Category: Deinstitutionalization

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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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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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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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Introducing, Dim Hidnosti Interns!

It’s been a few years, but I am so happy to announce that a new cohort of Wide Awake/Dim Hidnosti Interns have officially begun their work. We have longed for new interns for a while now, but it just wasn’t the right time and the right people weren’t ready. But the time has finally come. We are so thankful and excited!

The vision of Wide Awake International is to bring dignity, love, and hope to people with disabilities in Ukraine. We do that, primarily, through the work of deinstitutionalization: bringing people with disabilities out of institutions and into family life. Our work, our vision, and our values go against the cultural norms here in Ukraine. For generations people with disabilities in Ukraine have been given to government-run institutions, hidden away from society, not valued, not seen, alone, and unloved. Our mission is not only to help the boys in our family and give them a better life, and it is not only to bring love and joy to our friends that remain at Romaniv. Our mission is to create a model of deinstitutionalization that can be replicated all over Ukraine. We can’t save everyone, but we can be an example. We can be a spark. We can be a model of change and hope. But in order for that spark to “catch” someone must raise up the next generation. Enter, the internship.

The goal of the internship is to raise up the next generation of Ukrainians who will carry on this work of deinstitutionalization. Whether they end up working for Dim Hidnosti in the future, or working with one of our partners, we desire to impart to them our values and our heart. And while they are learning from us they bring new life and energy to our team that we all need. The internship is definitely a win-win situation for everyone. Over the past 8 years we have had 2 successful cohorts of interns complete the 2 year internship. And out of those 6 interns, 5 of them are still active members of our team. They are our leaders, the rocks of our organization. One of the former interns, Mira, is now leading this new cohort! Full circle, baby! 😁

So, how does the internship work? Right now we have 4 interns and they are in the beginning of their 6 weeks of training. They train two days a week here at the Homestead with our team and one day each week they go with the team to Romaniv. Once their training is complete they will truly begin their work. They will work at the institution in Romaniv (where all our boys once lived) two full days each week, and then one day a week they will spend here at the Homestead planning their next week’s work and doing special projects with our boys here at home. At Romaniv their focus will be on the boys in the Isolation Hall. They have divided the boys up between themselves and will work one on one with each of the boys in their group. We have an assessment tool they will use to assess each of their boys and then will develop measurable three-month goals for each of them. The time they spend with each boy in the Isolation Hall will be spent working with them toward those goals. But the ultimate goal for the boys is to prepare them for life outside the institution. That is the “Hope” portion of the internship. We look forward to the day when each of our beloved boys will be free and cherished, within the love of a family. The internship helps them to prepare for that day of freedom. It is difficult work, but a valuable and necessary one. The day each week that they spend on the Homestead will remind them of what the future can look like when each of our boys are free. It’s important for them to see the full picture of deinstitutionalization.

The full internship program is two year long, but each of them have begun with a one year commitment. They will spend this first year determining if this work is really for them, if they see themselves participating in the work of deinstitutionalization in the future. It is a paid internship. The second year, should they choose to continue on, is more about nailing down which part of deinstitutionalization most interests them: PT, OT, Speech Therapy, Special Education, Social Work, Legal, Building, Organizational Development, Accounting, House Parenting…the list goes on and on. It literally takes a village to make this work happen and there are nearly endless ways to be a part of it.

Now that you understand more about the internship, let me introduce you to these amazing young people!

PS: They all refer to working with “Dim Hidnosti” and they don’t mention “Wide Awake”. Dim Hidnosti is the Ukrainian arm of Wide Awake International.

Sasha. We first met Sasha when he started attending our church’s youth group a few years ago. Later he became a volunteer at Dim Hidnosti. Sasha has lots of energy, loves Jesus so much, and brings loads of joy to everyone around him. We love having Sasha as a part of our team. He just “fits” with us like he’s always been here.

“My name is Sasha. I chose to be an intern because I started traveling to Romaniv as a volunteer and saw the need for help. It interested me and I wanted to help more.”

Masha. We have known Masha since she was just a little girl. When our oldest kids, Addie and Ezra, attended public school in the city, when we first moved to Ukraine, Masha was in their class. 🙂 Later, when our team member, Oleg, started working with us, we realized that Masha was his little sister! Masha also attends our church and has been Dim Hidnosti’s most faithful volunteer. She truly loves the boys and has a way with them that brings them peace. She is a natural with them, just like her brother, Oleg.

“My name is Masha. I decided to work for Dim Hidnosti in order to bring the boys joy and the feeling that someone is with them. Serving Dim Hidnosti and the boys at Romaniv is my goal. I know the boys are capable of more and I want to teach them. I will help make their lives better because they deserve it. Thank you, Dim Hidnosti for the opportunity to give them this chance!”

Ezra. Well, I have known Ezra since before he even took his first breath as a baby, because he’s my son! It actually came as a bit of a surprise to Jed and me that Ezra wanted to join the internship. But, of course we are so thankful, proud, and happy that he would want to join “the family business”. 😂 For real though, Ezra is a motivated and dedicated person. I know he will give his all to the boys and this work. What a joy to see our son join us on this mission.

“My name is Ezra. My parents are the founders of Dim Hidnosti, so I kind of grew up in this organization, but a year ago I would have never thought I would be an intern. A few months ago I started visiting the institution at Romaniv and realized that I have a heart for the work that our team does there. I want to spend more time with the boys. I became an intern to serve the boys and to find out if this work is right for me.”

