My Favorite Camp EVER!

Well, I’ll start out by apologizing for the radio silence. You haven’t heard from us recently, but for good reason, because we’ve just been so busy doing everything! A couple weeks ago dear friends from the US arrived to spend time with us and the team and last week our team put on a camp at Romaniv for our boys there. It was, as the title implied, my most favorite camp EVER. What can I say? It was perfection. The week was peaceful, deeply joyful, memorable, and just good. So so good.

It had been several years since we’d put on a day camp at the institution. I might be wrong, but I feel like the last time was in 2017…the summer before we took any of our boys out. That was a long time ago!! I’m thankful that God turned our focus back to our boys there because this camp was really needed- by them, and by us. Any time we can spend extended periods of time with our friends at Romaniv is good for them and for us. We learn more about the boys and they grow in their trust of us. Our love for them enlarges and deepens, and they have a whole week filled with love, hours of complete safety, one-on-one attention, and all the doting we can muster. It’s a win-win on many levels.

The theme of the camp was “The Five Senses” and our interns set up stations around the institution where our boys could go and experience the different senses. Each boy had his own volunteer and the goal was not that each boy would visit each station every day, but that the volunteer would pay attention to what the boy was interested in and be led by his interests. If a boy just wanted to stay all day at the music station and relax there, maybe even fall asleep, so be it! It was a very loose program where the individuality of each boy could be noticed and celebrated. I loved and appreciated that. We also had two volunteers who did a program each day for the nannies. They had tons of fun with them and I hope the nannies really felt special and seen.

Each day we had 25-28 people heading out to camp to bring our boys joy. Several new volunteers joined us and experienced life at Romaniv for the first time. They all did great! The vast majority of our volunteers were teens and it was just an absolute joy to see them delight in the boys. They could have been doing anything with their free summer days, but they chose to give a week to our precious friends and that was a real encouragement and injection of hope into our team. My mama heart was bursting as I watched our son Ezra lead the camp with the other interns, and our daughter, Havalah volunteer each day. New volunteers were partnered with Hava so they could learn the ropes of Romaniv and how to communicate with the boys. I so enjoyed watching her be an awesome example of love that others could follow. Our little Evie spent the week with us at Romaniv too and it was her first time to be there since she was a baby. She’d been begging us to go “to the boys” for at least a year, but I wasn’t sure she was ready. She’s super comfortable with our boys here and our friends with disabilities from the city, but our boys are her family. She’s never known life without them! All their noises, their unique movements, and quirks are normal to her. Romaniv is muuuuuuuuch different. But, we decided to give it a go. When we first arrived she was scared and started crying, but after a few minutes of reminding her that they were just like our boys at home and that she just needed to get to know them, all was great and she loved it. The boys were fascinated to see a little girl and she became quite a popular figure around camp. I don’t think she minded that one bit. 😉

On each day of camp, a few of the boys with their volunteers would go in the van to town for ice cream and a walk in the park. The boys behave so differently when they are out in town! It’s really fun to see who is curious, who is quiet, who gets excited…and we are very thankful to the Director of the institution for allowing us such freedom with the boys. He is a fairly new director, but we have known him for many years. He is supportive of our work and really gives us free rein to try new things. We had many years when that was not the case at Romaniv, so we will never take his trust for granted. What a gift!

The last day of camp was extra, extra special because we brought two of our horses! Now talk about a new sensory experience; that was the ultimate. Dajana and I loaded them up bright and early and staked out a place for them in a field near the institution. Then the team would bring us a few boys at a time and the boys would “meet” the horses at whatever level they were at. For some boys, just leaving the territory of the institution and being in a new place was enough sensory input to last the day, while some wanted to pet the horses, and some even rode! Our horse, Mishka, was an absolute rock star. She was so patient and could not have behaved better. Melody, her 11-month-old foal, just came along for the ride, so Mishka wouldn’t be alone. But she also behaved nicely and is shaping up to follow in her superstar mom’s footsteps. That was only the second time we’d taken any of the horses in the trailer and the first time we’d taken them soooo far, but they did amazing and it was a total success! We hope to do it again before the summer ends.

All in all, we considered this camp a huge success. Thank you to all of you who prayed for our time there. It was just wonderful, for the boys and for us. They ingrained themselves a little deeper into each of our hearts. They reminded us again why we are doing this work and inspired us to keep moving forward, to not grow weary, to not grow complacent, but to keep saying yes, pushing, and fighting till each and every one of them is free.

