Category: This Ukrainian Life

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On Star-Gazing and Homesteading

I didn’t grow up close to nature. Sure, we would go camping as kids, and those times are some of my fondest memories, but I wouldn’t say we were a “nature family” by any stretch of the imagination. We were more of an after-school activity, church, sports, Saturday-morning cartoon family. We had a couple cats when I was little, but they either ran away or we had to give them away when we moved…I can’t remember. And I had a few guinea pigs over the years. Fun fact: my first guinea pig’s name was Hudson Taylor. I was a weird kid, but I knew where my life was headed, I guess. What I’m getting at, is the extent of my childhood knowledge of farm life was limited to my heavy consumption of Little House on the Prairie (the TV series, not the books, thankyouverymuch).

When we lived in the US, before we were aware of Ukraine at all, Jed and I talked and dreamed about having some land, homesteading a bit. It wasn’t anything we were ever ready to seriously look into, but we dreamed of it someday in the future. I’m not even sure what sparked that dream. I guess we liked the idea of planting and growing things, of having space for our kids to run, of getting our hands dirty and caring for animals. Jed had a bit more experience with all that than I did, but not much. For whatever reason, it just sounded cool and it sounded very “us”. I liked to cook from scratch. We were always kicking our kids outdoors. We had backyard chickens. Baby steps toward the dream…

Then came that fateful night in the summer of 2010 when our eyes were opened to the horrors of institutional life in Ukraine for people with disabilities and all other dreams flew out the window. There was the agonizing time of not knowing how to respond to the new information we had discovered. Then the decision to adopt. Then when that fell through, the first visit to Ukraine. Then the founding of Wide Awake and the selling of almost all our worldly possessions. Gone was our beautiful craftsman on a quarter acre (huge to us), our backyard chickens, our bunnies, our cook-from-scratch, grain mill-using, kefir-making kitchen. The homestead dream took a backseat to the urgent need to get to Ukraine and DO SOMETHING to relieve the suffering of those languishing in institutions.

Now we’ve been in Ukraine for almost ten years (pinch me) and this past week a thought hit me like a ton of bricks. Our homestead dream is coming, has come true. Say what???? Our land here in the village has slowly become the thing of our dreams. And it has happened so slowly, in the midst of so many more important things that I somehow seemed to have missed it, or forgotten that we had once, long ago dreamed of it.

When we decided it was time to buy land here, that it was time to start getting people out of institutions we debated about what was better- to be in the city or in the village. We didn’t want to hide our friends with disabilities away, out of sight, like they always had been, but at the same time, we wanted them to be able to touch nature, to walk freely outdoors, to have space to breathe. We eventually decided the village would be better suited for deinstitutionalization, so we bought a little bit of property and the Homestead took its first breath.

The day we bought the Homestead land

I always thought that we were in the village because it was better for the boys. And I do believe it is. I can’t imagine trying to do what we do in the middle of the city. But now I am starting to notice a sneaky truth, that God placed us in the village not just for the boys, but for me and Jed too. I truly believe that God remembered that long laid down spark of a dream and in his kindness he has made it a reality.

Living on the Homestead, working in our massive garden, caring for our chickens, goats, and dogs- it brings me so much life. It’s like therapy for me. For reals. Sure, with Jed gone it can feel a bit overwhelming, but I still love it so much and I know Jed does too. Many of our Facetime convos, while he’s in the US, consist of me showing him the garden and the animals. 😆 I like learning new things, trying new things, planting, growing, harvesting, and preserving our own food. I love watching baby chicks grow and change. Our one little chick that recently hatched has two mama hens and the three of them are just the cutest little trio there ever was. Now we have another mama hen brooding on 4 eggs and I can’t wait to see what will happen with her. She’s an aggressive one. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with her babies! One of our hens, Kelly Cluckson, broke her leg and I thought we were going to have to put her out of her misery, but after a few weeks of making sure she could be left alone with food and water, I’m happy to report that now she can walk and jump and kinda/sorta limp-run. It’s so great! I’m so proud of her! 😆. Soon we will have horses and that will take everything up a notch. I have no idea what to do with horses, but I’m eager to learn. Dajana and I have a plan to take the horses to the forest after she teaches me to ride. Can you imagine? So cool.

One of my favorite moments of the day is late at night when I go out to the barn to lock up the goats and chickens for the night. It’s suuuuuuuuper dark. Our village doesn’t have street lights so the only light is from the moon. On clear nights there are so many stars. It’s incredible. I love to stand out there, look at all the stars, listen to the bazillion barking dogs. It’s like my soul can take a deep breath in that moment. In the midst of dealing with the trauma our boys carry, hard parenting moments, and living in a country at war, our little Homestead brings me life and joy. It steadies me a bit. I’m thankful that God placed that kernel of a dream in our hearts all those years ago and that he brought it to fruition in a way we could never have imagined. He is so good and kind to us.