Vlada. We first met Vlada just a few months ago when she realized, through a crazy sequence of events, that our Yaroslav was her long lost brother! If you haven’t read that made-for-the-movies story you should go read it here. Anyway, almost immediately after discovering that Yaroslav was alive and well with us here on the Homestead Vlada started spending as much time with him as she could. She became interested in our work and started volunteering around the Homestead. It is an absolute miracle to have her as an intern. I mean, who could have predicted the incredible story God started when He asked us to take Yarik out of Romaniv and into our big Wide Awake family. He was not only changing Yarik’s life, but Vlada’s life too. We are so, so happy to have her as part of the team.

“My name is Vlada. After my first trip to Romaniv I was not sure that I would be able to be there, that I would be able to help. But after I went a few more times everything changed. I realized that I wanted to help the boys and improve their lives, to give them love and support. Because seeing their smiles and how happy they are to see us, it gives us and impetus to improve their lives. I want to show them life from another perspective, not just what they see at Romaniv. I want them to see that they can be treated better. I thank God and Dim Hidnosti for the opportunity to do this.”

We would really appreciate your prayers for our interns as they begin this work. It will require a lot from them, emotionally and physically. There will be times when being at Romaniv will bring them great joy, but also times when it will be so terribly painful and difficult. Please pray for them for wisdom, creativity and insight, perseverance, and strength. Let’s goooooooooo!!!

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All About Sasha: Two Years Home!

This week marks two years since Sasha joined the big Wide Awake/Dim Hidnosti family. I gotta say, it feels like much longer. A hundred lifetimes have passed since then and it seems like our Sashulya has been with us forever. Today Masha reminded our team that it was Sasha’s two year anniversary, and looking back at the photos of the day we brought him home- it’s like a dream. So much in our lives has changed since then.

Because Sasha was moved out of Romaniv to a different institution during COVID and visitors were not allowed, by the time the guardianship was in the approval process and Jed and I were allowed visitation, we hadn’t seen Sasha in more than a year. He acted like he didn’t know us at all and we really didn’t know him well anymore either. We had to start our relationship over completely and that was a very different situation than with all of our other boys whom we visited with often and felt we knew very well. I remember feeling so sad for Sasha because I knew he didn’t remember us well and was confused by all the changes. I desperately wanted him to know that all was well, that his life was about to change for the better, but his understanding of the whole situation was very limited. He was afraid of everything, all the time.

I remember the day we finally, after a million delays, brought him home. The whole team was so excited. We all breathed a big sigh of relief- our boy was home. Now his life could truly begin. In those first days Sasha would just crouch on the floor, making his body as small as possible. He wouldn’t respond to his name at all and didn’t want any physical contact. He was so much in his own little world that he would literally walk into walls. He was a shell of a person. Max and Morgan, an American couple who were living in the duplex as house parents, were the perfect landing spot for Sasha. They poured all their love and attention on him and he began to thrive. It was like we had a newborn baby with us and every little new thing Sasha did and every discovery he made was lovingly documented by our devoted team. It was a precious time.

Now, two years later, Sasha is a tall, almost-17-year-old with a super loud voice and a very strong will. 😆 Gone is our scared little boy. We’ve got a full-blown teenager on our hands now and I think he’s going to be an actual giant. He’s huge and it doesn’t look like he’s going to stop growing anytime soon. Sasha often seems lost in his own world, especially when he has a water bottle or one of his favorite toys in his hands, but when he wants relationship he is the most loving, affectionate cuddle bug there ever was. His smile absolutely lights up the room and everyone who knows him falls in love with him. He’s not afraid to show us what he thinks by batting us away or even falling onto the floor when he doesn’t want to go somewhere. He’s heavy and I think he knows it. 😂 But we choose to recognize that he is communicating, showing us his likes and dislikes and I’ll take that any day over a scared little boy crouching in the corner.

Sasha loves music, especially old Ukrainian and Soviet children’s songs. He is musical and even though he doesn’t speak, he can sing the words to a couple of his favorite songs. Sasha likes water (if it’s warm) and riding in the car- but only if he gets to sit by the window! He likes to kick balls and play in our little ball pit. He’s very tactile and when he’s in the mood he really loves hugs.

Sasha’s diagnoses are Autism Spectrum Disorder and Epilepsy. He also has microcephaly and Raynaud’s Syndrome. Over this past year or so we have struggled to get his seizures under control. The doctors think this is mainly because he is growing at such a rate that we haven’t been able to keep the medication at a therapeutic level. Just last week he had an overnight EEG and we are now waiting to hear the results. Overall, his health is good, we just need to him to slow down on this growing for a bit!

Oleg and Masha are the house parents in the duplex now and they live with Sasha and Anton. It’s so cool because years ago when Masha was an intern at the institution, Sasha was one of the boys on her caseload. Now she gets to live with him like a mama. God’s plans are the best.

We love our Sashulya deeply and are mega thankful he is a part of our family. I’m just so glad he isn’t afraid anymore. I’m so happy to know that every single day he is surrounded by love and is safe. Sasha is precious and our big Wide Awake/Dim Hidnosti family adores him. Happy 2 years, Buddy!