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Your Questions Answered: The Boys’ Spiritual Lives

On the last Tuesday of every month, we have an all-team meeting here on the Homestead. In those meetings, we cover a variety of topics. Sometimes we talk about new policies or protocols for our work, maybe a new development in one of the boys or something to do with their health that everyone needs to know; we celebrate accomplishments and milestones, say goodbye to team members who are leaving, or welcome new members to our tribe. Sometimes we just eat together or pray together, or discuss one of our values of dignity, love, and hope. The monthly gatherings are an important time and our boys are always right there in the middle of them. Their presence makes each team meeting a lively and loud event. 😀 We always have to agree on one team member who will be in charge of keeping Yaroslav in line as he kind of resents when all the attention in the room is not directed at him. Sasha loves to sit in the middle of the group and sing loudly- especially when it’s a quiet, more serious moment. Anton usually paces the halls and Boris bounces unbelievably high on the cushions of the couch eagerly awaiting whatever treat he sees lying on the counter for afterwards. It’s a circus, Y’all.

Anywayssss, today at our meeting Jed asked Ruslan to pray to start us off. We were outside around the fire pit and Ruslan proceeded to thank God for each and every single person around the circle- by name. It was a sweet moment and it warmed my heart to remember just how many people know and love Ruslan. He was once alone and now has a whole crowd of people who know him well and treasure him and his life. All of our boys are surrounded by that love and I really believe that they feel it. We have watched them come alive in our love over the years they’ve lived with us. God has done so much healing of their hearts, minds, and bodies. Sure, there is much more healing needed, but look how far they’ve come! I believe that they know they are loved and I’m so glad for that. Man, how I dream of that for all of our friends still stuck in Romaniv. I wonder how they would blossom and change if they were surrounded by a big ol’ family of people dedicated to their well-being and growth? I bet they would become almost unrecognizable- like our boys. I hope I get to see that in my lifetime.

While Ruslan was praying I was reminded of a question that was asked quite a long time ago that I never answered (sorry Katie!!!!). Katie asked about the boys’ spiritual lives. She wondered if they pray, if they go to church with us, and what level of spiritual understanding they have. Great question! Some aspects are difficult for me to answer, just because most of our boys are not verbal, but I can tell you what I know and what I see.

All of us house parents attend the same church in town and all of the boys attend church with us regularly. It has been quite a journey with our church body here. Whew. It has been a long journey of acceptance and growth. We have miles to go, but I feel like we’re in a fairly decent place right now. Almost all of our team members also attend the church and many of our volunteers also attend, so there are always many people present at church on Sundays who know and love our boys. The boys have learned over the years when they can “sing” and when they need to sit quietly. They mostly do really well at the whole Sunday service thing. Ruslan loves to sit in the very front row and sing his lungs out. He’s so loud! It’s amazing. Vova isn’t verbal, but he also “sings” a lot and quite loudly during the worship time. Yarik too! I love hearing their voices when everyone is singing together. I’m always struck by the miracle of having them there with us. It never ever gets old. The boys’ behavior during the preaching is hit or miss, but for the most part, they are fine. Everyone is used to them and their unique noises. The boys have grown a lot in their patience during the preaching time! Ruslan, Boris, and Yaroslav really, really seem to love going to church. For Yarik, it is definitely the highlight of his weekend and he starts to ask for it at least on Friday. He asks for it by holding his hand up to his mouth like a microphone and saying “Ah ya ya??” in a very specific tone. He loves it. Anton likes going to church because he knows he’ll get coffee afterward, Sasha doesn’t seem to care either way, and Vova is just happy to be anywhere with anyone. He is the happiest, smiliest ever. Remember when he used to bite everyone? Ha! Risperidone is a gift from God is all I have to say about that. But really, Vova does seem to enjoy the music at church quite a lot.

Every day, Monday through Friday, the boys have worship time together with the assistants at the duplex. That involves music either with a guitar or on YouTube. All our boys love music. Anton, specifically, is very sensitive to music. Sometimes a certain worship song will just hit him and you’ll see him sitting in his chair listening, with tears streaming down his face. It’s the sweetest thing. I think in those moments the Holy Spirit is just touching his heart and bringing healing. It’s beautiful.

We can’t know what the boys understand about God or what they know of him, but it does seem clear that they each have their own special relationship with him. Ruslan is the only one of our boys here who can speak in small sentences and really express his thoughts or feelings in a clear way. For sure our boys express many emotions all the time, but we have to interpret their meaning in the best way we know how. Ruslan is really the only one who can tell us sometimes what he is feeling or thinking about. Well, Yarik can do a bit of that too with gestures and minimal words, but to a lesser degree than Ruslan. With Anton, Vova, Sasha, and Boris we really have to look at body language, facial expressions, and behaviors to understand what might be happening inside their bodies and minds. But they all, except maybe Sasha, who is so much in his own world for so much of the time, seem to really respond to times of prayer, times of worship, and times of turning our attention to the things of God.

I’ve told this story before, but I think it’s relevant to share it again. When we first adopted Vlad (almost 9 years ago!) we took him to the US with us for several months to get him some medical care that he couldn’t get here. We took him to church with us and he enjoyed it, but we had no idea how much he understood about what was going on or about the things of God. He was fresh from the institution and wasn’t super verbal. He could talk in small, almost unintelligible sentences and acted like a little wild animal much of the time. Gosh, it’s amazing to think of how much he has changed!!! Anyway, the first time communion was served at church Vlad perked up because he was completely obsessed with food. Crackers? Juice? Yes, please! 😂 I didn’t want him to feel left out so I tried to explain as simply as I could what we were doing and what it meant. I told him “Vlad, we are drinking this juice and eating this cracker so we remember that Jesus died for us and that he loves us. Vlad, God loves you so much!” He quickly replied, with tears in his eyes (and Vlad NEVER cries), “I know. I know God loves me.”

