Wide Awake International

The Response

January 14, 2022 Kim Johnson Season 1 Episode 2
Wide Awake International
The Response
Show Notes Transcript

In the first episode, I shared how our eyes were opened to the plight of orphans with disabilities in Ukraine.  We just had no idea that world even existed! In this episode, I tell the story of how we responded to that newfound knowledge.  I might have gotten a little choked up at one point...I promise not to do that every time! 😆

Our First Trip to Romaniv 

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The vision of Wide Awake Int. is to bring hope, love, and dignity to people with disabilities in Ukraine. We are living that out by bringing our friends out of institutions and into family life.

Hi, this is Kim, and welcome to the Wide Awake podcast. This is a place for sharing stories of bringing hope, love, and dignity to our friends with disabilities here in Ukraine. This is Episode Two, The Response. In Episode One, I told you how Jed does all his best thinking out while mowing the lawn and about how he felt like the Lord spoke to him about how he had turned Jed's heart towards that little boy because he needed him to love that little boy like a father, in order for him to love a lot of boys like a father. After Jed heard that and digested it a little bit, he came to me and told me about it and was like, "Maybe we're not supposed to adopt. Maybe we're supposed to actually go there and do something there- something with a broader scope. Maybe this is our time to go."  And you know,  for years we'd had this desire, this dream to get out of Oregon to go across the sea, to raise our kids in another culture and, and but by the time God spoke this about loving many boys and us thinking maybe we're supposed to go, we weren't really in the space anymore, really desiring to go. We had a good thing going in Oregon! We had an awesome house. We were loving fostering. We had such good friends, we were close to family, we had a church we were super active in and it's just like, life was awesome. We both had jobs that we loved. It was like, "Oh, are we really supposed to go now that everything's amazing.?" 

So then Jed and I started looking into what's going on in Ukraine for caring for orphans with disabilities. That was back in 2011 and there wasn't as much online to be found as there is now. And it was really actually hard to find much going on in Ukraine. I know there was a lot more going on here than we knew about, but it was hard to find. So we just started researching, emailing, you know, people that we found online that seemed to be in the orphan care realm, plus add in the disabilities realm. We just asked people, "Hey, would you be open to us coming and visiting you?" And in April 2012, with our kids tiny, we left the kids at home in Oregon with Grammy, and Jed and I went to Ukraine for three weeks. We knew zero, Ukrainian or Russian, maybe we knew "привіт",  maybe we knew "hello", but I think that's all. I had learned the alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet in preparation for the big trip, which I'll tell you doesn't do a lot of good if you don't know what any of the words mean! The purpose of the trip in April of 2012 was just to go to Ukraine, to listen to the voice of the Lord, to learn as much as we could, to observe, and hopefully by the end of the trip to know what our response was supposed to be. 

While we were in Ukraine, we traveled around to many different cities, met with a lot of different people, and just saw how different people were tackling this issue of institutionalization and orphan care.  And while we were there, we got to visit, for the very first time, a couple of institutions like the ones that we'd been praying about for so long. We actually visited Romaniv where our boys that we care for and love now, that are part of our family- that's where they all lived. We visited Romaniv with an organization called Mission to Ukraine. I remember the day we visited Romaniv for the first time and I wrote about it on our blog. You know, we had been dreaming of going to a place like Romaniv for months We'd been praying for people in places like that. Our hearts had been broken for specifically men and boys in institutions like that, but we'd never actually been to one. We'd never actually even spent much time with people with disabilities- even in the US. We weren't in that sphere in the US. We weren't in that community.  So I remember we were on the drive on the way to Romaniv. It was about a 45-minute drive and I was really afraid that we would absolutely hate it. We wanted so much to help with this issue, but what if we got there it were just so overwhelmed or disgusted by the smells? Or what if we just felt so uncomfortable there that we never wanted to go back?