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All About Yarik and Vova: One Year Home

Can you believe that today marks one year since Jed took our precious Yaroslav and Vova out of the institution and they joined our big Wide Awake family? One whole year! On one hand it feels like this past year flew by in a wink, but on the other hand it feels like we have lived a lifetime since the boys joined us in that church in Germany. The passing of time during war is a whole different thing. Time passes quickly, but also it feels like the war has always been. So much has happened, so much has changed over this past year. We have changed and Yarik and Vova have massively changed, but imagining them back in Romaniv is just not possible. They have always been ours.

I don’t know if you remember the story of how our boys came to be with us, but it’s worth a reminder. Before the war started we had planned that Yaroslav and Vova would be the next two boys to join our family. We were just waiting on the construction of the second side of the duplex to be completed and were keeping our eyes peeled for house parents to live there upon its completion. Then February 24th came and all our dreams were put on pause (so we thought). Most of our team and all of our boys evacuated in early March and we began living together as refugees in a church in Germany. We had been living at the church for about a month when Jed made a trip back to Ukraine to check on our team here, the Homestead, and the boys at Romaniv.

I remember standing in the church kitchen when I got a text from Jed: “I’m busting the boys out”. It was so unexpected! I was absolutely shocked. Apparently a bunch of men from institutions near the front lines had been moved to Romaniv and the institution administration was severely overwhelmed with meeting all their needs. Jed’s request to take Yarik and Vova home with him came at just the right time. He had asked before and been denied, but on this trip back to Ukraine he saw their overwhelm and decided to ask again. I’m so glad that he did.

Vova leaving Romaniv for good!
Yarik busting out of Romaniv!
Yarik (L) and Vova on their first day of freedom

The situation Jed brought them to in Germany was certainly less than ideal, but nevertheless, Yarik and Vova thrived. They adapted so well to life with all of us in the church and I really believe it was only by God’s grace that they did as well as they did. I mean, Jed took them out of Romaniv one day and they next day they began a three day road trip across Europe to get to us! Only by God’s grace- for real.

Yaroslav and Vova are like different people now. Like with all of our boys, we realize after a year with them that we never really truly knew them when they lived at Romaniv. We knew only a version of them. We knew a version of them where they lived in fear every day and their brains were continually in fight or flight mode. Now we know the real Yarik and Vova. And bit by bit, as they feel safer and more secure with us, more of their true selves is shown. It’s a beautiful and sometimes difficult process to love them through and behold. This is not our first time to watch humans learn how to be people but it never loses its magic. Watching them learn to love and trust is inspiring. Watching them test the boundaries and express their true feelings (positive and negative) can be a test in patience. Watching them experience the love of a family and find safety and security is satisfying. Bringing our boys out of lives of abuse and neglect is always a test of creativity and thinking outside of the box because no two boys adapt to new life the same way. As they change and grow our approach must change and grow. There is no one-size-fits-all in deinstitutionalization. We are reminded of that every single day.

Yaroslav. Yarik is Mr. Personality and even when he was still living at Romaniv and we dreamed about taking him home with us we would all chuckle and kind of say “What the heck are we thinking? Bringing Yarik to the Homestead? Now THAT would be no joke.” 🙂 We knew he would present some challenging behaviors and we would really need to have our ducks in a row, but really, the process has been a joy. Yes, there have been some big challenges because everything Yaroslav does is BIG. He moves big. His emotions are big. His voice is big. But his love is also big and he brings so much life to our big family. The timing of bringing Yaroslav home was right. We had some experience under our belts and our team was ready for whatever Yarik was going to bring our way. He has done amazingly well and has thrived in the love of our Wide Awake family.

Physically, Yarik is doing fine. He still struggles with some gastro issues, but nothing like in the those first few months. The state of his gastrointestinal system is very tied to his emotions, so the better he is able to manage his emotions, the more healthy he appears to be, gastro-wise. Yarik has epilepsy, but his seizures are really well controlled at the moment. His gross motor skills have greatly improved and the days when he can’t seem to control his limbs are now few and far between. His mouth was full of rotten teeth, so unfortunately, after working to get his mouth healthy he only has 3 teeth left. Poor guy! This summer we plan to see if he has enough healthy bone for a few implants.

Emotionally, Yaroslav is slowly growing and maturing. I think his biggest struggles have to do with unhealthy attachments. All of our boys struggle with attachment issues, and with good reason, after living most of their lives without any opportunity for healthy attachments at all. But Yaroslav’s struggles seem the greatest. He will attach himself to one person and then obsess over that person, cling to them and also push them away, vie for their attention in super unhealthy ways and act out in sometimes quite astonishing ways. He needs time. We aren’t worried. All will be well.

Yaroslav at his birthday party
Yarik and Rus, chillin’ in the kitchen 🙂
Yaroslav with his sister, Vlada. You can read about their story here.

Vova. Vova has had a crazy transformation this past year. He’s like a different person! Vova has Phenylketonuria (PKU) that was untreated his whole life until we began treatment in September. PKU is basically an inherited disorder in which the body can not properly break down protein for use. As the amino acid in protein is not broken down and builds up in the body it becomes toxic to the nervous system. Untreated phenylketonuria can lead to brain damage, intellectual disabilities, behavioral symptoms, seizures, skin problems, and many other things. The only treatment for PKU is a very strict diet with severely limited protein intake and the addition of a medical supplement that provides a form of protein that can be used by the body. Vova’s PKU was untreated for 27 years. So much of the damage done to his nervous system is irreversible, but as we have seen, some of his symptoms have gone away with the PKU diet. It’s been incredible to watch him change!