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Let’s Talk Food: Savory Ukrainian Recipes

Hey, hey, hey! Let’s talk about food. Yeah? I love talking about food. 🤷‍♀️ I love cooking, baking, trying out new recipes, and feeding other people. It’s a good thing I enjoy it because approximately 79% of my waking hours are spent in search of food, thinking about food, or cooking food. My kitchen is my office and my happy place. 😆 My favorite time is Sunday afternoon when it’s raining outside, and I’m cozy in my kitchen baking up a tasty treat. Add a podcast to the background and its perfection.

Ukrainian food is super basic and requires very few specialty ingredients. You could probably make most basic Ukrainian recipes with what you have in your fridge and pantry today. But it’s pretty yummy and the ultimate comfort food. Ukrainian cooking is ruled by the seasons. You cook what is available in the season and there are certain dishes for certain times of year. Fall/winter cooking in Ukraine is heavy on potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, and grains. When we first moved here and I wanted to bake with pumpkin in the fall everyone looked at me like I had three eyes. “Pumpkins are for farm animals!” But, western influence has changed a lot over the years and now you can find smaller pumpkins for baking on the market. I’m happy people have come to their senses about pumpkins because fall baking requires it! 😊

I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite (In English) Ukrainian recipes with you. Obviously, the most authentic recipes are the ones passed down from friends and neighbors, but the recipes I’ll share here are also great. Plus, most of them have been a bit westernized so the ingredients will be easy for you to find. There are so so many recipes that could be shared, but I decided to not overwhelm and offer up just a few yummy options for you to try. These recipes have all been tested and approved by my fam, our team, and our boys and are staples in our home. Try them out and let me know what you think! I decided to share only savory foods with you today, and next time we’ll cover sweets and baking.

Soup. Soup is a mainstay of the Ukrainian diet. Most Ukrainians are happy to eat soup every day and even for breakfast! Our kids eat soup in their school lunches every single day and parents would definitely be outraged if it was removed from the menu. Ukrainians gotta have their soup! I’m a massive soup-lover myself, so I can definitely get behind the Ukrainian soup obsession. Most Ukrainian soups are served topped with a spoonful of sour cream. Don’t omit the sour cream! It really does make a difference.

  1. Borscht. Duh. Now, my kids would correct me and say that Borscht is not soup- it’s just Borscht. But, it’s soup-like, so it will go first. Borscht is the National Dish of Ukraine, and there are as many variations of it as there are families. Every person will tell you that their grandma makes the best borscht. Some cook it with beans, some without (I’m in the “without” camp). You can use any kind of meat you like, or go meatless. I don’t really use a recipe anymore when I make borscht, but this recipe was my starting point back in the day. Do give it a go and see what all the fuss is about! Borscht Recipe
  2. Green Borscht. My kids like green borscht better than the traditional red. Green borscht is called “green” because it lacks the red beets but instead is packed with sorrel, a sour green that gives it amazing flavor. It’s also topped with boiled eggs which I was leery of at first, but quickly grew to love. So so yummy! Green Borscht Recipe
  3. Solyanka. This is my all-time most fave soup ever! There’s this little restaurant on the road from our village to Lviv in Western Ukraine that has the best solyanka you’ll ever eat in your life. I was happy to see on our way home from Germany that that little restaurant was still alive and kicking. Solyanka has dill pickles in it, but don’t let that scare you. It’s amazeballs. TRY IT. I highly modify this recipe, but it’s a good starting point. It calls for a lot of different meat, but we use just chicken and salami. Also- don’t skip the olives, lemons, and sour cream at the end. (Any kind of olives will do. You don’t need the special ones called for in the recipe) Here ya go: Solyanka Recipe, Solyanka Recipe in Ukrainian (This recipe is closer to how I make it- but with potatoes. If you can Google translate it, then go for it!)

