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.
Last week our friends from Hands of Hope in Indiana were visiting us and it was such a great time together! They are some of the partners who have been with us the longest and it is always a joy to see the work through their eyes. Last year they weren’t able to visit because of COVID, so it had been 2 full years since their last visit. Things have really changed in the last two years! One side of the duplex is already a home, the other side is nearly finished, Max and Morgan moved here, we brought Sasha out of the institution, and several other team members and friends with special needs have been added to the crew. It’s an exciting time here in Ukraine, but sometimes I forget that. I get hung up in the dishes and laundry and parenting. When people come and point out how things have grown I gain a new appreciation for how far God has brought us.
Last year I introduced our team on social media, but I’m not sure I ever did it here. I thought it’s high time you had a clearer picture of who’s who around these parts. I’ll also share our org. chart with you so you can see where everyone fits into the puzzle. I’ll intro the Ukrainian side of the team in this post, and then next time I’ll intro the American side. Let’s introduce you to our team!
Services- The Multidisciplinary “M” Team
Jed, Masha, and I are all working together on development. I do the communications in English, and Masha runs our Ukrainian social media. At some point we’ll need more help in development, but for now we’re making it work with the three of us.
I hope that helps you understand who’s who over here! Next time I’ll introduce you to our Board of Directors in the US. If you have any questions, let me know!
Our team sent us that video this past week and my heart melted. Tears filled my eyes and I couldn’t stop watching it over and over. Then I showed it to Jed and he kinda bawled his eyes out. I haven’t seen him like that for quite some time. It was a moment.
That video means so much to us because of the people in it, their stories, how our lives have become entwined and all that has led up to that beautiful moment in time. I’d love to break it down for you so you can see some of what we see when we watch.
The first boy I see is our friend Maxim. He is 34 years old and loves to tell that fact to everyone he meets by holding his fingers up in their faces. He knows how to count and is proud of himself when he counts correctly.
We met Maxim and his mama 6 years ago and have loved them ever since. Maxim is tall, quick to bear hug, only speaks a few words, but is as smart as a whip when it comes to math. He has always lived with his parents, but they are quite elderly, and after his older brother passed away they had no plan for who would care for Maxim after they are unable to do so themselves. A couple of years ago his mama approached us and asked if we would be willing to take Maxim into our Wide Awake family when they pass. “You don’t have to do much for him. Just help him with his clothes and make sure to cook him food.” Of course our answer was YES! And we’ll do more than just help him with his clothes and feed him. We will love him and care for him always. He will never be alone. He will never be placed in an institution. NEVER.
When we were at the sea in the fall our team felt like we needed to start incorporating Maxim into the life of our team, so every week, twice a week, he joins our boys for lessons and special time together. Because Maxim has always been loved and cared for, he doesn’t carry trauma like our other boys. His joy is like a little child. He adds something special to our family and is God’s gift to us all.
Next I see Ruslan, and then a glimpse of Anton: my precious boys. They wasted away for years- for decades- living like animals. Now they are celebrating Christmas, surrounded by people who love them and have given their lives so that they could live. They are known. They are happy. They are growing and thriving. In the good and in the bad, they are loved and accepted for who they are. BELOVE[d]
Then Kostya, sitting next to Masha, pops into the scene. Oh, my heart was so happy to see him there! Kostya lives with his courageous mama and is a great addition to our little group. Kostya has Down Syndrome and is also autistic. His autism makes it very difficult to engage with him. He is nonverbal and can get easily overwhelmed by new situations. But, oh man, he is perfect for us. He is just the kind of boy we love to love. He can be easily passed over in social situations, and it’s hard to know what’s happening in his mind, but our little company is great for him and his mom. Our teacher, Tanya, has worked really hard to keep connection with them and to help insure they are not isolated. They belong with us.
Oh, and then there’s Sergei! Look at that sweet smiling face. He’s showing us the ornament he’s made and he’s so proud of his work. Man, he looks so good, so healthy.