Vova used to shy away from any kind of physical contact, but now he seeks out contact with the people he loves. We joke that he’s like a cat, always grabbing our hands and wanting us to rub his head and face. He now goes to the toilet independently when before he was completely incontinent. Untreated PKU leads to reduced melanin in the body so before treatment Vova was sooooo pale. His hair was almost white! Now he has brown hair and color in his cheeks. I could go on and on. He has changed so much. As he feels safer and more secure he is also starting to express more of his wants and desires, likes and dislikes, and this is good, but can also be challenging. For instance, this past week Vova began to bite people when he was unhappy with them or didn’t want to do what they were asking him to do. Ummmm that’s not gonna fly, so we’re gonna have to nip that one! Always something new with our boys…and never a dull moment!

Sasha making Vova smile. Blurry, but getting a good pic of Vova is a monumental task, sooo 🙂

With Vova it’s impossible to know which changes in him are a result of treating the PKU and which changes are the result of living within the love and safety of a family, but regardless, we’ll take the changes. We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing and see how he blossoms. He is definitely the most guarded of all of our boys, so any steps toward relationship that Vova takes are cause for big celebration!

Thank you for supporting us and encouraging us along this journey with Yarik and Vova. They came into our family so unexpectedly, but what a wonderful surprise they have been. They have stolen our hearts and we can’t imagine our lives without them.

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Update on Our Boys, Part 2

Like I said in the last post, amidst all the talk of war and surviving Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s been quite some time since I’ve given you a good update on each of our boys. If you would like to see more frequent pictures and hear about what our boys are up to on the regular you can always sign up for our newsletter (form at the end of this post) or follow our team’s Instagram. But today I thought it would be fun just to let you know how each of our guys is doing and how you can pray for each of them, specifically.

You can find the first part of the update where I shared about Vlad, Boris, Ruslan, and Anton here.

Sasha, Yaroslav, and Vova are the newest members of the big Wide Awake Family and you probably feel like you know them the least. Back when the other 4 boys joined our fam I was active on social media and shared a lot about them. I really want you to know these three boys well too! They are so fun, precious, deserving, and wonderful. You would just love them if you met them face to face. I know it. They are impossible not to love. If you have any questions about any of our boys you are always welcome to write me! I love to talk about them to anyone and everyone. 🙂

Sasha joined our family in 2021, is now 16 years old, and lives in Side B of the duplex with Anton, Grant, and Lois the cat. Sasha (aka Sashulya) is the baby of the family (well, Sasha and Evie share that role…hehe). He is the youngest of our boys by a mile and is the cuddliest, most precious, sweetest, and squishiest ever. Everyone who meets him falls in love with his smile. When we were considering taking guardianship of Sasha we felt like the Lord told us that Sasha would bring us joy. That has been the truth. He had the easiest transition to family life and just brings us tons of joy with his singing and his wide smile that lights up his whole face. He thinks he’s smaller than he is and will try to climb you like a tree if he wants to be held. But, in fact, we are pretty certain that Sasha is going to turn out to be a giant. He’s growing like a weed and his huge hands and feet show no signs of that slowing down any time soon. He’s so big and just solid!

Sasha’s development is slow and he often seems to be in his own world. He’ll get fixated on a toy or a water bottle (his item of choice) and he’s a goner. But, some new developments are that he will now often turn his head when his name is called and when food is being cooked he’ll make his way to the kitchen in expectation. Those are big things! It shows that he is becoming more engaged in the world around him. Sasha is very musical and loves to sing. He can even count to 10! Now, he totally doesn’t know what numbers are or that he’s counting, but the team counts to 10 each day during yoga and he is repeating what he hears. He even does it with the same intonation as the team. It’s so cute.

Sasha loves cuddles, eating (I think he’s the neatest eater of our boys), his toys, old Soviet children’s songs, and being with the people who love him. We love Sasha deeply and are so very thankful God has put him in our family.

How you can pray for Sasha: Pray for Sasha to continue to become more engaged in the world around him. Pray for good control, or even healing! of his epilepsy. Pray for our team to have wisdom in how to best reach Sasha and teach him new things.

Yaroslav joined our family this past April, is now 27 years old, and lives in Side A of the duplex with Vova, Lesya, and Carlos the cat. Oh Yaroslav (aka Yarik, Yaroslavchik). Yaroslav gives us a run for our money, just like we always knew he would when we dreamed of getting him out of the institution. He is such a character! I think anyone who has ever visited the Isolation Hall at Romaniv remembers Yarik well. He is just someone that is impossible to miss. He is full of so much life, energy, charisma, and fire- you just can’t help but react to his energy. Sometimes I look at him and I just can’t believe that he is here with us and not at the institution. He was such a presence there!

If you’ll remember, Jed brought him and Vova straight out of the institution and to Germany where they were refugees with us in the church. It was a really miraculous story and I think that’s why it’s sometimes still a little hard to believe it happened. We don’t have official guardianship of Yaroslav and Vova but will start the paperwork process for that this next week. We’ll have a big celebration when they are legally members of our family, but in our hearts, they are already ours.

