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.
A little over a month ago I had had it with our boys and their feet. Ruslan had once again walked a hole through the bottom of his shoes and another PT had told us that he couldn’t help, and said in fact “No one in Ukraine can help you.” In the throes of frustration, I decided to put it out to the wonderful Wide Awake community to see if any of you knew someone who could help our Ruslan. We had exhausted our resources here in Ukraine and at last, decided it was time to look outside our borders for help. I wrote a blog post asking for help or recommendations for Ruslan and was blown away by all of you! You all came out of the woodwork with ideas and offers to reach out to doctors on Ruslan’s behalf. Many of you even told me that you had been following us for a long time but this was your first time reaching out- and I was so so glad to hear from you! It was really encouraging to see how many of you deeply care for our boys. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
I am so pleased and thankful and EXCITED to share with you that a medical team and hospital in California have agreed to treat Ruslan’s foot for free!! It’s really going to happen! I’m still a bit in shock and I’m not sure I’ll believe it’s real until Jed and Ruslan land there in California, but believe it or not, we are moving forward in faith and doing the work on our end to make it happen. It’s so exciting, right?
Who? How? WHAAAAAAAT? I know you are dying to know the details. Sit tight and I’ll tell you. ☺️ Just a few days after I wrote the post asking for help I got an email from a super kind lady in Oregon who had been following us for years, but whom I’ve never met. We have a mutual friend ❤️ from my days working as a nurse in Oregon. She told me that she has a brother who works as an anesthesiologist at a hospital in California. She read our blog, reached out to him, and right away he was interested in helping. The anesthesiologist asked his friend, the surgeon if he was on board and he also agreed! Then that most kind anesthesiologist wrote to the hospital and the hospital answered YES! In a matter of just a few weeks, God put us in contact with the kindest people with the most generous hearts and it’s a go!
I waited a couple of weeks to share this with you because we had to figure out the issue of getting Ruslan a visa. I wanted that situation somewhat in hand before I spilled the beans. Right now, during wartime, the US embassy in Kyiv is not issuing any visas. That means that we had to find an embassy in another country at which to schedule a visa interview. Embassies always prioritize the residents of the country where the embassy is located and on most of the websites, it said that nonresidents would need to wait until 2024 for a visa interview. We really, really didn’t want to wait a year for this surgery when we have doctors and a hospital willing and able to do it whenever we’re ready! But, we worked it out and Ruslan has a visa appointment in July in Bucharest, Romania. We will need to move the date out a bit, but at least we are in their system! That was the most important part. The tentative plan as of now is for Ruslan and Jed to travel to Romania for the visa in late July or early August and then fly straight from Bucharest to California for the surgery. Once the surgery is done Ruslan will be non-weight bearing for 6 weeks. So, all together Jed and Rus will likely be gone for about 2 months. As our new anesthesiologist friend wrote, “Oh what a great adventure we are starting together” 🙂
How you can help:Jed and Ruslan will be in the Santa Cruz area for the surgery. Do any of you live near there? We do have lodging covered for Jed and Ruslan for the time they will be in California. What we definitely need help with is a car. If any of you have contacts in the area who might have an extra car that Jed could use for several weeks in early August it would be a great help. Also, any help with meals or groceries would also be just a wonderful gift. Those first few days back at the guest lodging with Rus will likely be quite difficult and any support any of you could offer Jed would be a blessing to him and Ruslan both. If you live in the area and would like to help in any way, we would love to hear from you! You can email me at email@example.com
Thank you again to everyone who went for bat for Ruslan over the past month. We are really thankful for every effort made on his behalf. We don’t take it lightly and are honored that you would speak out. I promise to keep you updated on this journey toward wholeness for our Rus. Praise God for his great love for our boys!
I know I’ve said it before, but here I am saying it again: our boys are superheroes. They really are! They are survivors. After all they endured while living in the institution, they still enjoy life and have learned to love and trust others, all the while daily overcoming the limitations of their physical bodies. They are forces to be reckoned with.