We met Sergei and his mama a few months ago when they were referred to us by the director of the institution. Sergei’s mama has been raising him all on her own and had reached the point of overwhelm many months earlier. Their situation seemed impossible, and his mama felt the only situation was handing him over to the institution. She couldn’t see any other way to move forward. Since then our team has worked so very hard to help keep Sergei in the home. They have encouraged mom, included Sergei in our classes and activities and brought him into the life of our team. We are praying and acting, doing whatever we can to keep this family together. We don’t know what the end of the story will be, but for now Sergei has new friends and he and his mama are a part of something bigger than themselves. Oh, my heart leaped when I saw his smiling face- happy and loved by friends. Please pray for his mama. She has been brave for so long. Pray that she will open up to our help and that she would know the Father’s love.
I see our team and Kostya’s mom, looking on with love and care. I know them and I understand what they had to do behind the scenes to make a little gathering like that come together. Oleg must have traveled all over town, picking everyone up and transporting them from their homes. Masha arranged the work schedule so there would be enough helping hands. Tanya planned the craft and made sure it was ready and developmentally appropriate. Max was there next to Anton, helping him to regulate his emotions within the bigger group. The candle was lit. I know music was playing- the atmosphere of love and warmth thought out and intentional. A gathering like that, with a group like that doesn’t just happen. It has to be thoughtfully created. But it is worth it that our boys would know they are loved and valued, and that they would feel Christmas cheer. 🙂
When I watch that video I remember the stories of how God brought so many different people together, people that 7 years ago we had no idea even existed, but are now our family.
Now go watch those 26 seconds again. Look into those faces and see what I see. I see beautiful, precious friends who were overlooked for too long, but are now celebrated. I see lives changed and I see love in action. Annnnd I’m thankful.
I have the most incredible news to share with you! A wonderful couple from the US has decided to join our team as Live-In-Assistants! I still can’t believe I actually get to write that. I kinda thought it would never happen. My smile is so big right now. It’s more than a little unbelievable that something we have prayed for for so long is actually happening- and right on time. But, I actually shouldn’t be surprised because that’s how God has worked in every step of this journey. He rarely sends what we need early, but he has yet to ever send it late. His timing is absolutely perfect.
I am so happy to introduce you to Max and Morgan Martinez. Max and Morgan are a newly married couple that we actually met here in Ukraine. About a year and a half ago, a team came to visit us from Vineyard USA’s Heroic Leadership Institute, and Max and Morgan were on that team. The Heroic Leadership Institute is a discipleship program that lasts a full school year, and ends with an outreach overseas. Their team was sent to Ukraine for their outreach and spent about a week with us here at the Homestead. They helped us in the garden, played with our boys, spent time at Romaniv with our interns and made us laugh for basically the entirety of the week.
Max and Morgan were deeply affected by their time in Ukraine and over the past year and a half, the work here hasn’t left their hearts. They just haven’t been able to shake it. That often happens with people who come here. Our boys and our team just have a way of grabbing on to your heart, and they don’t let go easily. Sooooo if you’re considering a visit, proceed with caution. 🙂 Max and Morgan got married this past spring, and as they looked forward into their future they found themselves talking about Ukraine and wondering if someday they would join us here. At some point the conversations became less “Maybe someday” and more “Why not now?” They are in a time of transition and find themselves as free to adventure as they’ll ever be. We are so honored and happy that they have chosen to adventure with us.
At this point they are beginning to gather prayer support and the funds necessary. It’s an exciting time and a faith-building time. Max and Morgan are hoping to join our team around the first of February. So soon!! It’s really perfect, because our family will be in the US for the holidays, and then once we return to Ukraine we’ll have a bit of time to prepare for them, and then it will be go-time! They will live in the duplex, helping us bring boys out of the institution to live with them there. Our team will work together with them to help our boys learn the love of family. It’s going to be awesome and hard and beautiful and stretching. The current plan is that Sasha will be the first boy to come live with Max and Morgan. He will be one blessed boy. Then as he adjusts, and as the team feels ready, we will add three more boys, one at a time, over the course of several months. We always feel a sense of urgency, but we refuse to rush. All will be done prayerfully and we will follow peace in the process.
At this point, Max and Morgan are committing to living in the duplex for one year, and as time passes they will prayerfully consider another year. Again, no rushing out ahead. We are all really trying to move forward prayerfully, knowing that God will give wisdom as it is needed.