Non-Soup Savory Dishes

  1. Banosh. My kids literally jump for joy when I make banosh. And it’s so easy!! Banosh is a famous Ukrainian dish from the Hutsul people of the Carpathian Mountains. When we all go to the mountains together with our team and the boys we definitely make it a priority to have lots of banosh. It’s a dish that holds a lot of special memories for all of us. Now, the recipe I’m attaching is a good base of banosh with bryndza (salty sheep cheese), but banosh is just meh if you don’t add other toppings. We like to add carmelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, bacon crumbles, and a fried egg to the top of our banosh, along with the bryndza. If you can’t find bryndza you can replace it with feta cheese for a similar salty taste. Banosh Recipe
  2. Olivye. This Ukrainian version of a potato salad is straight-up party food. Every holiday, birthday party, and special event is bound to have a big bowl of Olivye and I am there for it. There’s just something super yummy and satisfying about it. You must give it a go. It’s super important to chop everything small and into similar-sized pieces. The uniformity of all the little chunks with the mayo makes this salad something special. No big chunks allowed! So what if today’s not a holiday? Any day is a good day for Olivye. Olivye Recipe
  3. Grechka. If you’re planning to visit Ukraine anytime soon (you’re probably not, but…😂) then you’re going to have to learn to like buckwheat (“grechka”). I’ve noticed that it’s an acquired taste for most Westerners, but I can testify that you really can learn to like it. When we first moved here I was not a fan, but over the years grechka has become a comfort food of sorts. Our kids eat it at school for lunch at least twice a week and all of our boys love it. Enjoy this basic recipe for grechka with mushrooms. The recipe calls for dried mushrooms, but I usually use fresh, as that’s what I have on hand. PS: Despite having “wheat” in its name, buckwheat is actually a gluten-free food. Grechka Recipe

English Recipe Resources. These sites were my go-to websites when we first moved to Ukraine and I realized trying to cook “American” wouldn’t cut it here, but I couldn’t read nor understand recipes in Ukrainian. I learned the basics of Ukrainian cooking from these sites before I had friends to tell me what was up. They all have categories for “Russian and Ukrainian food”. Ukraine and Russia have many, many differences (as Russia is currently showing the world) but when it comes to cooking they share many of the same recipes and flavors. I hope you will try some recipes for yourself!

  1. Natasha’s Kitchen
  2. Olga’s Flavor Factory
  3. Valentina’s Corner
  4. Momsdish

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Joy in Uncertain Times

Well, Folks, things are gettin’ crazy around here. Russia has attacked Ukraine and we are at war. How is this happening? 

We actually recorded this episode last week while things were a bit quieter, but I think today’s events make it even more relevant. In this episode, my daughter, Addy, and I discussed the joys we find in our work and life here in Ukraine. From creating community, to dance parties, to wardrobe malfunctions, our life here is rarely boring. 😆 I hope our chat brings you some laughs and encourages you to find joy wherever you may be. 

Original music and sound design by Matt Bittner

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Five Things That Are Bringing Me Joy

Yesterday we had our first snow 👏👏. A lot of it melted off, but still, tis the season! I love the first snow. It’s always so pretty and magical. Come February I’m more than ready to never see snow again as long as I live, but December snows are always welcome.

While I’m cozy here in my village house that I love so much, I thought I’d share some things that are bringing me joy this snowy December. Because, why not?

1. Yummy scented candles. I love love love a good candle. Candles bring me an obscene amount of joy, but in the past I could never find nice scented candle here in Ukraine. Until now. Yay! A local company here in Zhytomyr makes wonderful candles and they are making me so happy! I bought a few and burn them every morning and every evening. They smell like Christmas and forests and baked goods and all the best scents of the season. Hurray!

2. Freshly baked bread. A while back I was inspired to make some bread. I make dinner rolls pretty often, but have never been much for making just a basic loaf for slicing. I’m not sure why. 🤷‍♀️ Anyway, the basic bread we get at the store here is never very tasty, so I decided maybe I should just start making our own. My requirements for the recipe were basically that it would be cheap to make (ie- uses basic white flour, no milk, and no butter) and would make at least two big loaves. I found the easiest, tastiest recipe and am so happy making our own bread! It takes a while, but that’s mostly just rising time. The hands-on time is maybe like 10 minutes total. I’ve been baking it every couple of days and it’s seriously so easy! Here’s the recipe: https://prairiedogwoodcraft.com/blogs/cooking-baking/basic-everyday-bread (FYI, I use oil instead of butter because it’s cheaper…😆)

3. An electronic library. We are a family of readers. I think ever person in our family (except Evie, Bmo, and Vlad) goes to bed with a book at night. We mostly read from Kindles because we have no English library here and reading in Ukrainian is not necessarily relaxing. 😂 In the past we’ve had different subscriptions to meet our reading needs. We’ve tried Kindle Unlimited and Scribd and they were fine, but expensive and even then we couldn’t find many of the books we wanted to read. We also electronically check out books from our library back in Oregon, but the hold times are so loooooooooong. It just felt like it was always so hard to keep the kids on a steady diet of books without spending tons of money or trying to figure out how to send them with people who would come to visit (heavy!) But then, we were introduced to this amazing online library and oh the joy it is bringing to us all!!!! We just donate $5 every month and we can download tons and tons of books to our Kindles with zero hold times! It’s a serious Christmas miracle. A definite lifesaver for this book-crazy family who’s been without a library for 8 years!