I was blown away in that moment. How in the world did that child who had been abandoned at birth, then lived for 15 years in hell on earth; that child who had known neglect and abuse that most of us could never even fathom- how did he know that God loved him? How? It became clear to me that we have no idea how God reveals himself to our boys and others like them. Psalm 68:5-6 says “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing…” When we started going to Romaniv back in the day those verses confounded me. How was God being a father to those abandoned boys? How was he caring for them? I just didn’t see it and was super confused about how to think about that promise of God. But then in that moment with Vlad, I realized that God was meeting with Vlad before we ever met him. God was fathering him in unseen ways and revealing himself to Vlad over the years. God was comforting him and defending his heart when he was abandoned by the world. It’s the only way Vlad could have known that God loved him. There’s just no other explanation. Several months ago Vlad got baptized at the church in the US he attends with my parents and we were able to watch it on the live stream. Vlad wanted to get baptized and the pastor spoke with him about it ahead of time to make sure he understood what it meant. When we watched the video it was obvious that Vlad met with God when he was baptized. He actually “whooped “with joy when he came up out of the water!

Our other boys seem to know God in a special way, like Vlad does. I see it in them and I’m thankful for it. We often tell them about God’s love for them. We pray for them and with them. They minister to us as we minister to them. The body of Christ is alive and well here on the Homestead. Praise God for that. ❤️

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New Life on the Homestead

Yesterday we had the most amazing opportunity to witness the birth of our new foal! Gloria, one of our horses who we unexpectedly found out was already pregnant when we purchased her in October, gave birth to a sweet baby boy. New life never ceases to amaze me. It was an incredible day!

We always assumed that Gloria would give birth during the night or in the very early hours. And since we didn’t even know she was pregnant for most of the pregnancy, we didn’t know exactly when to expect the new arrival. Every morning I would look out my bedroom window to see if Gloria was waiting for her breakfast at the fence. If she was ever absent in those morning hours I would eagerly check to see if we had a baby. But…she decided to do it right smack in the middle of the day…and in the middle of the mud!

Jed and I were inside clipping our weiner dog’s nails (I promise we don’t only take care of animals here…😆) when Tonya, one of our team members ran into the house screaming our names. My heart about stopped- something terrible must have happened! We ran down the stairs “What? What happened?” “She’s giving birth!!!!!!” “Who?” (We also have a pregnant goat) “Gloria!!! Come quick!” Apparently, a neighbor was walking past our back fence on her way home from the little village store, saw a horse in the middle of the birthing process, and began screaming her lungs out to get someone’s attention. Tonya heard and we all started running to the barn. It was quite dramatic. 😁 We arrived on the scene to see a freshly born foal lying in the mud, still partially in the amniotic sac! Its legs were stuck in the sack so Jed pulled it away and then we all just watched Gloria and her mothering instincts take over. Ahhhhh it was so beautiful and special. We got to see our new colt stand for the first time on his stick-skinny, looooooooong legs, we saw how Gloria guided him to learn to nurse, and how she protected him from the curiosity of the other horses. All of us who live with the boys here on the Homestead just stayed with them for hours, watching the new life unfold. So much fun. Dajana, our resident “horse person”, is actually in Germany right now and was so upset to miss the birth! We were sending videos, Facetiming, and wishing so badly that she was with us on the special day. We miss you, Dajana!

Once we established that he is actually a “he”, we started the name convo. We hadn’t discussed names at all and I’ll tell you what, two Ukrainians, a German, and a few Americans all agreeing on a name is a great “experience” in honesty, team building, compromise, and kindness… and is about as easy as herding cats. Ha! We had to agree on a name that sounds good in all three languages (German, Ukrainian, and English) and with all three accents. In the end, at 11:00pm, we decided to use rank-order voting in order to make a fair choice. Thankfully, Christiana was once a voting official and was able to guide us through the process. 😂 We each submitted two name ideas and then we each ranked them according to our likes and dislikes. For your amusement, here is the list of names we were voting on:

The List (in no particular order)

  1. Ryan Gosling
  2. Horse Named Sioux (inspired by the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue”)
  3. Bjorn
  4. Johnny Cash
  5. Marty
  6. Kev
  7. Uhtred
  8. Josh of the Woods (inspired by our board chairman and US Director of Operations- Josh Woods)
  9. Carl
  10. Keanu Reaves
  11. Clint
  12. Woody
  13. Seastar
  14. Chandler
  15. Johnny Go Lightly

And the winning name is….”Horse Named Sioux”!! He will affectionately be referred to as “Horse”. We think it’s absolutely hilarious that that name won. But, in a country where English is not the commonly spoken language, it’s actually quite cute and funny to hear Ukrainians calling him “Horse”. I love it so much. It makes me laugh.