Yarik has grown and changed a lot since we brought him out of the institution in April. He walks so much better, it’s really incredible. He has good days and bad days, as far as mobility and coordination, but most of the time he is completely independent in his walking. He needs a wheelchair for longer walks, but around the house he is independent. He is learning, slowly but surely, about boundaries and the rules of how to live in a family, but he is sooooo smart. We know he’ll get it. He’s much smarter than we ever realized before. He understands cause and effect, consequences for poor choices, and all sorts of things. He likes “helping” in the kitchen and drinking coffee, but most of all he loves people. Yaroslav longs for love and attention. Like all the rest of our boys, after living a lifetime full of neglect and abuse, his need for love and attention is like a bottomless pit that will never be filled. Sometimes his attention-seeking behaviors can be pretty destructive and tiring to manage, but we know that his journey of healing has only just begun and it won’t always be like it is now. We have hope for his future.

We dreamed of having Yarik in our family for years. I’m so thankful that dream finally came true!

How you can pray for Yaroslav: Yarik has pretty fragile health, so prayers for his health and physical wholeness would be appreciated. We recently did some genetic testing but are still waiting for the results. We want to know how to best care for his physical body and hopefully, we’ll get some answers in that testing. Please pray for Yarik and his brokenness in attachment. He is highly emotional and extremely dysregulated, especially when it comes to relationships. Please pray for him to have peace in his heart and mind, and to better understand the immense love God has for him.

Vova joined our family this past April, is now 27 years old, and lives in Side A of the duplex with Lesya, Yaroslav, and Carlos the cat. I am so so excited to share with you about our Vova (aka Vovka, Vovchik)! Vova is doing absolutely fantastic and his journey of healing over the past 8 months has been nothing short of miraculous. I am just in awe of God’s love for Vova. When Vova was in the institution we heard a rumor that he had Phenylketonuria (PKU), but the diagnosis was not in his paperwork. Once we took him out of the institution and I began to read up on untreated PKU and its symptoms, the more I was convinced that Vova was suffering from that disorder. The wait to get testing and help for PKU in Germany was months long and we ended up returning home before anyone there could help us, but FINALLY, in September we got the official diagnosis. To put it simply, PKU is an inborn error of metabolism that prevents the body from processing an amino acid found in protein. For someone with PKU, protein is toxic to the brain and when left untreated, the person develops a severe intellectual disability. Our Vova’s PKU was untreated for 27 years. 🙁 The only treatment for PKU is a carefully controlled low-protein diet and the introduction of medical food, which provides Vova with a form of protein his body can use. In the US and most other developed countries when a baby is diagnosed with PKU their treatment is overseen by a team of specialists: a doctor, nurse, and dietician. But here in Ukraine, there is a doctor…and me. She basically gave us a couple cans of formula, a list of foods Vova can’t eat, and a wish for good luck. Ha! Let’s just say that my learning curve has been steep. But, over the past 3 months, our team has worked together and we have Vova’s PKU under good control. I do the research and math, write his weekly menu, and go grocery shopping for his special foods. We hired our friend, Inna, and she comes once a week to the duplex to cook for Vova. She has to weigh everything as she cooks and then portions out each meal by weight. Everything goes in the freezer and then the team just consults the menu and pulls out his meals for each day. It’s the only way a team of people could accurately treat his PKU. It’s a lot of work, but it’s going well!

At first, I think the team was a bit skeptical, and I’ll admit, I was too. We knew that some of the effects of untreated PKU are irreversible, but we hoped to see some sort of change after the diet was started, even if it was small. It’s just impossible to know which aspects of Vova’s disability are caused by the untreated PKU and which aspects are caused by him living in Romaniv all those years. The only way to find out was to begin treating the PKU and watch what would happen. I didn’t expect much, but Vova is changing and it is miraculous to watch! He is making so much intentional eye contact. He is happier, more peaceful. A previous doctor told us he had cerebral palsy because he was so spastic, but the geneticist (our PKU doc) thought the spasticity was more related to his untreated PKU. She was right. His muscles are still tight, but nothing like they were before. Untreated PKU has a really horrid smell and the whole house just reeked of it. No more! Vova smells fresh and clean every day. Vova used to yell a lot- kind of like a singing yell, but super loud and once he started you couldn’t get him to stop. He would randomly start yelling in church, in the car, anywhere. Now he barely ever does that and when he begins you can sometimes get him to stop just by talking to him. Another major thing is that he has started to toilet train! He was fully in diapers and had no interest in the toilet before, but now he will go there himself! He needs help, but he shows when he wants the toilet. It’s unbelievable. He is like a different person.

I am so thankful for our doctor here who has come to truly care for Vova and is so helpful to us. There is a wonderful community of Ukrainians with PKU who have donated their extra formula to us to get us by until the government starts to provide it to Vova in the new year. Our team has done a great job of following instructions and being careful with Vova’s diet. It is truly a team effort and we are rocking it. I’m just thrilled and thankful that Vova has this opportunity to truly LIVE. It’s just great.

How you can pray for Vova: Please pray for continued healing of Vova’s brain and body from the years of untreated PKU. Pray for a reversal of the harm it has done to his body. Please pray for Vova to grow in understanding of our love for him and God’s love for him and for him to learn to trust more. Pray that he would not be afraid.

Thank you again, for walking this journey with us. Thank you for loving our boys and caring about their lives. Thank you for supporting this work so that our boys could be free and live lives full of love. We are thankful!