4. My Teenagers. I’m telling you what: mothering teenagers is so.much.fun. Why did no one ever tell me that?? Right now we have 2 3/4 teens in the house. Addie is 17, Ezra is 16, and Hava will be 13 this month. They are just so wonderful and they bring me a huge amount of joy. They are funny and fun to be around. They each have their own quirks and opinions. They are growing into wonderful people and I just love living with them. I treasure our evenings when we the littles (and Bmo) are in bed and we can sit (with our amazing candles) and just chat or watch stupid SNL videos, or The Office together. I know our time together is growing shorter and shorter so I have this feeling of wanting to steal as much time with them as I can. They make me happy.

5. ДахаБраха (DakhaBrakha). DakhaBrakha is a Ukrainian folk band that I love. ❤️ They sing in the style of traditional Ukrainian music, but with a modern, creative twist. They are so funky and fun and we love them. This past week they did a concert in Zhytomyr and you better believe we were there! They were amazing in concert- so talented. You should give their music a try! You can see a video of them performing in Oregon here.

What’s bringing you joy these days?

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Moments for the Newsletter

When crazy, outlandish, or gross things happen around here we often joke about them being “the things that don’t make it into the newsletter.” I mean, our life has plenty of semi-gross elements in it, and if I were to document all of those normal, every day moments for you, I’m pretty sure everyone would immediately unsubscribe- and I wouldn’t blame you one bit. There’s only so many poopy conversations one newsletter can handle. But the other night was just too good. It was a little over-the-top, even for us. I think you need to hear about it.

Tuesday was a scorcher. We had all been lamenting the fact that the rain would never let up, and then all of a sudden we traded in rain for stifling heat. But, like I mentioned last week in the newsletter, our friends at Hands of Hope bought us a pool, so the heat has been manageable, as long as you don’t try to go into our upstairs bedrooms. #suffocation

It was nearing dinnertime and all of a sudden our power went out. Now, that’s not all that uncommon. We lose power every so often, and more often in the summer time. There’s no rhyme or reason to it and no one to call when it happens. We just have to plod through until it comes back on. It happens with the internet too. It just goes away sometimes and there’s not a thing to be done. That unpredictability comes with Ukrainian village life. It is what it is. The duplex must be on a different power grid than us or something (I’m so not an electrician…😜) because often when we lose power, they don’t. or vice versa. Anyway, this time we all lost it. In fact, our whole street lost it, and the cell service also went down. It wouldn’t really have been a big deal except that it was time to start making dinner for 15 people and the duplex has no gas stove. So that meant we were all going to need to use the two gas burners on our stove for cooking. Plus it was blazing hot inside and out and we had just gone grocery shopping the day before, so our fridges were stocked with perishables galore. In moments like that I can be heard threatening my children with all manners of punishment if they even so much as consider opening the fridge. Not a finger!

Another thing is that we have wells for water, and when we lose electricity we lose our well pumps, so that means we lose running water. I think that’s the hardest part of power outages. Lugging in water for dishes and toilet flushing for a family as big as ours is no small feat. Not to mention that Anton’s evening routine includes about 2 hours of sitting in the bath and if he doesn’t have that time it’s not pretty at all. Anton needs his bath and we all need Anton to be in the bath. He doesn’t understand lack of running water, so we knew we needed to do whatever we could to make sure bath time still happened, rather than risking his wrath if it didn’t. 😂

Our neighbor told us she heard a rumor that the power was going to be out for two days, so right away Morgan and I went into problem-solving mode. It’s kind of our sweet spot. Haha. Morgan started lugging water up from the well and filling all her pots so we could start to heat them on our stove, and then proceeded to carry buckets and buckets of the well water across the property to start filling the bath for Anton. Our friend Betsy is visiting from Indiana and she had the brain child to buy pizza for everyone so we wouldn’t have to cook. Great idea! I got on the phone to call or order online and realized our cell service was down. It’s kind of hard to order pizza without a phone, so we decided I would need to go find cell service so I could place our order. I drove down the highway a bit to find a signal, quickly ordered the pizza and then drove back home.

Our water fetching and pizza ordering was running like a well-oiled machine, and then we heard that a certain man-child, who shall remain nameless, decided to wait till there was no running water to have a massive poop blowout. We’re not talking about a little baby blowout. We’re talking adult diaper blowout. Those are intimidating in the best of circumstances, but in the blazing heat with no way to wash, they can bring a grown man to tears. So that happened. Welcome to our life. Always so romantic. 😆 Laugh or cry, folks. Laugh or cry.