Max and Morgan are beginning to reach out to their community for prayer support and financial support. They will need to raise money for plane tickets, visas and residency costs, translation help, and then just personal money to have on hand here for their days off, for time to take care of themselves and such. The total needed for one year will be $8,000. If any of you feel like you would like to help get Max and Morgan here you can give a tax-deductible donation at the link below. The funds will be separate from the Wide Awake General Fund, so 100% of your donations will directly support the Martinez family.
Thank you to all of you who have joined us in praying for the right people to come along to help. God hears our prayers and he loves this work. He is always for us and we are just in awe of his provision. Exciting times are ahead!
PS: We are still in search of people who would like to join our team here in Ukraine. The need for Live-In-Assistants will be ongoing- forever. Ha! As we finish the second side of the duplex and plan to bring more boys to live there, more willing hands and hearts will be needed. If you are interested or have more questions, please do reach out!
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.
Below is the Role Description for “Live-In Assistants” for the new duplex.
We are actively seeking individuals, couples, or families to live in community with us, our boys, and the ones we have yet to bring out of the institution. We are looking for a commitment of at least one year after a successful 90-day trial period. An openness to a longer commitment would be amazing, but is not required.
We are seeking foreigners and Ukrainians to grow this community together.
Because of the nature of this work and the experience we have had thus far with the deinstitutionalization of our boys, we are not currently open to families with small children living in the home. If you have small children and are interested in joining our team we definitely have a need for “Live-Out” assistants as well. So, please inquire by email if that interests you. email@example.com
Live-In Assistant Job Description
Live-In Assistants are people who choose to live in a Wide Awake International home with adults who have intellectual and possibly physical disabilities, the “core members” of the community. Assistants share life, laughter, and friendship with the core members. Assistants provide skilled direct care supports to core members, ensure their safety and well-being, and support their integrated participation in all aspects of daily life. They are committed to mutual relationships with core members and other assistants in which all parties are recognized as having something to share with the others.
Live-In assistants participate in community prayer, retreats, trainings and celebrations.
Please read the job description and qualifications below
Contact Kim Johnson for an application at firstname.lastname@example.org
Live-In Caregiving Assistant Purpose: Assistants accompany and assist core members in their activities of daily life: creating home and supporting core members in sharing their gifts within the house and the larger community.
Responsibilities relating to:
Uphold and share the vision and hope of the community and maintain the simple life style of the community
Help extend warm welcome to visitors, including community members, families, neighbors, and merchants
Encourage households members to develop and nurture friendships within, and especially outside the community
Attend team and community meetings, community nights, and community activities.
Help plan celebrations for birthdays, anniversaries, and days of special importance to household members
Accept community mentoring from more experienced community members
Develop caring and loving interpersonal relationships. The most important aspect of the “living with” spirit of Wide Awake is that of fostering relationships.This area calls forth both the assistant and the core member in their personal growth, as well as the growth of the community. It is a process of discovering one’s own gifts and helping the other to find theirs.
Carry out core member training programs where applicable and teach skills needed to be learned (personal hygiene, personal appearance, laundry, room management, household cleaning, cooking, budgeting, job skills, shopping skills, appropriate behavior)
Help core members to look at alternatives, anticipate consequences, make decisions, and accept responsibility for their actions
Listen to and respect the desires of the core members.
Assume responsibility for the health, safety, and care of core members
Do assigned housekeeping chores and take initiative to keep house (inside and out) clean and in repair. Assist core members with their chores if needed. Aid in motivating core members to complete needed tasks
Plan and prepare balanced meals. Assist core members to help cook and prepare meals.
Maintain and operates house vehicles in a safe manner
Maintain accurate financial records of core member and house money
Be conscious of budgeting and keep within house and community budgets
Take initiative, be resourceful and creative, think out problems, be willing to use own judgment when deemed necessary
Support the community and carry in prayer the homes, each member of the community, their families, friends, and concerns
Maintain and respect the home as a Christian home in terms of values and prayer. Encourage prayer in the home and in the community with assistants and core members.
Respect days of worship. Attend with core members their choice and place of worship.
Share faith life with the community. Be responsible for communicating needs and meeting personal worship needs.