Our Ruslan is a mega-superhero. Is that a thing? Well, I just made it one. 🙂 He has a foot that is pretty severely deformed, and he has never had a shoe that actually fit, but he never ever complains about it. He has to limp when he walks, which over the years has transformed his hips and spine as he compensates for the limp, but he rarely even complains about any discomfort in his body. On the one hand it’s awesome because it just shows how strong he is. But on the other hand it’s sad, the fact that he has just adapted to the pain and has zero expectation that his body could change for the better. Ruslan has resigned himself to his broken body, but the rest of us have not. We want something better for him and won’t stop looking until we find a way to help.
It is not our practice at Wide Awake/Dim Hidnosti to immediately search in other countries for help for our boys, but to try to use only local resources whenever possible. One of our goals is to create something that can be replicated by Ukrainians in other parts of the country. If we rely too heavily on western help we are creating an unsustainable model that is only achievable with western connections. We want to be a spark of change in the culture here and are always on the lookout for local like-minded medical professionals who want to partner with us to help improve the lives of people with disabilities. At the same time, we recognize that this is an extremely difficult time here in Ukraine and sometimes outside help is what is needed. This is one of those moments.
Over the past four years we have searched and searched and have not been able to find any help for Ruslan here in Ukraine. Doctors don’t want to touch him and physical therapists say it is much too late for anything to be done. We tried to find a place where they could make him some special shoes, but only one company agreed to try and their attempt looked like Frankenstein shoes! I kid you not- they were like props from a horror movie. I think Rus lasted about 5 days before he just refused to put them on. They were so heavy and clunky (not to mention uuuuuuugly). He could barely walk in them. No other companies will even try to make shoes for Ruslan. Last week a PT told us “No one in Ukraine can help you. No one.” Hmmmm not exactly encouraging.
Alright, so we haven’t had any luck finding help here in Ukraine, but we refuse to just sit down and accept that. Rus is a young man and he has his whole life ahead of him. Surely we can do something to improve the quality of that life! If we don’t, his posture will only get worse and I fear that someday he won’t be able to walk anymore at all. We have to stay on this and not let it go.
So, now I’m coming to you, our awesome Wide Awake community. Will you help us search for help for Ruslan? We are looking for knowledgeable medical professionals who can become a resource for us and help us to understand the steps we should take to help Ruslan walk better and more comfortably. I have no idea what a solution for Rus even looks like.
Do we need to try to fix Ruslan’s foot with surgical interventions? If so, where can we do that? We need a surgeon to donate his time and a hospital to donate their facilities. Ruslan is a Ukrainian citizen, but he could easily get a visa to the US, for example, because Jed is his guardian and Jed is a US citizen. Several years ago we got a visa for Boris that way with zero problems.
Is surgery impossible or too big a risk and we need special shoes made? Great! Who can make the shoes and where do we need to go to make that happen? Our current solution is buying whatever shoe we find that will “semi” stay on his foot and then replacing it every 2-3 months because he walks a hole into it. Not to mention he has to stop every few meters and put his shoe back on because only the ball of his foot stays in the shoe.
Is there some sort of nonprofit out there that helps people like Ruslan and we need to start by connecting with them? Great! Send their contacts my way and I’ll get on it.
We have been advised by an American PT and by Ukrainian PT’s that no therapy will help Ruslan’s foot. Everything is fused in place and the foot is not flexible at all. PT is helpful for strengthening his leg and helping with his back, but as long as he limps the way he does, he will have problems with his hips and back. It seems that we’ve got to start with the foot.
If any of you have any connections to share with me I would greatly appreciate it. Please feel free to pass this need on to others. Surely, there’s got to be someone out there who knows how to help our guy. Let’s find that person together!
If you have any info or leads on help for Ruslan you can comment on this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.orgThanks!
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.
So, what exactly do we even do here in Ukraine? Wide Awake International has a lot of moving parts and I don’t blame you if you have a bit of a hard time keeping them all straight 😆. In this episode, I introduce our boys and our team, explain the full picture of what we are doing here in Ukraine, and describe the different focuses of our work here. It’s an info-heavy episode…you’ve been warned!
