open doors in our neighborhood.  We are excited to see how God plans to use this for His glory.


If you would pray for us on Monday morning (Sunday night in the US) we would appreciate it so much!!!  I’ll let you know how it goes!

So We Stand

Our new home is in crisis.

I hope very much that you’ve been following the news concerning the revolution in Ukraine.  If you haven’t seen anything, Google it now and learn.  The situation here is extremely serious.  We haven’t been talking much about it on social media simply because we are trying to use wisdom and just ask the Lord how He would have us respond online.  Our hearts are with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters and they know that.  We stand with them and we tell them that daily.  It’s just so difficult to know what to say “online”.  How can we share what is happening with wisdom, while upholding the dignity of the people?  We’ve never been in a situation remotely like this and are just trying to navigate it properly, and with grace.

Tonight we could be silent no more.  You simply must know the beauty of the people of Ukraine.  You simply must know that they stand now for their children and their children’s children.  They stand for a future. They stand for freedom.  Men and woman stand right now, in Kiev, in the snow, in 3 degree (F) weather because they love their country and they see that there is no future for them and their children if they do not stand until the end.  For centuries they have been beaten down- over and over- and now they have had enough.  Change must come.  We Americans have NO IDEA what it means to live in a country where laws can mean nothing.  We have no idea what it means to live in a country where your rights can easily be stripped from you, without warning, and even if you want to flee, you have no option but to stay.  We have no idea what it means to live under generations of oppression.  We have no idea.

I am in awe.  I am in love.  I have never loved the Ukrainian people more than I do today.  (And that’s saying a lot!) 🙂  They are so courageous.  If I were in the same situation in the US would I stand as they do?  I hope I would.

So now we pray.  We love the people around us and we pray; all the while knowing that God has placed us here at this moment for a reason.  When we boarded the plane in Portland, Oregon on November 12th He knew that this day would come.  He was not unaware then, and He is not unaware now.  God said to come serve the Ukrainian people, and here we stand until we hear otherwise.


Photos by Andrey Kolodich ©

Tonight we worshiped and prayed as a family before bed.  We have explained to our kids some of what is happening here and five-year old Havalah explained it best:

“I’m two kinds of sad.  I’m joy sad because this is a peaceful moment, but I’m cry sad because I don’t want anymore Ukrainians to die.”

The Ukrainians who stand in Kiev tonight, and in squares all over the country, stand for justice and hope for a better future.  Tomorrow I’ll go to Romaniv to love on our boys- boys who have only known a life of injustice.  I pray that justice will prevail in Ukraine in hopes that ALL people in Ukraine may have the hope of a better future.  Whether they know it or not, the protestors on Maidan are standing for our boys.  They stand for all the forgotten ones who can not stand for themselves.  And so, in the small ways we are able we will stand for them too.

Will you join us?  Stand up in prayer for those who are risking their lives for their country. Stand up in prayer for those who can not stand for themselves.  Lift your voice and break the silence.  Tell whoever will listen about our beloved Ukraine and her beautiful people.  These are our people, the people of our hearts.  May their sacrifice never be in vain.

“But if I were you, I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before Him.

He performs miracles that cannot be counted…

The lowly he sets on high, and those who mourn are lifted to safety…

He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth; he saves them from the clutches of the powerful.

So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth.”

Job 5:8-9,11,15-16


Photos by Andrey Kolodich ©


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!


Did You Notice?

Oh wow, what a weekend we had!  I had quite a big adventure in Kiev on Monday that I’m excited to share with you, but first things first.  I hope you have heard of the situation in Ukraine right now.  What started out as a political move has become a huge human rights protest that is shaking the nation.  We can’t help but wonder why God put us here at such a time as this, but we are honored to stand with our beloved Ukrainians as they fight for their nation.  

My uncle, Steve Bittner, has been a lover of Ukraine for many, many years.  Ukraine was in his heart before it was a thought in our heads.  His deep love for the Ukrainian people is one of the many reasons why he is a member of the Wide Awake International Board of Directors.   He wrote a blog post yesterday that did me in.  It’s exactly what my heart is screaming, so I just had to share it with you.  Please read and ask the Lord how you should respond to His voice.  Thank you for your prayers for Ukraine.  