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An Update on Our Boys, Part 1

We’re nearing the end of a doozy of a year and I realized, amidst all the talk of war and peace, I haven’t updated you on our boys in quite some time. This whole work exists because of them and for them, so I figured you might be wondering how they are doing! If you follow our team’s Instagram account or subscribe to our newsletter you have definitely seen pics of our fellows, but really good updates have been few and far between. So, consider this my end-of-year gift to you- part 1. We just have too many boys these days to try to write one big blog post about all of them. That’s a good problem to have! In this post I’ll share about Vlad, Boris, Ruslan, and Anton, and then in the next post, I’ll write about Sasha, Yaroslav, and Vova. Let’s dive in!

Vlad joined our family in 2015, is now 22 years old, and is living in Oregon Vladislav (aka Vlad, Vladik, Vladchik, Vlad the Builder, Vlad the Chicken Man) is doing fantastic! Many of you commented after his latest Youtube appearance that he was like a completely different person and I have to say that you’re not wrong. Vlad has grown and changed in ways we could have never imagined. When we adopted him 7 years ago he was barely verbal and whatever words he did have were barely intelligible. Now he is fluent in Ukrainian and English (and understands Russian) and is understood well by most people, most of the time. Vlad is crazy smart and crazy creative. We are so proud of the man he is becoming.

Vlad currently lives in Oregon with my parents. After our time as refugees in Germany, our Johnson family decided to make a quick visit to Oregon to see family and to do some Wide Awake business. Right before we left Germany to head to Oregon we had the idea to leave Vlad there for some time. Vlad has a lot of issues with his teeth and the structure of his mouth. Those issues have worsened drastically over the years and no one in Ukraine will even touch him. I get it- it’s a bit of a hot mess in there. There is an orthodontist in Oregon who years ago had offered to treat Vlad for free. We were thankful but knew we could never relocate our family to Oregon for the time it would take to treat Vlad’s mouth. But Vlad has grown, matured, and changed so much, we decided that he was ready to be in Oregon for his treatment without us. It kind of felt like a “now or never” moment. We asked my parents if Vlad could live with them, and they said yes! My mom just retired in May, so she has the time now to support Vlad that she wouldn’t have had before. I was able to visit Vlad there in November and he is absolutely thriving with my parents. We could never ever express to them how very thankful we are for their love and support of Vlad. It means the world to us.

In November Vlad began working in landscaping at a local company that employs people with disabilities. He only went to work once, then got sick, then visited us in Ukraine, but he arrives back in Oregon today and next week will get to begin working twice a week. He is loved by his church family and some of our friends back in Oregon. He is just doing great!! Also, his teeth are really changing. It’s exciting to see that progress. Vlad is happy, healthy, and thriving.

How you can pray for Vlad: Pray for peace in Vlad’s heart while he is away from us. He really does worry about us and our safety. He thinks about the war here and I know he feels a lot of emotions about it. Also, please pray that he would find friendship at his new job. I would just love for him to have a friend there.

Boris joined our family in 2017, is now 30 years old, and lives in our home. Boris (aka Bmo, Borya, Borka, Beemchick, Beemchick my Weemchick) has been in our family for 5 years! I can’t even believe that, but it also feels like he’s just always been with us. We love our Bmo. This year has been a rough one for our Mister Man. I mean, who am I kidding, it’s been a rough one for us all. But Bmo has really shown us with his body how stressful, difficult, and confusing 2022 has been for him. Navigating war, living as refugees, and then entering back into life in a country still at war has been challenging for all of our boys. Their understanding of the situation is limited, and for the ones who are nonverbal, it’s even harder because we don’t know how much they do and don’t understand and we don’t know what worries they hold inside of them. When we lived in the church all together in Germany Boris struggled soooo much. Who knows? Maybe he thought that was our new permanent home. Maybe he thought “Well, I guess this is what our life is now…” He was very vocal about his frustration with life there and he regressed in many of his skills and abilities. It was really heartbreaking to see, and actually, his regression ultimately helped us make the decision to return home to Ukraine. His suffering was painful to watch and there was nothing we could do to make it better for him. So hard. Transitioning back to life here in Ukraine has been good for our Bmo, but it has not been easy. It’s not like we got back home, the switch was flipped, and he was suddenly back to his old self. If only. No, it has been a hard road of recovery, but bit by bit he is getting back to where he was before the war began. We’re still in a war zone though, so some of our struggles will remain until the war ends and we can truly begin to feel safe and secure again…whatever that may look like. It’s honestly hard to imagine feeling truly safe again, but even still, we pray for God to comfort Bmo and bring him peace in his heart. He has made great strides since we returned home in July. We just keep loving him and helping him to feel secure in his place in our home and family. Boris is a gift to our family and I truly can’t imagine our lives without him.

How you can pray for Boris: Please pray for Boris to have peace and calm in his heart and mind. He is sooooo stressed much of the time. He even shakes because of the tension in his body. He isn’t harming himself, but he is very obviously not at peace.

