I watched my little man shove cereal into his mouth, remembering after a week of being gone how beautiful his four-year-old eyelashes are.
“Hey Jude,” I asked. “Do you know where Daddy and I were this week, and why you had to stay with Miss Bonny for a little bit?”
The spoon kept going, barely breaking stride. “Yup,” Jude munched. “You were in Ukraine, helping boys who don’t have mommies or daddies.”
Back in October, I went to Ukraine to visit the Johnsons, our friends from Oregon who moved to Ukraine nine days after we moved to England. Kim and Jed and their four kids (soon to be five!) gave up everything they know and love in America to change the culture of disability in Eastern Europe. In practical terms, that means visiting a nearby orphanage for the most challenged boys twice a week and advocating for them the other five.
When Kim and Jed’s team arrive, it’s like a party. Because when your life consists of one hallway and a few rooms — no toys, no books, no TV, no music, almost zero stimulation whatsoever — some smiling faces bearing bananas, legos and a guitar are a jackpot.
While beautiful and worth seeing, Ukraine isn’t exactly known for its gleaming skyscrapers and progressive thinking. Life is hard. It’s even worse if you are a disabled person, or give birth to a child with disabilities. The statistics are pretty grim: Ukraine aborts more babies than any other European nation. Listen to this:
Yearly, 200,000 Ukrainian women deny the little ones within them the gift of life. One out of three Ukrainian pregnancies ends in abortion! The average Ukrainian woman has six or more abortions in her lifetime. As poverty, poor medical care, substance abuse and crime continue to increase – so does the number of children placed in orphanages and born with disabilities. But through God’s grace there is HOPE for the voiceless…and there is LOVE for the marginalized as He has opened up opportunities for ministries in Ukraine.
Mission to Ukraine was founded in 1997 in a single room of the First City Hospital of Zhitomir. Its original focus was to serve women experiencing crisis pregnancies, through counseling, to protect their unborn child. Called to serve those with the greatest needs, the mission has expanded into serving children with disabilities and their families. MTU is staffed with 45 dedicated believers, including 7 physicians. A vast range of free medical and rehabilitation services, special education, counseling, and a number of benevolence programs are made available to all patients in the name of Christ. When their physical needs are met, they experience the love of Jesus in a very practical way.
When you walk the city streets, it is easy to feel hopeless. People don’t often smile (unless they are pointing and laughing at certain American runners, ahem). Jobs are scarce. Old-style Soviet thinking reigns. Trash, stray dogs and cats, decaying buildings, potholes the size of small children — EVERYWHERE.
But then you walk into Mission to Ukraine (MTU) headquarters. It’s like a physical breath of fresh air. There is color, warmth, smiles, laughter, progress — HOPE.
Nick and I received a personal tour from Tania the PR lady. She’s beautiful, passionate, well-spoken and tenderhearted. One couldn’t help but catch her and the staff’s vision as we moved from one room to the other — that someday, Ukraine will be a place where it is safe to bring a child with disabilities into a family, a place where people in wheelchairs can attend school and integrate into a society, a place where every life is treated with dignity and inherent value.
So it went looking for places to share that vision — and MTU found this orphanage.
It’s a delicate dance between saying how things really are and still maintaining everyone’s dignity. But suffice it to say that the boys at the orphanage were in obvious need of care, of someone to see them as an eternal soul instead of just a temporary, inconvenient body. So MTU built the foundation of outsiders coming in — of delivering food, medical equipment, educational materials and love.
In 2013, Kim and Jed piggybacked on MTU’s work, taking over the orphanage team. What they are doing — smiling, hugging, comforting, feeding, stimulating, talking, singing, gifting, remembering birthdays, teaching, cuddling, praying — is literally saving lives and changing the culture bit by bit.
When they announced that they were adopting one of the orphanage boys, for example, many in both Ukraine and America were incredulous. Succinctly put, some think the Johnsons are crazy. Because why would you choose to bring a boy home with institutional behaviors, years of trauma and a genetic condition? Why would you do that?
Because no child is meant to be without a mama and daddy’s protection, that’s why. There is tremendous potential; Nick and I saw it each time we visited. When we came, some boys were locked up inside themselves. But then, after just a half hour, they were making eye contact, smiling, reaching out for us. They can learn. They can grow. They can love.
Each one of these boys and men deserves more entertainment and company than floating dust.
Two of these boys are affectionately known by the MTU team as “The Littles.” I loved them when I met them back in October, and after spending more time with them last week, the feeling only grew.
Meet Mr. Smiley, code-named Isaiahu. He has cerebral palsy and thus far can’t roll over, sit up or walk. But boy can he grin! And giggle! And melt your heart (I have the video to prove it)!
Little dude is pure sunshine — and this is without any therapies or specialized care whatsoever! Imagine what he could do when he had a mom and a dad cheering him on at his doctor’s appointments — or just broadening his world beyond one room.
Maybe you don’t know a lot about cerebral palsy. That’s okay. Just know that it’s not even close to a death sentence. In fact, you can do things like, oh, sign the Declaration of Independence. Because “Though my hand may tremble, my heart does not.”
Currently, Isaiahu has a few grand in his Reece’s Rainbow adoption fund. (An adoption fund helps a family pay for all the international and domestic fees that come along with adoption, by the by). If anything in this blog has made you angry — if your gut cries out THAT’S NOT RIGHT! — then consider throwing a buck or two his way. If not money, then offer up prayer for his future mom and dad to see him.
As much as Isaiahu needs a family, I’m not as worried about him as I am about Ben.
Ben is an international man of mystery. But a few facts are clear: he never smiles. He likes to grab his ears and rock back and forth. He used to gag up his food all the time but now, with a private nanny, is doing much better. My right hand and Nick’s cheek will tell you that his teeth are a force to be reckoned with. Oh, and Boyfriend only weighs a little more than 15 pounds at the age of six.
I tickled his tummy, my hands not believing what they were feeling. Ben is skin and bones, nothing more. But his soul is still there. His need for love and safety and calories are still there. Give him a G-tube. Give him some therapy. Give him some time and opportunities. I can guarantee he will grow, both in body and behavior. But even if he never did…..he would be worth it.
Nick and I went to a “youth group” night for MTU graduates. We met lots of super-cool Ukrainians, both those helping out with set-up, games, food, etc. and those who have used MTU’s services over the years. The common denominator was equality. We all were friends, no matter where our feet could or could not take us.
The next night, my man and I dined on shashlik (Ukrainian barbecue served at room temperature) with Katya, a new friend. She’s a beautiful, fashionable, bilingual, sweet, intelligent 20-something — and in a wheelchair. That last part tries to define her life in her home country.
We talked about a popular Ukrainian game show where a friend had won quite a bit of hyrvnia. “What would you do if you won all that money?” I asked her, teasing.
She answered immediately. “I would buy a ticket to America, because people there with disabilities can have a life.”
Dead silence from me. Because what can you say?
May the generation after Katya never have to long for the salvation of another country. May the change begin with MTU and Kim and Jed and everyone there who works so hard to highlight the inherent worth of every man, woman and child with disabilities.
May that change continue with you.