PS: My brother, the super-talented Matt Bittner, is our new sound designer for the podcast! The music is his and it’s perfect.
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.
This past week was a big milestone for our family. We celebrated three years of freedom for Anton and Ruslan. Three years!! It seems like they have been with us for so much longer. It’s a little hard to remember life without them. Three years ago when we brought them out of Romaniv to join our family we committed to them for life. We committed to love them and care for them always. We naively thought we knew them then. Now I think of how much they’ve changed and I can see that we really didn’t know them at all. They had never had the opportunity to truly be known, and I’m incredibly thankful that now they are loved and known and treasured by many, many people.
If you’ve followed our journey for a while you know that life with Ruslan and Anton has not been an easy one. We have had our fair share of struggles along the way. When we committed to them for life we thought we knew what that would look like. We thought they would live with us in our home, like Boris, forever. Well, that dream lasted a year and a half, and then we realized it was 100% not sustainable. Together we have journeyed through times of great joy and great sorrow, great healing and great pain, great suffering and great hope. It has been a massive rollercoaster. BUT- I am happy to report that God has always been with us. He has never left us or our boys and he has always given us exactly what we needed. He has taught us and helped us and we are all better having traveled this path.
Ruslan is living with Luda, a member of our team, and her teenage son, Nazar. They live in an apartment about 10 minutes away from our village and Ruslan is doing FABULOUSLY well. He is happy and thriving. Since living in the apartment he has grown so much in independence. We are seeing now the man that God created Ruslan to be and we are so proud of him. He brings us lots of laughs and his love for “cappuccinkos” rivals the biggest coffee fanatics’ out there. 😂 Ruslan still struggles a lot with the trauma of his past and life with him is not all butterflies and unicorns, but Luda has great patience and they really are suited so well for life together. God blessed us abundantly when he brought us our dear Luda. What a gift.
Anton is living in the duplex, right outside our back door, with Max, Morgan, and Sasha. Life in the duplex is the best of both worlds for our Antoshka. We learned that he’s not well-suited for life in a big family, and over time it became unsafe for him to live with our family since we have small children in the home. But, he really does best when he is close to us and can see us every day. He’s a mama’s boy and I love him right back, so the duplex is the perfect place for him. Also, the proximity allows Jed and I to be a support when Anton is struggling. Man, I’m so thankful for that home! Anton has also grown and changed so much in the past three years. He is saying more words and we are all learning how he communicates and what he needs in his environment to thrive. He still struggles with anger and aggression, but he is also learning about sadness. He is learning that it’s okay to be sad and not every negative emotion he feels needs to go straight to anger. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to make mistakes. Over and over our team shows him that he is loved no matter what. His road to healing has been a steep one, but we love him dearly and we will not stop walking with him.
Last Sunday, on the anniversary of Ruslan and Anton’s freedom, our family picked them up before church and took them out for coffee. It was the first time it was just the 11 of us since Anton and Ruslan lived with us. I can’t even tell you what a precious time it was. Every time I think of it I get all emotional! We have all come so far together. I just kept looking at their faces and feeling overcome with thankfulness that they are our family. I was reminded of what blessings they are and what an honor it is to love them and be loved by them. When our boys love, they do so without restraint. They have like a sixth sense about people and when they feel that you truly love them you will have a friend for life. They are our precious, precious gifts from God and I so needed that reminder.