Ruslan joined our family in 2018, is now 35 years old, and lives in an apartment with our team member, Luda. I would say that out of all of our boys Ruslan (aka Rus, Ruslanchik) has grown and changed the most over this past year. It’s absolutely incredible to see how much he has matured! Rus really doesn’t like change, especially when it is unexpected. He is a big fan of routine and knowing what comes next. So, as you can imagine, we were quite concerned about how Ruslan would do when we evacuated to Germany. I am amazed to say that Ruslan did amazingly well in Germany, and he even thrived there. If you would have told me a year ago that Rus would sleep in a room with 7 other people and do just fine I would have laughed in your face. But he did! He slept with 7 other people in one room. He lived with 39 other people in the church and was mostly happy. It was truly miraculous. One massive saving grace was that in Germany Ruslan was able to work. A place that employs people with disabilities took Rus and Vlad under their wing and the two of them were able to go to work 5 days a week. I think if Ruslan hadn’t had the stability of the work he would have really struggled in Germany. It was such a loving, positive environment and Ruslan really thrived there. We are so thankful for that experience.

After we returned home to Ukraine Ruslan began working at the electrical shop where Vlad used to work before the war. Our friend, Dima, really believes in the value of our guys and dreams of providing more work for people like our boys. His team likes having Rus there and Ruslan feels so proud to have occupation. He is slowly learning how to do different tasks and Dima even makes up work for Rus, just so he feels that he is helpful and needed there. It’s really great. Ruslan works at Dima’s shop Monday through Thursday for a little over 2 hours a day. We are super thankful to Dima for loving Rus and providing him with the possibility to work.

Ruslan is fun-loving, and caring, and really loves to pray and go to church. We love him so very much!

How you can pray for Ruslan: Pray for Ruslan to continue to grow in wisdom and to truly know that he is loved.

Anton joined our family in 2018, is now 34 years old, and lives in Side B of the duplex with Grant, Sasha, and Lois the cat. Our precious Anton (aka Antoshka, Antoha, Antonchik) has gained so many words over this past year! When we first took Anton from the institution he could say one word, the Ukrainian word for “God”. If you asked him who loved him he would answer “God”. Over the years he has learned to mimic a lot of words that people say and sometimes repeat after them, but this year he has begun to say a lot of words independently! It’s really great when he can express his wants and desires and we can only hope that his verbal skills will keep growing because I think better communication is key to helping Anton when his emotions are too big to handle. He is a high-emotion dude and in the past, any negative emotion would be expressed in anger. He is now able to sometimes express sadness too, which is a big step!

Germany was pretty rough on our Antoshka. Our living situation was basically like a mini institution and he absolutely did not thrive in that environment. It was no surprise to us that he struggled. Actually, I’m pretty amazed he held it together as long as he did! I didn’t really talk about it publicly, but in May we ended up sending Anton from Germany back to Ukraine to live with our team members that had remained here at the Homestead. Anton was struggling so hard and his aggression was growing and growing. He basically became a 1:1 and since there were so many vulnerable people living all together and no way to isolate him, there was just no way for us to keep people safe. It was actually a really tragic and impossible decision. We felt we had no option. We had to remove him from the church, but there was nowhere for him to go but home. Oleg and Maxim, two of our team members, were living here at the Homestead so Grant drove Anton to the border of Ukraine where Oleg met them and took Anton home. Although we felt we had no other alternative, it ended up being the best decision ever for Anton. We knew our guys could keep him safe and if things were to go bad here they could easily put him in the car and drive to Western Ukraine. We didn’t worry about his physical safety, but we definitely worried about his emotional state and how he would feel, being separated from all of us. His understanding is really limited, so we knew he would be super confused and sad. But, Oleg and Maxim did a great job with him and actually, once Anton was back here we knew it was just a matter of time before everyone else joined him. We are his guardians. We knew we couldn’t stay a couple of countries away from him for long. He just gave us the kickstart we needed. 🙂

Since returning home Anton has done fairly well. He has his good seasons and hard seasons, but overall I would say he has had more good times than bad times. He is surrounded by people who love him dearly and he knows it. He is happy, healthy, and growing and he is very precious to us.

How you can pray for Anton: Please pray for Anton to learn to care for others. Pray for him to learn to express his emotions without aggression toward others.

Thank you for loving our boys! I know much of the growth they have experienced is because of the faithful prayers of the people who love them. They are all on journeys of healing and we are so honored to walk beside them and to be their family. Thank you for helping to make their freedom possible.

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Good News on Good Friday ❤️

Good News on Good Friday ❤️

We have some wonderful, exciting news of freedom to share with you!

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How Are the Boys?

It’s been a while since I wrote an update about all our boys, right? I tried valiantly, for a while, to do the prayer team updates once a month, but I got a little burned out on that. It just ended up being too much. So…it kinda fizzled. Sorry about that. 🤷‍♀️ I’ll make it up to you now with an update about each of the boys you love so much. As you’ll see below, they are just doing really, really well. We are thankful that right now all of our boys are happy, healthy, and thriving.

Vlad. Can you believe our Vlad is 21 years old now? He’s officially an adult, so he’s working hard at learning how an adult should behave and taking on more adult responsibilities. Vlad has taken on the responsibility of caring for the goats along with the chickens and I have to admit that I get a good chuckle watching him try to wrangle them into the yard at night. It is a sight to behold and probably the only time you will ever see Vlad angry at any living being. 😂 He still goes to work at the electrical shop 3 days a week for about 4 hours and it’s going “okay”. There are good days, and not so good days. Vlad has the most wonderful, kind, patient boss, but it’s still a challenge for him to stay focused and motivated at work without mom or dad there to keep him in line 🤦‍♀️. I hope he can keep his job, but he’s going to need to rise up to the challenge if he wants to keep working. We’re also searching for the balance of what kind of work can challenge Vlad so he can grow, but also work in which he can be successful. It’s all one big experiment.