Anyway, we wanted to introduce you to our sweet Horse, the newest member of the Wide Awake Family. He is already and will be well-loved. Welcome to the world, Horse Named Sioux! ❤️

Here is a beautiful intro from our team’s Instagram

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Remembering Our Friend, Remembering the Urgency

This post is brought to you by Christiana ❤️

Last week, we lost another friend at Romaniv to the great enemy: death. This is the second boy who has died since I arrived in the fall, and as always, my heart is heavy. I know that he is safe in the arms of Jesus, and the suffering that he endured here is over, and yet I am grieved by how his story here ended. I want to see more redemption in the lives of our boys. I want them to experience more than the walls of Romaniv. I want them to have the love and safety of a family. And for yet another friend, that is no longer a possibility. 

Over and over, we have lost boys who we hoped in our hearts would come to live with us. Sometimes we even spoke their names out loud when making plans for the future. Living in the time and place where we do, we know all too well how little control we have over the future. But this reality—that our friends can and do die at Romaniv before we get them out—it is a particular kind of hard. Today, Kim and I named all the boys who have died since she and Jed started this work. Ten names. Ten precious people. And with each, the gut-wrenching feeling is the same.  

There is a grinding hopelessness at Romaniv, and it can wear us down, too. As much as we love the boys at Romaniv, as big as our hearts and dreams are for them, we can’t make Romaniv into something that it’s not. We can go, we can spend time with the boys, we can build relationships and cultivate goodwill with the staff and administration, but we cannot make Romaniv into a good place for our friends to live. After all the years that the rest of the team has faithfully spent at Romaniv, what stands out to me is how little it has changed. It is not exactly the same as when I first visited nearly seven years ago, but it is still a place I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Despite every effort, our boys’ lives continue to be something more endured rather than fully lived. Our boys continue to die. And we continue to wonder about the circumstances of their deaths: was this death preventable, were they alone or was someone with them at the end, is anyone else mourning their loss as we do?  

And once again, we recognize the urgency of our work. Our life on the Homestead often feels anything but urgent. We have cultivated a peace and a slowness that belies the urgency, that shields from the life and death nature of what we are doing. Each time, it’s like we have snatched another guy from the clutches of Romaniv and settled down in our little oasis to do the hard, slow work of really living. And in our oasis, the days can feel full, even busy, but rarely urgent. Yet there remains an urgency underlying all of this peace. We have our guys here with us, but more remain in the institution. Will they get to experience the love and safety of a family on this side of heaven? When we are ready to take the next guy, will he still be there?  

So we strive towards our goals knowing that this work is truly a matter of life and death. We work towards having the capacity and space to add another friend to our permanent Dim Hidnosti family. We work towards a sustainable life here that can be replicated by other people who have a heart for deinstitutionalization. And we fight against the numbness or hardness that can creep in as a defense against the hopelessness of Romaniv. We fight to continue showing up at Romaniv with open hearts and an eagerness to connect with our boys, to be with them and build relationships with them, to let them know that they are never forgotten or alone. It’s challenging to do year after year, but our friends deserve it. Each one deserves it.

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How’s Ruslan

Happy Friday, Friends! Today is officially the first day of spring here in Ukraine and we are hoping spring is actually here, and here to stay. I’m not sure how much snow and ice and melt and rain and snow and ice and melt and rain this soul can handle. We are all aching for spring and will be welcoming it with open arms. Yesterday we fired up the fire pit (see what I did there…) and enjoyed time together in the sun after horse time and it was a glorious glimpse of the spring and summer ahead of us.

I thought it was about time to give you all an update on our brave Ruslan. It’s been 4 months since Jed and Ruslan arrived back in Ukraine from their big American adventure, and almost 7 months since Ruslan’s life-changing surgery. He has put a lot of hard work into his recovery since then and you should hear all about it!

The main concern we had about doing such a major operation on Ruslan was whether we would have the ability to support his recovery once he came back to Ukraine. In the past, we haven’t had the best luck finding quality physical therapy for our boys. In fact, we’ve had no luck at all. PT in Ukraine is mostly passive and we knew needed to find a therapist here who could imagine and dream of a future for Ruslan in which he would thrive, physically, and be willing to join arms with us in making that happen. Also, Ruslan has a very specific, unique personality. He won’t just accept anyone. The PT would need to be willing to form a friendship with Ruslan first, in order for Ruslan to have the motivation to push himself to grow and heal. Everything is relational with our boys, and Rus is no exception to that. He has no interest in hearing from an expert, but he will do anything for a friend. ❤️

So, the biggest miracle I have to report is that we have found the most wonderful, kind, encouraging, gentle, and wise physical therapist. His name is Ilya and he is God’s gift to our boys. Ilya is a peaceful, joyful presence here on the Homestead and most importantly, Ruslan adores him. Ilya comes to the Homestead three times a week and does therapy with Ruslan, and twice a week he also does therapy with Boris. In the future, we hope he will be available to work with all of our boys, but he also works at our regional hospital so he doesn’t have loads of time. But we’ll gladly take what we can get!