Interest in living in a faith community founded on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5)
Minimum age of 18 years
Desire to work with individuals with disabilities (Experience with people with disabilities is not a requirement)
Creativity, flexibility, attention to detail, and ability to organize time
Commitment to living in the community for at least 1 year after a successful 90-day trial period
Verbal and written communication skills
Physical ability, with reasonable accommodation, to fulfill role responsibilities, including ability to transfer adults from wheelchairs to vehicles, beds, etc. and to lift wheelchairs into and out of vehicles
Ability to work as part of a team
Assistants are responsible for funding their own way to and from Ukraine
After a successful 90-day trial period, assistants are responsible for the costs related to obtaining a visa and temporary residency in Ukraine. Wide Awake International will assist with the legal process in obtaining residency
Food and lodging will be provided by Wide Awake International
Assistants will be responsible for providing for their own toiletries, food needs beyond the community meals, and personal spending money
Much of our language, like “assistant” and “core member”, and some wording for the role description was adopted from an organization with a lot more experience than us. Thank you, L’Arche Communities, for paving a beautiful path of dignity for us to follow.
January ended up being a pretty great month. To start with, Jed’s mom brought Vladik home to us. Yay! Then she stayed for a month to spend time with us and help with the kids so Jed and I could go to the Vineyard UK National Conference in Nottingham. One of our partner churches flew us out there for the conference and a few days of rest and man oh man, we didn’t even know how much we needed it until we were in it.
When you’re knee deep in a project or work it’s helpful to get away and regain some perspective. We’ve been neck deep for the past year and a half, so our perspective in some areas was severely lacking. Time away spent with friends who love us and speak into our lives was a precious treasure that came just at the right time. I’m so thankful we had that opportunity.
While we were away we had good news and not so good news. The good news was, our precious “Preston” flew home to Indiana with his new family to begin his new life! The bad news was, our “Aaron” who was just adopted from Romaniv (the last child who was available for adoption!) failed his medical exam and therefore wasn’t issued a visa to the travel to his new home in the US. Noooooooo!!! Failing that exam is every adoptive parent’s fear. Additional testing had to be done, and now there is an 8 week waiting period for those results to come back. Obviously, Aaron’s family couldn’t wait 8 additional weeks in Ukraine, so a different plan had to be formed.
I shared that story on our social media and invited people to help cover the expenses of caring for Aaron for the next 2 months, as he requires full-time care, and the Wide Awake community rallied! In less than 24 hours all of the expenses were covered, plus additional funds that the family can use for airplane tickets when they travel back at the end of the waiting period. Thank you so much to all who gave so quickly and so generously! The family was blown away by your love.
The plan we came up with was that Max, one of our team members who is currently on a break from university, would live in an apartment with Aaron for the 2-month waiting period. When Jed and I arrived back in Ukraine after our England trip we picked up Aaron in Kyiv and brought him to our house for the weekend because Max wasn’t available to start caring for him till Monday. Aaron did SO WELL in our home. He obviously loved the stimulation of all the people, the space to move around, the toys and balls. It seemed like a no-brainer to all concerned that he would be better off in a family environment instead of one-on-one in an apartment.
That left the question of how to make it all happen. Aaron on his best day still requires full-time supervision and assistance. There was no way we could simply add him to our family and not change things up. The money had been donated to care for him, we just had to find the best way to use it. Then we had an “Aha!” moment and we made a decision that was better for all involved. Andriy stayed with us in our home, and Ruslan moved into the apartment with Max. Not what you were expecting to hear? Yeah, it took us a bit by surprise too, but sometimes the most obvious answers are the hardest to come by. 🙂
For several months we had been mulling over the idea of moving Ruslan to an apartment, even before Anton moved. There are several reasons that made this the right choice for this moment. First, Ruslan has a great potential for independence. He will never live alone, but he has great potential to learn to care for himself in many ways. He wants independence. He sees all his friends (our team) live in apartments with friends so the concept was interesting to him. In an apartment setting there will be more time and space for him to learn skills necessary for independence.
Second, Ruslan is highly anxious and quite obsessive. Anton did not thrive in the large family environment, and Ruslan, although he managed it better than Anton, also had big struggles. Ruslan wants to control everything and everyone in his environment. He’s been learning that when you live in a family it’s not possible or necessary to control everyone and everything, but in the large family context it was causing him a lot of angst.