Physically, Vlad is doing great. We decided to wait until next winter to being working on his orthodontics back in the US. Right now he is needs a lot of support from us and it just doesn’t seem like the right time for him to be so far away. We’ll see! He is generally happy and thriving. The other day he brought me his Christmas list that he wrote out himself. It was written in a mixture of Ukrainian and English and it just made me smile. He is such a joy and we are thankful that he is our son.

Boris. Our sweet Bmo is doing so great!! He really is growing and changing right now. He has started to communicate more and more of his needs and desires and I think that brings him joy- when we understand him. He mostly communicates by bringing us the thing he wants (like a cup when he wants a drink, or his blanket when he wants to sleep), but he also will occasionally use cards. It’s encouraging to see him trying to communicate. He’s also using the toilet more frequently with great success. We are all super happy about that!

Boris is still med-free and self-harm-free. We stopped giving him meds at the beginning of last year and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t hit himself even once. I’m still in awe of that miracle. I never dreamed he would have a life without hurting himself. He has been laughing a lot lately and is just generally really happy and content. The past couple of weeks he has been vocalizing more too! It’s so strange to hear consonant sounds coming from his mouth. What if someday he speaks!? 🤩

Ruslan. Rus is still living with Luda and her son, Nazar, in an apartment in town and it is great. Luda is really the perfect person for Ruslan and they do so well together. She gives him a lot of independence and he is thriving in that. He is growing and maturing, emotionally, and is all-around happy! Of course, he still has his moments when trauma rears its ugly head, but he is growing in that. He is better able to handle unexpected changes in plans and negative emotions. The team has been working hard on that with him.

Ruslan loves meeting friends for coffee. When he goes to a cafe he always orders a “cappuccinko”. 😂 He is so super social and I love watching him at church, how he walks up and greets all the different people he knows. Such a man! I’m really proud of Ruslan. He is making great strides and brings us a lot of joy and laughter. In the past, my relationship with him has gone through some difficulties, but God has brought a lot of healing to my heart and I’m so thankful that I am in a place right now where I can just delight in Ruslan. He is a precious gift to our family and our team. 🥰

Anton. Antoshka is talking up a storm! In the past, Anton has really only spoken we have asked him to, when was repeating after us, or when he was angry. But right now he is in a season of exploding vocabulary! He is talking on his own accord and saying things we have never heard him say before. He’s singing a lot too, which usually is a sign with him that all is well. He’s in a really good place these days.

Back in the late summer, early fall he was really stressed and had lost some weight. He was looking pretty skinny and just not healthy, in general. But, over the last two months, he has gained 12 pounds! Anton really shows us his emotional well-being through his body- his skin coloring, his weight. So a chubby Anton is a happy Anton. And that makes the rest of us happy too. 🥰 Anton is taking more “responsibility” for Sasha and will even take things away from him if he knows Sasha is holding something he’s not allowed to have. The other day I was in the kitchen at the duplex and I heard Anton yell “Sashaaaaaaa!!!” I ran to the bathroom and Sasha was trying to climb into the (empty) bathtub while Anton was trying to stop him. Big brother was watching out for Sasha. 😊 This is huge because in the past Anton has really only ever seemed to care about Anton. The fact that he is watching Sasha and interacting with him like that is actually a big step for Anton. I’m proud. ❤️

Sasha. Oh Sasha. He just brings us all so much joy! I remember back when we first decided to pursue guardianship of Sasha, we felt the Lord speak to us that he would bring joy to us all, and that has totally been true. His transition to family life has been the easiest of all the boys- by a mile. He was just ready! He is the cuddliest, sweetest man-child (😆) ever. Often Sasha is in content in his own world, but as time goes by he is more and more willing to engage. He responds to his name now (sometimes) and will follow some simple commands. Sasha loves to cuddle, sing, run, spin in circles, play with water bottles, and grab everything in sight that he’s not supposed to have. 😉 He also really loves to eat, but I think that goes without saying. He is a 15-year-old boy, after all and he’s growing like a weed. He’s about to grow out of all of his pants and has gained about 25lbs. since he came home to us in May. 😱

Sasha has epilepsy and when he came to us he was on two medications: one he took twice a day and one he took three times a day. Now, six months later, he takes only one of those medications, twice a day. Woot! The neurologist is happy with the changes in Sasha’s brain activity and now that he is on less medication he is more interactive and alert throughout the day. Sleep is sometimes a bit hit or miss, but mostly fine. We are just so incredibly thankful that Sasha is in our family and we all adore him. He is a gift.

Thanks to everyone who prays for our boys. It is such a joy to share how they are developing and changing. Sometimes it feels like we struggle with the same things over and over, month after month, year after year, (because we do…😜) but when I sit down and write out an update like this I marvel at how much they really have grown! These are not little children we are talking about! Besides Sasha, these are grown men, yet they still change and grow. They have so much to overcome every single day, but they do it. They allow us into their worlds and they let us love them. And then they love us back. I know I’ve said it a bazillion times, but I just can’t even begin to imagine our lives without our boys. They are God’s gifts to us.

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