When Ilya comes Rus is eager to see him and eager to please him. When he knows it’s a therapy day he waits impatiently all day for Ilya to arrive. They do their work together and then they drink coffee together as friends. It’s a special time for Rus and he is making great strides in his healing! He now walks more consistently on his whole foot (not just on his toes, like before) and Ilya has begun working with him on walking more upright instead of leaning forward so much when he walks. He still very much needs the support of his orthotic and he needs reminders to use his whole foot, but he is getting better and better. When he came home from the US he was still using a walker! We are really proud of him. His healing journey will be a long one, considering the damage done to his hips and spine from years of adapting to his deformed foot, but we are ready for that and feel enormously thankful for the gift of the operation done in California.

I’m also happy to report to you that Ruslan has resumed his work at a local electrical shop! Last year he worked there for a bit but it didn’t go great. He wasn’t emotionally ready at that time. But he is ready now. The trip to the US helped him to grow, emotionally. Our teacher, Inna, goes with Rus to work twice a week for a couple of hours and so far he is doing great!

And the most fun news I saved for last.

Yesterday Ruslan RODE A HORSE. Ruslan. Our Ruslan. The Ruslan who is afraid of everything. The Ruslan who won’t get in a pool or even put his feet in a lake. The Ruslan who absolutely hates trying new things, especially if they involve using his body in a new way. That Ruslan. He rode one of our horses!!!! I never ever imagined Ruslan would ride one of the horses. Drink coffee next to the horses, sure. Brush the horses, why not? But taking a ride? Never in a million years. But he did! And boy was he proud of himself. The great crowd of Ruslan fans watching him from the sidelines was also very proud.

Our Ruslan is a fighter and he is thriving right now in every way. This has been a huge year for him and he has exceeded our expectations. Thank God for his kindness and care for Rusik. Thank you all for your prayers. And finally, a huge shout-out and MASSIVE thank you to Steve, Debbie, Diane, Jasmine, Dr. Nicholas Abidi, and the staff at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz for helping to change Ruslan’s life. We will never forget your kindness and generosity.

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Two Years

Tomorrow marks two years of Russia’s all out war against Ukraine. Technically, Russia invaded Ukraine 10 years ago this month, but tomorrow marks two years since we woke to bombs exploding and our house shaking. Tomorrow marks two years of a new way of life. Tomorrow marks two years of great pain and sorrow in our land. We now think of our lives in terms of “before” and “after” and tomorrow marks two years of “after”. We will never be the same because now we know so many things that we never knew before. We have endured tragedy and fear and indecision like never before. We’ll never be who we were “before” so now we learn how to live with who we have become “after”.

I pretty much stopped writing about the war here on the blog and in our newsletters. Partly because, what do I even say? “Yes, it’s still happening…and please don’t stop praying”?? Partly because I just don’t want to talk about it online. Partly (or a lot) because I’m afraid you don’t want to hear about it. But mostly because talking about it, writing about it, forces me to confront my own thoughts about it and I usually just don’t want to go there. All the war-related pieces of my heart are out-of-bounds, a pandora’s box that I’d rather not open, a painful wound that I don’t want to touch. The war is always there, in the background or in the foreground, lingering on the sidelines or shouting in our faces. It is the backdrop of our lives. It has changed us as people and as an organization, and diving into the hows, the whats, and the whys requires a level of introspection that I rarely have the gumption to rise to.

We often have days here on the Homestead when the war seems a world away. We continue on with our work, loving and caring for our boys, our Homestead like a bubble of safety that the world dares not penetrate. We ride the horses, play with the puppies, enjoy coffee and celebrations with our boys, sing together, cook together, pray together. Our life here with our boys is not easy and has its own special (ever-changing) set of challenges, but what we have here is special and despite everything, we feel safe here on our property. We don’t live in a constant state of fear and worry. We press on because we know that God has called us to press on, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Our mission has never been more important than it is now and we are committed to it with all of our hearts. I thank God for the peace He has given us and the blessing He has poured out on our family, our team, and this place. After fleeing and living as refugees in a foreign land, I will never again take this Homestead for granted. It is truly God’s gift to everyone who steps foot inside the gates.

So, we don’t live in constant fear, but it would be dishonest and unrealistic to say we do not have moments of fear and uncertainty. The current news is extremely disheartening, to say the least. We are outmanned and our ammunition is quickly being depleted. The current political climate in the US, my native country, is impossible to comprehend and the consequences of political decisions being made (or not made) there are super frightening for us living here in Ukraine. I remember a Youtube video I made during the first few days of the war when I just couldn’t believe that the world wasn’t rushing in to help. We were in shock that the world just stood by and watched, expecting Kyiv to fall within days. It was the most vulnerable, scary feeling ever. I don’t want to feel that again, but the feelings are creeping back to haunt us. Please world, please USA, please Europe, please NATO, please don’t give up on us. Please don’t let the madman win. Please don’t believe the Russian propaganda. Please believe Ukraine is worth saving. Please don’t stop caring. Please don’t get tired of this. Our lives and the lives of so many we love depend on it.