Sometimes in the daily grind of life here our focus can shift. We can get caught up in problem-solving, scheduling, budgeting, and team management. Our boys can easily become problems to be taken care of or tasks to completed. We always love them, but their demands and needs are so great that if we aren’t careful they can become our “burdens” when God is inviting us to recognize that they are our blessings. They are so valuable and our lives are forever changed because of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I have had seasons of feeling burdened by the responsibility of our boys. The responsibility for their lives is huge! But that responsibility is an honor- not a burden. My prayer is that our hearts will always remain soft to our boys. That in the good times and the bad we would recognize that they are our blessings- our gifts. They bring us joy. They teach us to love unconditionally. In loving them and caring for them our own weaknesses are brought to light and we have the great privilege of working that stuff out and not being allowed to just sit in that place of weakness and selfishness. As their lives are changed, so our lives are changed. Not one of us remains the same on this journey of bringing the lonely into family. Praise God for that. ❤️
You know how it is when you get so close to something that you can’t really see it clearly? What’s that saying? “Can’t see the forest for the trees”. Yeah, that’s me. I get so involved in the details of our day to day work, that it’s hard to pick my head up and see the big picture of what God is doing. I get bogged down in diapers and feeding people and the team schedule and documents, and can easily forget what we are actually aiming for in Ukraine. I mean, of course our work is our ministry is our life- all wrapped up in one, so I’m always “doing the stuff”, but sometimes I can kind of miss the heart of it when the details overwhelm.
It really is necessary though, to pick my head up every so often and remember why we are doing what we are doing. It’s important to pull back a bit and recognize the bigger picture of what God is doing. A good way to do that is to leave our life for a few weeks and watch the work happen from a distance. 🙂 We aren’t in Ukraine right now and we don’t have much control over what happens there while we are gone. We get to sit back and watch our team do their thing from a distance. The only glimpses we get of our Anton and Ruslan are videos and pics from the team- and that bit of distance, well, it does wonders for the heart.
From a distance I can see more clearly how far our boys have come. Man, I’m so proud of them! I see them safe and loved and I see a team that is working so hard to help them in any way they can. I see a group of people committed to changing their country and I see their dedication to do this thing right. I see them building something amazing. I see how God has provided everything we’ve needed right on time, and my faith is built up again as I remember that He will continue to be faithful in the days ahead. We have some very pressing needs coming up soon, so this increase in faith is much needed. (And, it has to be said that I definitely have not arrived. I still lose sleep over those pressing needs…but I’m deciding to trust Jesus in those wee morning hours instead of losing more sleep)
From a distance the rough patches in my heart begin to soften again as I rest and regain perspective. If you have been close to this work at all then you know that my relationship with our Ruslan has been a difficult one. We know that we know that God asked us to take Ruslan out of the institution. We don’t question that. But, it has not been an easy road for me at all. Ruslan struggles with his relationship with women- not in an unsafe way, but still in a very real way, and his feelings for me are a jumbled up mess. We realized after he had lived with us for over a year that it would be much better for him to live with only men, or with a much older woman. That played a part in the decision for him to move from our home last February. That, and then his increased need for independence and anxiety living with a large family. It just made a whole lot of sense on a lot of levels for him to move to an apartment.
Even after Ruslan moved out of our home, I still struggled with my feelings toward him. It was just so hard for me to live with him, and my heart felt let down, guilty, and ashamed of how difficult it was. I felt shame for a long time that I was “unable” to live with Ruslan any longer. I know there was no reason to feel shame and guilt, but those feelings were/are still there. I had many months of questioning God and asking him why he asked us to choose Ruslan when he knew we would not be able to keep him in our home, and when he knew how hard it would be for me. It’s been a journey. But, getting just a bit of distance has really helped my heart.
Earlier this week I was writing an update to Ruslan’s prayer team and I compiled a video of him, showcasing his love for music. In one part of the videos he is singing his favorite worship song and just going for it. He is worshiping with his whole heart and when I watched it my heart just broke. I remembered again where he came from and my heart softened again as I thought of all the terror and abuse he has endured in his life. I felt just so darn thankful that God asked us to take him from that horrible place. I can’t imagine him there!! He belongs with us. He is ours. Yes, living with him was the most difficult time of my life. Yes, I still don’t understand fully God’s purposes in it. Yes, I still have some places in my heart that need healing, but 100 times YES I am thankful that our guy is free. My heart needed that view from a distance.
When I look at our work in Ukraine from a distance I get so excited about what God is doing. Guys, it is amazing. It is freedom work. It is justice work. It is life-saving work. I’m just so pumped to be a part of it. It’s good to feel that again. 🙂