About an hour after ordering pizza we decided Jed better take a phone and drive down to get cell service because the pizza delivery people can never find our house without calling us. So, he went down the highway to await their call while Morgan and I kept working on filling the bath for Anton. The goal was to get Anton fed and into the bath before the pizza arrived since he can’t have pizza and would be more than a little upset to see us eating something he’s not allowed to have. (Not that I blame him. Pizza is a wonderful creation.) We had searched and found a flashlight, since we had forgotten the duplex bathroom has no windows and it wouldn’t do to have Anton in the bath in a pitch dark room…🤷‍♀️

Jed was just arriving home with the pizza and Morgan was just walking into the duplex with the final bucket of water, sweat pouring off of her, when low and behold, the power came back on. The look on her face was absolutely priceless. It was cruel of me to laugh, but I couldn’t help it. Of course the power came back on right after the tub was filled and the pizza was ordered and delivered and the blowout poopy diaper was dealt with. Of course. Because that’s just how life works around here! But oh my word, we had some big laughs about it, and I have to say that our problem-solving skills were on point. We were in the zone, gettin’ things done.

Things like that happen all the time around here. Sometimes it feels like a whole day was wasted, just fighting fires. But, it’s all just a part of daily life. Living life with our boys in a little village in Ukraine is never ever boring. Sometimes it’s so bad you have to laugh, and sometimes it’s so good you can’t help but cry. 😆

Also, yesterday I just wanted to drive down the road and it was blocked by cows. #thisukrainianlife

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What’s Bringing Joy

Life at the moment feels especially full. I’d love to take the time to be reflective and self-aware, but I just don’t have it in me. Life is just happening and I don’t have the time to think much about the deeper things. But, what I can think about is what is bringing me joy!

Pinky Malinky. A couple of weeks ago our sweet Wendell dog died. We don’t know why. We don’t know what happened to him. He was neutered on a Tuesday and all seemed well and good, but then on Friday he was found in the trees behind our house and he had died. Oh, our poor Seth. He was so devastated. Wendell was his dog and Seth had found him as a small puppy on the streets of our village. He was a naughty, but sweet dog. Seth’s little heart was broken.

Enter…Pinky Malinky! Seth had a puppy-shaped hole in his heart, and it needed filling. We found a local ad about a puppy who had been found in a dumpster on New Year’s Eve and needed a home. So, we brought that little pup home and Seth named her Pinky Malinky. 🙂 She is so sweet and the perfect addition to our family. She’ll be more of an inside dog than Bluebell. Bluebell is a worker, but Pinky is happy to cuddle. She’s good for us.

Survivor Night. Friday night at the Homestead is “Survivor Night”. We all look forward to it in eager anticipation. 🙂 Around 8pm Max and Morgan make their way over from the duplex and we cozy on in for our weekly dose of Jeff Probst and island drama. There’s usually some sort of treat included (of course). I think we started watching Survivor when we were trying to survive jet lag, and then it became a tradition. Seeing as how there’s like 40 seasons of Survivor out there, it’s a tradition that should carry us for a good while. You can read Morgan’s thoughts on Survivor Night here.

Garden Dreaming and House Plants. The snow has melted (for now) and we’ve got the garden on our minds. During the long, snowy wait I decided to try my hand at house plants (everyone who knows me in real life is shaking their head and laughing at me right now). In the past I’ve been pretty vehemently opposed to house plants, simply because I was so overwhelmed with keeping the humans and animals in my life fed and watered, I couldn’t imagine trying to add needy plants to the mix. I have one house plant that has survived for like 3 years here in this house and I honestly have no idea how that is even possible. I don’t even remember where that plant came from, but it is one determined plant! This year, as the snow lasted on and on and refused to melt, I started thinking I had the mental capacity to try out some plants. Annnnnd so far so good! Our friend, Christiana, who is here visiting, has helped me a ton, and I’m finding joy in seeing my plants not die. Haha. Jed and I are beginning garden talks and scheming how we want to switch things up this year. So exciting! Bring on the sun and the dirt. We’re ready.

The Fence. What a glamorous life I lead. When things like a finished fence bring you immense joy you know you’re deeeeeeep in country livin’. Oleg finished our fence and we now have a fully enclosed back yard. The reason this makes me unreasonably happy is because we have approximately 226 stray dogs in our village and they were all making our back yard their personal playground. Poor Bluebell was working from sunup till way past sundown, chasing them out of our yard. I was throwing shoes at them. It was super annoying and super loud. But now, thanks to a finished fence, they are no longer making a party pad out of our back yard. Thank the Lord!

What’s been bringing you joy lately? Do tell!

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Reflections on Home

The most elusive word to most expats is probably the word “home”. I actually put quite a bit of thought into my use of that word. It’s not one I throw around lightly. When you up and move 6,000 miles away from your home, and suddenly every single thing is unfamiliar and difficult, you wonder if you will ever feel “at home” again, and the word takes on a power and meaning all its own.