The first year anniversary of this war was highly emotional for us all. We were haunted by memories of those first few weeks. Now, this year, we don’t look so much at the past, but think more about the future. I feel “safe” today on my wonderful Homestead. But what about tomorrow? What about 6 months from now? If things continue on the current trajectory we are in for a world of hurt this coming year. Yet we know that God promises to be with us. He doesn’t promise us safety, but he promises to never leave us or forsake us. He has called us to this work and so we press on.

Would you pray with us on this anniversary for our precious Ukraine? Will you pray that God’s will would be done in this land? Would you pray with us for a miraculous victory that only God can provide? At this point we realize that we can not lift our eyes to politicians or countries or governments for our rescue. God is our rescuer and our lives are in his hands.

I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalm 121:1-2

Thank you for your continued love, support, and prayer. Please don’t forget Ukraine.


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The Heart of Deinstitutionalization

From Jed:

“You can take the girl out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl.”

Whenever Kim does something silly I like to remind her of her roots.

It’s all light-hearted but the adage makes me think of what it means to work toward the deinstitutionalization of people with disabilities in Ukraine… or anywhere for that matter.

Our dream is to help our friends find the love of a family and the support of their community as they work toward becoming fully human.

We have worked for many years, creating a beautiful space for them to flourish. They now have gardens, classes, coffee with friends, house parents, therapy, church community, fun time, work time, horses, yoga, their own bedrooms, holidays, birthdays, and countless other experiences. What full lives our dear friends now live, together with us in community.

As idyllic as this all sounds, to make this dream a reality we have a team of assistants, house parents, office staff, builders, teachers, cleaners, volunteers, managers, accountants… The organization of all this requires HR manuals, team meetings, performance evaluations, process improvement plans, goal setting, shift scheduling, training, retraining… you get the idea.

The most effective way to manage all of these details is to make institutional decisions so everyone is on the same page, they know what is expected of them, and they can perform their job functions effectively, timely, and measurably. Ok, this is sounding a bit too institutional for an organization focused on deinstitutionalization.

So, how do we keep from falling into the trap of systematizing the lives of our friends with disabilities, because it is more stable, easier to manage, and makes life all-around predictable? How do we not just create mini-institutions?

The truth: sometimes we do start making our friends’ lives more institutional. We catch ourselves bringing our hands to work, but leaving our hearts at home.

Boris is constantly teaching me to slow down and be present with him. Yes, he wants his needs met. But he also wants relationship and I can get so busy solving problems that I forget Boris is a person, longing for relationship, reaching out with whatever communication tools he has, “Know me, help me… give me a #$%^ cookie!”

When I treat Boris like a problem to be solved, my decisions and my relationship with him become institutional. I’ve done all this work to get him out of an institution and then I re-institutionalize him with my heart.

I use an analogy with my team that I learned from a dear friend years ago. He would talk about sending our stunt double to work, so we wouldn’t have to bring our real selves in that day. The stunt double takes all the hits, and never gets hurt, so we can keep on acting like everything is ok.

But with our kind of work, we don’t have the luxury of sending in the stunt double. This a work of the heart, from the heart, and each moment with our friends must be processed through our hearts. Now, we use a lot of thinking and strategizing, but that is only so we can be full-hearted and completely available when we are with our friends.

Another way we work towards keeping our organization leaning forward, open, and leading with the heart is to analyze what we are doing, with our vision in mind. “Why are we here?” When we build our job descriptions and work policies, we try to have a “skeleton of rules” that supports the body (our vision). No extra bones (rules) in the skeleton.

This year we are working on a community covenant that will represent the heart of what we are trying to accomplish and the ways we all agree to work together to further our vision of deinstitutionalization.

For analyzing our work, we use a team-wide process called Appreciative Inquiry. I’ve used this approach for more than 15 years now in my professional work. Instead of going with the old classic, problem-solving model, we sit back and ask ourselves, “What is working well here?” “How do we do more of what we do well and spend less time on the areas where we struggle?” “How do we apply the ways we do things well to all areas of our work?”

I like this approach because it uses everyone’s experience and perspective as we look ahead. Our work is cross-cultural and ultimately effective if our local staff is leading the analysis, development, and implementation processes.

Another way we seek to avoid recreating mini-institutions is by remaining small. Small is beautiful. There are more than 100,000 people with disabilities institutionalized throughout Ukraine. It would be foolish to think we can solve this enormous social issue.