Did You Notice?  (originally posted here)

Take a look at this photo…

Really, really look at it. Look at her eyes for more than just a few seconds. I cannot get this image from a few days ago out of my head. She is standing on Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, hoping that the government of her nation will turn towards Europe and will not step back towards Russia. She is hoping.

Look at her eyes and think about what it would be like to be her age in a country that has been oppressed again and again. Look at her eyes and think about the fact that her parents or grandparents or someone she loved was shipped off to the gulag or was starved to death in a famine that killed 33,000,000 people and was orchestrated by the government.

I know that we all have different things that have come into our lives and grab our hearts and make us uncomfortable and cause us to feel like we need to do something. I also know that something that grabs my heart may not grab your heart. I know that.

Ukraine grabs my heart. When I first ventured outside of U.S. borders in October of 1992, and ended up in Ukraine, I was a rookie traveler. I was a rookie traveler who grew up in a comfortable family, and who always had pretty much what I needed. I left the country 21 days later, crumpled up on the seat of my bus, unable to stem the flow of tears from my American eyes. My heart was forever changed that day.

The late October afternoon I left Kiev, just steps away from where the babushka in the picture is standing, Alexander, my interpreter, from across the room, mouthed three words that have haunted me to this day…”Never forget Ukraine.”

I never have.

I can’t.

I’ve been back twelve or fifteen or eighteen times. I don’t know. I’ve lost count. It doesn’t even matter. What matters is that I never forget Ukraine.

I can’t forget the Roma children who experience intense racism that robs them of education and opportunity for a better life.

I can’t forget the babushkas like the one in the picture above, who, in the last two weeks, have again dared to hope that things might change for the good in the land that they love.

I can’t forget the sadness that has overshadowed this land…sadness borne of evil men who have caused grief after grief after grief that has slapped and beaten and knocked these people down.

I can’t forget the depth of the warm hospitality of people who would give you their last loaf of brown bread or that one precious vase that belonged to their great grandmother once they realize you are for real and your care for them is simply that…care for them.

I can’t forget the children in the state-run orphanage system that don’t get the care and the education that they so desperately need. The problem usually isn’t the workers. The workers often love these children and are dedicated enough to stick around for years for a few dollars a month. They simply don’t have the resources to provide what is needed in a country that is an economic wreck as a result of years of oppression and plundering by those same evil men I mentioned earlier.

I can’t forget that my burden is not your burden. I will keep going to Ukraine. On that fateful day in early October of 1992, my wife was standing at the window of the Eugene Airport with our three boys at her feet and their noses smashed up against the window, waving as the plane taxied down the runway, our six month old daughter in her arms.

At that moment, I felt the Father nudge my heart and whisper that what was happening was far bigger than I realized. Now, twenty years later, that six month old is in Ukraine working with those Roma children and those orphans. She returns in a few days.

Now, twenty years later, my niece and her husband and children have moved to Ukraine to work with more of those orphaned children, the lost of the lost, who have been hidden away due to disability. Yes, the continuing story is far bigger than I realized.

As important as all of this is to me, the point of this missive is not that you feel bad or take up my burden, though of course I want Ukraine to be important to you, too. If you’ve read this far, I want you to refer back to the title…Did you notice?

Did you notice? Now, look at the photograph below.

This is a photo I took at the beginning of the Christmas pageant at 7:30 p.m., last Wednesday night, at First Presbyterian Church. It’s a long-standing tradition, put on by loving volunteers, who facilitate and coordinate and hold the hands and guide the feet of the disabled adults who present this gift to the community every year. If you’ve never experienced this event, don’t miss it next year.

Now…what does the presence of several hundred thousand people in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, have to do with a small group of disabled adults in Corvallis, Oregon? Actually, the clue is in my question…Did you notice?

Did you notice these events? Did you notice these people? Did you take a minute to see, to really see what is happening around you? Some events are earth-shaking and are significant. Some events seem insignificant, but are not. Notice them.

That’s my challenge to you. I’m not challenging you to take up my burden for Ukraine, though I do think you should be concerned about what is happening there. (Here’s why: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/12/02/opinion/frum-ukraine-russia/index.html)

I’m challenging you to notice. I’ll leave it at that.

Just notice.

And then do something.

Thank you.