For several years after we moved to Ukraine I considered Oregon my home. Oregon represented comfort and familiarity and friendship and family. Ukraine represented frustration and difficulty and loneliness and hard hard hard. Ukraine was where we lived, but it was not my home. I never let our kids know that though. Even though Jed and I didn’t feel the feels, we were always super careful how we used the word “home” with our kids. Right away, after moving to Ukraine, we called it our home. We wanted the kids to recognize that we were in Ukraine to stay and we wanted them to start to put down roots there- physically and emotionally. We may have longed for the US and all its familiarities, but we didn’t want our kids to do the same. We didn’t want them pining for their old life. We wanted them to jump into their new life- and we tried our best to do the same. When it was time to visit the US we told the kids just that- that we were going to visit the US. We never referred to those visits as “going home”. In hindsight, I’m really glad we did that because it helped all of us in keeping a perspective of permanency, regardless of our feelings.

Words are powerful, but they are still just words. The heart feels what it will feel, and no matter which words I used, it still took a loooong time for me to feel like Ukraine was my home. For several years I would just about die of excitement when it was time to leave Ukraine and cry allllll the tears when it was time to return to her again. I knew that I knew Ukraine was where we were supposed to be. I had zero doubt of our purpose and calling there, but that didn’t make the reality easier. I was dying of loneliness and life was just so.dang.hard. Yes, there were many beautiful moments, but it still just felt super foreign.

But, sometime over the past couple of years, those feelings changed. I’ll be honest and tell you that this trip is the first one when I really felt sad to leave Ukraine. As much as I was excited to see our family here in the US, I still cried saying goodbye to our boys, our team, our neighbors, our house, and our pets. I felt a sense of loss that life there will go on and we won’t be a part of it for a few weeks. I felt a sadness of leaving my home, my people. And I as sat back and recognized those feelings I felt so much thankfulness and joy. We’ve crossed into a new season, a new reality. My people-pleaser self wanted to immediately feel guilt over that and my “disloyalty” to the US, but I decided not to go there. I think it’s good and right to feel at home in the place where you live. I see this new feeling of belonging as God’s gift and I’m only thankful for it. During these past 7 years, I’ve learned that it’s okay to have your heart on both sides of the ocean. It’s okay to miss my family in the US, while also being content with our family in Ukraine. It’s okay to be excited to visit the US, but also sad to leave Ukraine. As an expat, that tug on my heart that stretches it across the sea will always be my reality. Like I tell our kids when they cry over leaving someone they love, “We are the most blessed, to be loved by so many people all over the world.”

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Friday Night: Family Night

Last Friday we started a new tradition for our team. We had our first “Team Dinner”. I kinda want to call it “Family Dinner”. I think I will.

We decided that every Friday night our house will be open, and anyone from our team is welcome to come, eat dinner, drink tea, pray, worship, and just be together. I think we all need it. 🙂

When Anton and Ruslan lived here, we were just too in over our heads to invite anyone over. The team was mostly all here during the day every day, and I’m pretty sure when the clock struck 5 they were eager to get the heck outta Dodge. I know I was…hehe. (laugh or cry, laugh or cry) A “Family Dinner” was not something that would have been super enjoyable during those times. We were all mostly just surviving. Then when Anton had to be moved from our home, he wasn’t really able to come back here. He had so much stress associated with this place, and so many emotions he couldn’t (and still can’t) articulate, him even coming near the door turned out poorly every time. So, Family Dinners were out of the question, as long as Anton wasn’t able to participate.

At a team meeting in August, I told the team that it was my dream and goal that by Christmas, Anton would be able to spend time in our house. We all agreed that we would bravely step out toward that goal. But I know it made everyone nervous. We all love him and so want him to heal and succeed-and he’s just soooo unpredictable. Anton is definitely a man of mystery.

We started out with a team party in the backyard towards the end of summer, and although there was stress, Anton did okay! We locked the doors to the house, and just made it completely inaccessible. It was a big step for him just to be here on the territory, and he did well. I’m not sure he really enjoyed himself, but he didn’t hurt anyone, so we called it a big fat win. 😉

Then last month we had a bonfire at the back of the property and Anton did awesome. He was more stressed about the marshmallows than the location, so that was definitely a win!

Last Friday we decided to just go for it and we invited everyone over for the Family Dinner. Worst case scenario, Jed or Oleg would have to drive Anton home, right? He was quite stressed to be back in the house, but he was able to hold himself together, and I think he actually did really great. He even laughed a bit. It was so so wonderful to have almost everyone here, eating together, laughing together, and just being together. FINALLY. My heart was happy and full.

At one point we turned on the boys’ favorite worship songs and Ruslan was standing in the very center of the room, in the middle of everyone, just dancing and singing his guts out. I looked around the circle and saw how much everyone loved him and how they were delighting in him and I thought “This is how it should be.” Ruslan felt free to be fully himself, and he was surrounded by people who weren’t just tolerating him, or “allowing it”, but people who welcomed his tone-deaf singing and appreciated his signature dance moves.