But, we can be a sign of hope, a candle in the darkness, a piece of the puzzle as Ukrainians change the future reality for people with disabilities in their country. By remaining small we can stay close to the heart of what we are trying to accomplish- the deinstitutionalization of people with disabilities. Not just removing them from a physical institution, but fighting to keep our hearts at the forefront of this work, remaining open to the cry of each of our boys to know and be known, to love and be loved.

Over the next three years, we plan to take four more people into our care and complete the final building on the homestead. After that, all our growth will be through partnerships and supporting the replication of this model of deinstitutionalization and family-centered care.

By remaining small, we can put our energy into helping other organizations and people to deinstitutionalize in their communities.

We strive to keep a simple approach that has the support of essential rules needed to function, with our focus on the heart of each person. We are creating a place where our values are not just applied to the work with our boys, but also to our coworkers and community members. Everyone is worthy of Dignity, Love, and Hope.

Staying close to this vision and not getting too big for a britches is how we plan to not only take more of our friends out of institutions but also to keep from re-institutionalizing them with our model of care.

Now, while I can’t get Kim to stop making tater-tot casseroles and listening to Joe Diffie, we haven’t been driving by that double-wide for sale down the road for a few weeks… so there’s hope. (I’m joking!)

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A Season of Hope

It’s the day after Christmas and we all feel like we need at least a day to recover from the festivities. Ha! Are you with me?

For real though, we had a wonderful time together here on the Homestead. We started the day each in our own homes; our family celebrated at home with cinnamon rolls, stockings, and gifts. Then all of us on the Homestead gathered in Side A of the ol’ duplex to spend the day together. There was We cooked together, gave our boys gifts, and had a few moments of relaxation. Mostly we just enjoyed being together with nowhere to be and no meetings or plans to attend to. Then in the evening, we had the crazy idea to take the boys caroling. We loaded everyone up in the vans and drove around the city for three hours, loading the boys in and out of the vans, singing, managing emotions and toileting, and giving gifts. It was a little bit insane and a lot special. I’m hesitant to say it’ll be our new tradition, but I know it meant a great deal to our team. If we’ve recovered from it by next year we might give it another go. 😂

There’s a simmering happening here in Ukraine. I definitely can’t speak for the rest of the country, but in our little corner of Ukraine, there is a palpable feeling of unrest rising. We know we lack the funding to win the war at this point. There are differing views of what a “win” would even mean and a building uncertainty that the win we are hoping for and dreaming of will ever be a reality. Air raids have once again become a daily event and the hits on Kyiv and in our region increase our vigilance once more. But the bigger stress comes from the President’s declaration that 500,000 more Ukrainian men will be conscripted into the military. Summons are being given anywhere and everywhere and the city feels tense, like everyone is holding their breath…waiting for the shoe to drop. We are all painfully aware that there are simply not enough men to fight this war. We know so, so many are dying every day to keep us safe, and many more still will. Each and every one of us knows more men must join the fight, but we hold the ones we love close to us, hoping anyone but them will be chosen.

In this moment of new uncertainty, our Ukrainian family’s faith is being tested in a new way. The question of who our lives belong to has never been more real and actual. The priorities of our hearts are being uncovered once again. What does it truly mean to entrust our lives and the lives of our family to God? What does it truly mean to hand over our whole selves to God? Each man has to decide if he will entrust his life and the life of his family to God, or if he will take matters into his own hands and try to make his own way. And each has to again come to the understanding that God never promised us physical safety. He never promised us that we would not walk through hard times. He never promised us lives of peace. But He did promise that He would never leave us or forsake us. He did promise that when we walked through the fire – He would be there with us. The invitation to surrender our lives to God is not an easy one to accept, but Jed and I have learned over the years (and are still learning) that the safest and most peaceful place to be is exactly where God has asked us to be. The best life for our children is in the place where God has called their parents. We will never ever understand the decision that Ukrainian men are making at this moment in history, and we won’t pretend to understand. But we can understand what it is to walk forward with Jesus, even when it doesn’t make sense, even when the way is unclear. God has not always called us to an easy life. These past 10 years have been filled with much heartache and many moments of pain and uncertainty, but God has never once left our sides. Again, we know we don’t understand what it feels like to be Ukrainian right now, but God’s promises do not change. So all we can do is remind our family here of what God has promised and remain close to them during this most difficult time.

In this Christmas season, when it feels that in some areas of life, hope is lost, we choose to lift our heads.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1,2

Friends, if we are followers of Jesus our lives are not our own. Everything we have, all that we are, we can give to Him. He is faithful. We can place our hope and our faith in Him- not because He is safe, but because He is good. Comfort and safety are not the final goal. He is our goal. He is our prize. A life given to Him is the only life truly worth living.

If you lack hope this Christmas season, lift up your head. Just look at how much God loves our boys, that He would gather this whole team here on the Homestead to pluck them out of obscurity and bring them into the love of a family. Not because they did anything special, but just because he loves them so very much. His love for you is the same. You can count on Him.