We arrived at Romaniv and the assistant director took Jed and me on a tour of the facilities. And then we joined the volunteers to spend some time with the boys. I know I always say boys, but they're mostly adult men. So we walked into the room. It was a biggish room with painted brown concrete floors, and the only furniture in the room was just benches lining the walls. I remember we walked in, and it was just an overwhelm of all the senses. The smells, were overwhelming. The sounds were overwhelming- shrieking and screaming and yelling and talking. And we couldn't understand anything that was being said. There was a volunteer in the corner playing the accordion, and some of the boys were kind of singing. Our senses were just exploding everything being new. I remember the boys just swarmed us they were petting my hair, they were touching us, they were wanting to shake our hands. And then I remember what stands out to me, I think the most about that day. And I even wrote about it in my journal. I was just looking around, and the benches were just full of the other boys, the boys that didn't want human interaction, the boys that were just sitting in their own worlds rocking, stimming, fluttering their fingers in front of their faces, biting their hands. Those were the boys that are really, really stuck out to me, because I thought what level of suffering have they endured, that they don't even want this human contact this positive human contact when it's being offered to them? You know, there are the stars of Romaniv, the ones who always greet all the visitors and, are very social. And then there are the others, the ones that you don't really notice, the ones that you're maybe even afraid to walk up to. I know that in that moment, in those moments spent with those boys, I wouldn't have approached anybody sitting on the bench, I was afraid. I didn't know how they would respond to me and I didn't know how to behave with them. So I remember Jed and I were just swarmed by the boys and our eyes met across the room. And in that moment, we just kind of looked at each other and we were just nodding. I just remember we both smiled so big. We knew, Yes, this is our place. These are our boys. I know we didn't understand the extent of it at that time, that how eternally linked our lives would be with the very boys in that room. But we knew in that moment that Yes. It wasn't just a fanciful dream. It wasn't just emotion, like, this is where we're supposed to be here with these boys. And just the relief I felt of like the connection there that I knew God had something for us that involved those boys. 

We also spent time in the isolation Hall, which is the part of Romaniv that's for the boys that have more significant physical disabilities. They might be blind or in a wheelchair, or prone to seizures. And I wrote about it in my journal that we met another little boy with Apert Syndrome. I don't know if you remember that, but the boy that we had hoped originally to adopt from Ukraine, the one that set off this domino effect- he had Apert Syndrome. I wrote about it in my journal that we met another boy with Apert Syndrome and how my heart was so soft towards him. Well, spoiler alert: a few years later, we adopted him and that's our son, Vlad. I love that I can remember the day that I first met Vlad. I remember there was a boy that was wheeled into the room where we were in the isolation Hall and he was just covered in blood on one side of his head from just scratching at his ears. I remember another boy whose face was covered in bruises just from self-harming day after day after day. Another spoiler alert: that's our Boris. Our hearts were just totally exploding that day, and I remember we were like "Okay, we're not going to try to think too far ahead, but that was significant. That was life-changing. Our hearts are never going to be the same. We saw those faces. We hugged those people. We looked them in the eye and we will never be able to go on with our lives and just forget about them. We must respond.

The last night that we were in Ukraine, we were at a conference. When we were in the US, we belonged to a church, a Vineyard church. There are Vineyard churches all over the world. And there was actually a conference for Vineyard churches in Kremenchug, so we went there, to this conference. There were some pastors there from the UK who've actually since then become really dear friends of ours. And one of them was praying for us, they all knew we were there in Ukraine with this big question on our hearts, and he just was praying for us. He was just like, "You guys need to dream big.  And you need to not be embarrassed to dream big, and that need to not be afraid to dream big, because all the resources and all the provision that you're going to need, they're going to be there when you need it. So dream big, don't hold back."  By the end of the trip we had this dream that we would take boys out of institutions like Romaniv, and they would be in family life. They would be safe, and they would be loved, and they would be known. And then we saw like an even bigger dream of that: off homes like that being replicated all over Ukraine, all over the former Soviet Union,. Even now I think about that part of the dream, and I'm like, "Oh, my word, God, it's too big". But looking back on this journey, it's kind of resparked that faith in me like, you know what, even though I know now, the reality of living here in Ukraine, and I know how hard this work is, I'm not going to be embarrassed to dream big. I don't want to be embarrassed to dream big. I don't want to be embarrassed by or thought to be a fool. Like, who cares? Who cares if other people think that this dream is impossible. Because I feel like how far we've come from that day when we were standing in Romaniv. The impossible has already happened. I didn't want to forget about the boy sitting on the benches there and our Anton, who I just hugged today, who is like a son. He's my son. Our Anton was sitting on those benches and I didn't notice him that day, because he would have been one of the ones just sitting there and rocking. He would have been one of the ones who was afraid of physical contact. And now he wants hugs. He wants love. He speaks. He is known. The impossible has already happened. So why would we stop dreaming big now, just because we can get overwhelmed with the reality of what we're actually doing here and how hard it actually is, and how much red tape and how many documents are required to do what we do? Now is not the time to stop dreaming big.