Vlad was in the corner, beating his drum completely off beat. Anton was rocking. Boris was swaying. Our friend Maxim was with us and he was in turn reminding us for the 15th time that he’s now 34, and hiding his head under a pillow. All precious, all known, all appreciated and accepted for who they are, and all loved by a whole room full of people. I’m proud to call that room full of people my team, and I’m happy to also claim them as my friends and my Ukrainian family.

Friday Night:Family Night is here to stay. If you’re ever in our neck of the woods, consider yourself invited.

BeLOVE[d]

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2019: A Year of Learning and Miracles

Well this year sure flew by in a flurry! I was just looking through the 2019 blog posts to find the highlights to link here and saw that I really didn’t write a whole lot. That in itself shows what kind of year we had around here: fast and furious. 🙂

Here in our home, with Anton and Ruslan, this year has been unbelievably difficult. There have been many beautiful moments, don’t get me wrong, but the overarching feeling when I sat down and initially looked back over this year in our home was not “beautiful”, it was “stinkin’ hard and painful”. It has been a year of learning to lay down our lives and learning what this dream of deinstitutionalization really is. Of course we already had some experience with Vlad and Boris, but for many reasons it has just been exponentially harder with Anton and Ruslan. We have learned A LOT. We have changed A LOT. And we have so much to be thankful for.

I’d love to sit down and report to you the many great strides and changes that have been made in our boys, and while they have changed and made some strides, the greater changes have been made in the hearts of our family.

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This year has forced us, Jed and me, to dig deep down inside ourselves and deal with our junk, ’cause Lord knows we’ve got a whole lot of it. Many times this year the way has felt so dark. We have felt hopeless, helpless and in way over our heads. We’ve learned, and are still learning, how impossible it is to do this thing of deinstitutionalization in our own strength. We’ve learned that we’ll most definitely burn out and cope in unhealthy ways when we try to do this on our own. We’ll get bitter. We’ll pick up our phones as an escape. We’ll get all judgey. We’ll lose our patience with our kids and we’ll even stop laughing.

There’s just no way around it. We either do this thing with Jesus, or we fail. That has been the big lesson of 2019: Jed and Kim without Jesus doesn’t work. Praise God for his never-ending mercy and unrelenting love toward us, and thank God for your prayers and encouragement that have sustained us in the darkest of times.

We are different people than we were at the beginning of the year, in a good way. So when I look at it that way I am filled with thankfulness for this past year of struggle. We are changed. Our kids are changed. They have grown and stepped up and matured. Our team has grown and stepped up and matured. Our team has grown in love for each other and we have learned so very much about the path that lies ahead of us. If we had never brought Ruslan and Anton into our home we would have been dreadfully unprepared for the next phases of this journey. So, praise God that his ways are higher than ours. All the tears, all the struggles with self, all the sleepless nights have been 100% worth it. I mean that.

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When you look outside our home at the other parts of this Wide Awake machine there are no shortage of miracles. 🙂

In January we sent out desperate plea for our “Preston” to be adopted. The government was threatening to send him back to the institution if he did not have a committed family by summer. A family pretty quickly stepped forward and they met Preston on Christmas Eve. 🙂 Christmas Day at our house was spent with Preston and his new family getting to know each other. Praise God for his love for our sweet boy.

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Preston with his new daddy on Christmas Day

In July we sent out another desperate plea for our “Aaron” to be adopted. He was the last boy at Romaniv available for adoption and was going to age out at the end of the year, making him forever unadoptable. That same day, as the post was being written, an adoptive family was at Romaniv for another boy (“Kayden”) and they also fell in love with Aaron. They ended up adding him to their adoption and had court for him on December 18th. Aaron is legally an orphan no more, saved at the very last minute by an AMAZING family. He’ll go home to them in January. Praise God for his pursuit of the ones left behind and forgotten for so many years. This is such a huge miracle!!!

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Aaron will go home with his new family in January!

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Kayden was adopted in the fall by the same family. Look at him on his first day of school!

If those adoptions were the only thing that happened this year it would be enough to be a miraculous year, but let’s not forget the ginormous building right outside our back door. Ha!

Thanks to the generosity of donors, the next Wide Awake home is well on it’s way to completion. The roof is on and the windows and doors are in. We are looking at a completion date of late spring, early summer. It’s amazing!!!  (and did I mention, huge?)

The house is a duplex, so it has the capacity to be a forever home for 8 of our friends from Romaniv- four on each side, plus the people who will live there with them.

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We are still searching for who will live in the duplex with our boys, so if this is something that your heart can’t let go of, please contact us and we can begin a conversation. I promise we are great neighbors. 😉

As we end the year I want to say thank you to this Wide Awake community for being such a wonderful source of encouragement and support to us and our team. In the good times you have celebrated with us, and in the hard times you have encouraged us, trusted us, and lifted our arms, encouraging us to press on, and reminding us of our why. We thank God for you and look forward to the growth that will happen in 2020!