Merry Christmas from Ukraine. Thank you for supporting us and loving us along this journey. Thank you for continuing to stand with us and for praying for us. We appreciate you and pray the hope of Jesus fills your heart this day. ❤️

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Life Together is Beautiful

Last week Ruslan and Jed returned home to us at long, long last. Oh, the sweet relief and joy of having them safe and sound, back in our arms. Annnnnnd they brought home with them our dear Christiana! Christiana is a friend of ours and of Wide Awake/Dim Hidnosti for many years. Her dream (and ours) was that once she finished grad school she would come spend a longer period of time here with us as a house parent, living with the boys. At long last, she finished and now she is here! It still doesn’t feel quite real that she’ll be with us for a full two years. I think we all feel a bit of the “pinch me” feelings. 🙂

Now that Jed is home and Christiana is here we really do have what we have always dreamed of. We have our boys living in our beautiful homes and we have amazing house parents living with them, building family. And a huge bonus is that all of us living here on the Homestead truly love and like each other! What we have is something special and right now I’m really feelin’ all the feels about it.

Dajana and Christiana love the boys and are feeling inspired to finally make Side A of the duplex a real home. Just in time for the coziness of the holidays, too! Dajana has such a calm, intuitive way with the boys that you would never know this work was absolutely, completely new to her just a few short months ago. She’s a natural and I’m pretty sure she’s happily surprised by that. 🙂 Christiana is new to us but is already thoughtfully considering how she can create meaningful time with the boys in the evenings when it’s family time. I love that! Oleg and Masha have done a really great job of making Side B into a true home for Anton and Sasha. They are dream house parents and are an example to us all of how to live life not just physically “with” the boys, but to really and truly live with them. To invite them into family, to look at them as equals, and to consider their wants and desires as humans in this world. I, for one, am inspired by them all the time.

What we have together here on the Homestead is a living, breathing, loving community and I feel so honored to be a part of it. Masha recently wrote her thoughts about community life on our team’s Instagram and Facebook pages and what she wrote was so beautiful it made me a little teary. Here’s the translation (Just a reminder, “Dim Hidnosti” translated “Dignity Home” or “House of Dignity” is the Ukrainian arm of Wide Awake. It is the name of Wide Awake’s work that is done here in Ukraine, simply because “Wide Awake” doesn’t translate well into Ukrainian) :

Life in Community
“In this era of individualism, people have begun to lose their sense of community and interdependence with others❌. In a society where no one owes anyone anything, unfortunately, there is very little room left for creating a community where all move in the same direction.

But do people need community now?
As we have already verified over the past year and a half – community, for us, is a huge driving force💪! Without community in various forms of its existence, it would not be possible to achieve goals for the benefit of society. Therefore, the development of local communities right now is very important for the further development of our country.

In a society where ‘no one owes anyone anything’, deinstitutionalization, saving children and adults from institutions, would not be possible. If ‘I don’t owe anyone anything’, then the innocent suffer. People remain defenseless at the hands of the institutional system and there is no one to help them 💔. Would we want such a fate for ourselves, our children, our relatives? Then why should others be condemned to loneliness and a life without a family? We cannot choose to exist only for ourselves – we simply do not have the right to do so while there is such injustice in the world. We must act, join local communities that are already helping people, or create them ourselves 🙌🏻

Would it be possible for the ‘House of Dignity’ (Dim Hidnosti) to exist without community? We can say with confidence: NO. Only in community and unity is it possible to achieve the goal we have set for ourselves – to give dignity, hope, and love to people with disabilities ❤️‍🩹.
The community of Dim Hidnosti is protection, support, and family for the men with disabilities who live with us. Moreover, we are their only family forever.

Community is a calling. Not every person can choose such a life for himself, because it requires full disclosure of your personality to other members of the community 🫣. To see imperfection in yourself and others and to have the courage to forgive, recover, recognize your right to make mistakes, and give this right to others 🤝….
We appear before everyone as we are, without decorations – and there is always a risk of not being accepted or being rejected. But, is it worth taking the risk and finding out what community acceptance and love can be like and how lifelong friendships can realize and fulfill dreams?

Dim Hidnosti is a place of restoration and healing, not only for our boys but also for those of us who have dedicated our lives to them.
This healing and restoration is possible when every member of our community gives their heart to the work.
We are grateful for every person who has been with us, who is with us now, and who will come to Dim Hidnosti because each has given a part of their life and heart to our boys and this community

The longer I am a part of this community/family God has brought together the more beautiful it becomes and the more thankful I become. Is it always an easy life, living in close community where your actions affect everyone and their actions affect you? Heck no! Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it’s tiring. Sometimes it’s disappointing. But is it worth it? Yes, a thousand times yes. I wouldn’t give up the gift of my Dim Hidnosti family for all the world. They are God’s gift to me and there is nowhere else I would rather be.

Please don’t live life alone. Seek out community. Open your eyes, your heart, your arms, your home. I am certain there is someone who needs what you have to give and your life will be so much richer for having given. We were not meant to walk this life alone. Life together is so much more beautiful.

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