 At that conference, we felt that God gave us a choice. You know, we all have choices. We're not forced to do any of these things. And the choice was simple. We could either go back to the US, work hard, make a lot of money and send that money to support deinstitutionalization. Or we could move our family to Ukraine and we could do it ourselves. You go home, you make money, you support this work, I will bless you. You come to Ukraine with your family and you do this work with your own hands, and I will bless you. And we thought man if God is going to bless this if we come here and he's going to keep his promise, and he's going to help us get these guys out of the institution, then okay. We're in.  We'll do it. 

When we were in Ukraine, we saw a lot of churches that had ministries to orphans. A lot. Most churches in Ukraine I think, have ministry to orphans. And it's good. It's really kind-hearted, big-hearted people that want to make a difference. There's a lot of like Vacation Bible School VBS type programs to orphanages where they go you know, do songs, tell Bible stories, play games, give candy, and then they leave. But for people like our boys, at Romaniv, that is not at all what they needed. They don't need people to come and give them candy that they can't even eat and leave. It's stressful for them. That's disruptive to them. If I can't even handle human contact, the last thing I need is a group of strangers coming in and making a big fuss and then leaving. It's even more traumatic to someone who's been so neglected and abused for so long. We saw that the answer for our boys at Romaniv was not just to visit them, although that is good and we still do that to this day and it is necessary. But what they really desperately needed was to get out.

I don't know if there were other people working at deinstitutionalization at that time, I'm sure there was. I'm not going to sit here and say that we're the first people to have this idea or were the first people to do it. But in our research, we couldn't find people that had the same heart like us, who were going into those very dark places and bringing the men out into family life. That's the dream that God gave us. And he told us, He would bless it. 

So the next day after that conference, we left and went back to the US. We talked to our family, we talked to our pastor, we talked to our friends, we prayed. And the decision was made that we needed to move our family to Ukraine, with no end in sight, one-way tickets, because that dream we knew was going to take a very long time, probably the rest of our lives. So we weren't going to commit just a certain amount of time, we were going to commit to being the hands and feet to fulfill this dream that God gave us and that we would take it as far as he would lead us. It took us about 18 months to uproot our lives, hand over jobs, hand over responsibilities, find people to rent our house, we couldn't sell it because the market was terrible, to start, Wide Awake International.  And finally, in November of 2013, our family of six boarded a plane in Portland, Oregon, with 13 suitcases and a guitar and flew to Ukraine with one-way tickets. That was our response, and we're still living that response today.  I'm so glad we are. It's the best life ever and I'm so thankful that it's mine.

Thanks so much for listening. Today, I'm having been sharing our story and I hope you're enjoying listening. Go ahead and subscribe if you don't want to miss any of the episodes. And please feel free to pass this podcast along to your friends and family. We're always looking to build a wider net of support for our guys here in Ukraine. And you know, it's our dream to bring even more boys out of the institution and into family life. So the more people who join our team, the better. We'll talk to you next time don't be afraid to say yes to the very next thing God is asking of you. Bye.