BeLOVE[d]

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What’s Up With School

It’s been a while since I’ve written about school in this space. Over on Instagram @thetravelingacademy I have the fun opportunity to be on a team of expat mamas living all over the world. Together, we are hoping to create a great resource about all things educating kids overseas. There is a great mix of experience there! Some homeschool, some send their kiddos to international school, some do local school and some (like us) use different methods for different kids. We also discuss parenting “Third Culture Kids” and parenting kids with special needs outside your home culture. So far, it’s a lot of fun.

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Being a part of the team has me thinking about our kids’ education nonstop. I’m constantly thinking about what we’re doing and reconsidering if it’s working or not. It’s been a breath of fresh air and inspiration for my mama brain. 🙂

Since I’m thinking about education a lot these days, I figured I’m waaaaay past due in sharing with you what we’re doing these days for education. So here ya go!

If you’ve been following this blog for a while then you might remember that it took us quite some time to find our groove in Ukrainian school. We’re actually still finding it…actually, we’ll probably always be searching for it, but at least each year we’re getting closer. Hehe. We moved here in November 2013 and put Addy and Ezra into Ukrainian public school in February, after realizing it was probably the only way they were really going to learn language and be a part of the culture. It was actually a great experience for all of us. It was super hard, for the kids and the parents, but all in all, we considered it a success and decided to stick with it.

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They were so little!

The next fall we decided to try a Ukrainian private school, simply because we were searching for smaller class sizes. Addy and Ezra were a little lost in the shuffle in the big public school classes and we thought a private school could offer them more support. We ended up only staying at that school for a semester because the director of the school didn’t really understand our situation. She insisted that the kids should keep repeating first grade until they were fluent in Ukrainian! Ummmm yeah…we weren’t really into that idea. So, at Christmas break, we brought them home for school.

Finally, in the Fall of 2016, we found the RIGHT school for our family. Our current school is also a Ukrainian private school, but the administration is very open to our family. They believe in our kids and they truly want them to succeed and to be integrated into school life. At our current school, our kids aren’t “The Americans”, they are just students- like everyone else.

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Addy, Ezra and Hava all attended that school full-time for 2 years, and Seth attended first grade there last year. Overall, it has been a pretty great experience. There were (and are) major difficulties and roadblocks, but that is to be expected anytime you are fully immersed in a cultural situation different than anything you’ve ever known. Our kids are the only foreign kids in the school (actually, I don’t know of any other English-speaking kids in our city…) so the learning curve has been steep for the staff and for our family.

We are learning, like all parents, that constant revaluation and adjustment is necessary for spiritual, educational and social success. Because of that, we’ve made some pretty big changes in schooling this year. Addy and Ezra are homeschooling full-time, Hava is still in Ukrainian school full-time, Seth is part-time at Ukrainian school and part-time at home, and Vladik is doing private lessons at his teacher’s home 4 days a week. It’s a little crazy, but it seems to be working!

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We realized that as the kids reach the upper grades (Addy is in 9th and Ezra is in 7th) it was a better use of their time and energy to study at home. The struggle then, has been finding meaningful ways for them to engage with others outside the home. For Addy, it’s attending a weekly youth group at another church in town, and taking twice-a-week sewing lessons from a church friend. For Ezra, it’s attending a twice-a-week class where he’s learning to make videos. I wish there were more opportunities for them to be with their peers, but it’s pretty hard to find something to engage in here that’s not sports. So, we’re trusting God that He will show us what they need. I easily take on a lot of mom guilt concerning their social lives, so I just can’t let myself go there. Their lives are rich and full in other ways and it’s okay if theirs look different than my life did at their age. Comparison is not helpful or healthy (preaching to myself right now).

Hava adores school and is as happy as a clam there, so that’s a no-brainer. 🙂

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Vladik’s situation isn’t ideal, but we’re going to finish out this school year as is, and probably make significant changes next year. His teacher is great, as always, but he’s loving being here at the Homestead more and more, and when construction starts on the next homes he’ll want to be in the thick of it. So, next year I foresee him spending more time working on his building skills and less time doing “seat work”.

Seth. Oh, my sweet Seth. Seth and Ukrainian school don’t mesh super well. 🙂 He attended first-grade last year and it went okay, but not great. This year he started second grade at the school, but it was quickly clear that it wasn’t going to work out. We brought him home for homeschooling in October and just recently decided to ease him back into a bit of local school. He really is a social guy and missed his friends, plus he really needed more language exposure. He’s now attending school for 4 hours, three days a week, and then is home for the rest of it. I hope this plan works for our guy.

That’s our current school situation. Every child is different and every year is different and we have to just keep being flexible, holding loosely to what we “think” our kids need for happiness.  Our first job is to point them to Jesus, and as long as we’re doing that I think they’ll turn out okay.

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