Third, there were some personal matters that made it necessary for the health of our family that Ruslan moved to a different space. To protect the dignity of all of us I don’t want to really expand on that. Everyone is safe, and no one has been physically harmed, but you just can’t predict how interpersonal relationships will develop when you bring new people into your home, specifically people who have endured 30+ years of trauma and abuse. We have learned much from having Ruslan in our home, and we love him dearly. It is just healthier for everyone if he lives separate from us. I know it might seem like I’m glossing over this, but I hope you can trust that this is not a decision we came to lightly. We have been agonizing over how to make it work, interpersonally, with Ruslan in our home, and the reality is, it just can’t work for the long term. If you have more questions about this, please shoot me an email. I’m happy to talk.
This move, even though we had considered doing it for a long time, was unexpected, but it feels 100% right. When Anton moved out it was traumatic and sad and felt like a loss (at the time). This does not feel like that. Ruslan was excited for the new adventure of living with Max, and Max is the perfect person to lead Ruslan into a more independent life. Anton’s leaving felt like failure, at the time, because Anton is developmentally much younger. He was confused and it felt like getting him out of the house ASAP was the only option in that stressful situation. This move feels like a next step. Aaron’s coming into our home for this time caused everyone to rethink how we are doing what we are doing and shook us up a bit. But we feel confident God used that situation for all of our good.
At church on Sunday Ruslan was happy, loved and well-cared for; Anton was happy and loved and content. They arrived at church with different people, but were still surrounded by so many who love them. God is so faithful to provide the people to love our boys. Every one of them is in a good spot right now and we couldn’t be more thankful.
I don’t know what the future will hold for Ruslan and Anton. Possibly they will stay in apartments, possibly they will live in the duplex, we’re tossing around the idea of tiny houses on our property. We want to do what is best for them and we are committed to them, so we know God will show us in his timing.
I wanted to share with you so you would know how to pray and also so that those who gave toward Aaron’s care would be fully informed on how the money is being used. Max is being paid to care for Ruslan, so that we have the ability to care for Aaron in our home. Same use of funds, just a “change in seating”, if you will. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. We always want to be open and honest. Thank you for your love and encouragement, as always!
We can’t thank you enough. All of you who have been praying, all who sent messages, all who emailed and called. Thank you for loving us, for trusting us, and for loving Anton.
It has been quite the two weeks. To be honest, it’s been quite the year. No, let’s be real honest- it’s been quite the 6 years. 😂 But these past two weeks have been a DOOZY.
Thank God, He heard our prayers and He made a way for everyone to be safe and loved. We found an apartment for Anton and it’s about a 10 minute walk from a park by the river. Every morning he gets to go for a walk in his most favorite place ever. Huge blessing.
The big question of the hour was: who would live with Anton? Thankfully, God heard our prayers and provided there too! Two friends from church, guys in their early twenties are living with Anton in the apartment. He spends his weekdays with our team, like always, then in the evenings and night he is home in the apartment with his two new housemates. They get a free apartment and Anton gets two new friends. Win win. 😊 They are kind, peaceful, and gracious men. A wonderful woman from church is helping to care for him on the weekends. She just returned to Zhytomyr and needed work and we needed weekend help. Win win. 😊 We are so thankful!!! We are giving it a month and then we’ll reevaluate further.
Anton is doing okay. He is confused, but we just keep reiterating to him that this is a better place for him, a quieter place. The first several days were not pretty. So bad. So so bad. He wanted to come home really badly. We were all in tears, but we know that we know that this is the best plan for right now. We aren’t bringing him home to our house at all right now, even for visits, just because it would definitely be confusing and we feel a significant time away is best. Of course we still see him plenty, just not at the house. He likes the new guys he is living with and is mellowing out a bit. It’s been a huge adjustment for all, but things are definitely not getting worse. Yay!
We started Anton on an anti anxiety medication to hopefully take the edge off during this time. We are also working with a GI doc to get some other answers, but right now we’re waiting on test results before we know more. She wanted us to put him on a gluten-free, lactose-free diet, so that’s super fun to try to do in the Breadbasket of Europe. Ugh. Good thing Anton’s not obsessed with food or it would be really hard. <— (Insert my most sarcastic voice)
Overall it’s been super hard, but God has been faithful. Our team is the best best best. Jed and I are coming down from living in a state of constant vigilance and we are wow, so exhausted. We are also so thankful for our community here and for God’s provision.
Please keep praying. Pray that this living situation would work well and that we would get more answers about Anton’s health. Thank you!!!!