Where All Are Beloved
words by: Elaine Tomski
A three-letter word makes all the difference. Jed and Kim Johnson say YES to Jesus every day with eyes wide open and hearts wide awake. They “bring hope, dignity, and love to orphans with disabilities in Ukraine.”
In 2002, Jed and Kim were married where they grew up, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. However, they shared the hope of becoming missionaries. Kim studied nursing since she held the dream of being a nurse to orphans. “We knew orphan care was important to us and that one day we would live overseas. Somehow. We were just waiting for God to show us the place and the time.” Jed and Kim were saying, “Yes!” But they sensed God saying, “Not, yet.”
In the waiting, God was getting them ready. Kim served as a pediatric nurse in their local hospital, and Jed managed local non-profit organizations serving families and children at risk. Jed and Kim had three children: Addy, Ezra, and Havalah. And, the waiting on God’s time and place for missionary service continued.
A wise Christian friend pointed out how foster kids are America’s orphans. “While you’re waiting, why don’t you start working toward that dream?” “So,” Kim says, “we became foster parents in Oregon and ended up adopting one of the foster babies in our care.” In 2010, little Seth, who had been born in drug-addiction, became a beloved family member. One evening, while Kim was up late, caring for their newest son, she stumbled upon a need she never knew existed.
“I remember the night very well. The kids were tucked into their beds for the night. Jed was working late, and I was reading a blog. By chance, or perhaps divine direction, I stumbled upon the story of a woman who had just adopted two little girls with Down syndrome from Ukraine. With each journal entry, the woman described in detail the plight of Ukrainian orphans with special needs. Several hours and a box of tissues later, I finished reading every entry.” For the first time, Kim realized that people were still being treated like animals in institutions overseas. No one deserves to live in the stench of urine, tied to their beds, and isolated in silence. When Jed returned home from work, Kim sobbed, “We have to do something! We have to pray about this!”
After praying, the possibilities began to come. Kim says, “We felt really drawn to a little boy in Ukraine who needed a family. He had Apert syndrome.” Apert syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes facial, skull, finger, and toe abnormalities. The bones in the face and skull fuse together too early in prenatal development, and many times a child’s fingers and toes also fuse, creating a claw-like effect. Kim says, “I always thought I wasn’t cut out to adopt a child with special needs.” But God was using this little boy to turn their hearts toward Ukraine.
Jed and Kim realized adopting a boy with special needs meant there would be no empty nest for them. They would be caring for this little boy well into their elder years. Could they make such a commitment? They asked themselves, “Are we okay with this being our future?” After lots of prayers, the answer came: Yes.
The Johnsons started preparing all of the documents. “When you adopt from Ukraine,” says Kim, “you don’t get matched with a child until you are in Ukraine. So, while we were preparing the documents, another family adopted him. I was super devastated!” Kim immediately wanted to adopt another child, but Jed suggested they remain calm. Kim says, “He’s always the brakes, and I’m always the gas, which makes for a good balance.”
Later, while Jed was mowing the lawn, Kim says, “He was talking to the Lord like, ‘God, what’s this all about?’ He felt God saying to him, ‘Jed, I needed you to love that little boy like a father because I need you to love a lot of boys like a father.'” So, Jed and Kim began researching how orphans with disabilities in Ukraine were being served. They discovered more than just children. Kim says, “There was a mix of all ages.” They also found a quality-of-life crisis. Young men and boys created in the image of God reeked of urine, existed tied to metal bars and ignored. “No one should have to live like an animal, so what can we do about that?”
In 2012, Jed and Kim flew to Ukraine and traveled around to find answers to their questions: What’s happening here? What is God doing in Ukraine? How are we supposed to respond? Kim says, “At the end of that trip, we saw that a lot of churches had programs for orphans visiting them in the institutions. But for the boys with severe disabilities, there wasn’t a lot happening.” Jed and Kim concluded that what they witnessed was not meeting the greater need. “When someone has been abused and neglected for so long that they can barely handle human contact, they don’t need a Bible study and candy. They need out!”
At the end of that trip, Jed and Kim felt God giving them a choice. They heard Him say, “If you go back to the United States and your jobs and you raise money to support the people who are helping, I will bless you. If you come here and work to get them out, I will bless you.” So, with God’s blessing, the Johnsons chose yes to serving in Ukraine. They returned to the United States, started their non-profit organization, named it Wide Awake International (WAI), and established a board of directors. Then, in November of 2013, the Johnson family’s time finally came to move overseas. Their dream was to get boys with physical disabilities out of institutions. Kim says, “We did not want to leave them in their suffering.”
Although Jed and Kim could not speak a bit of Ukrainian, they packed twelve suitcases, five carry-ons, a guitar, and moved with their four little ones across the world.
In Ukraine, people with disabilities do not have value. Kim says, “There’s a lot of leftover ideas from the Soviet Union, where if you can’t contribute to society, then you’re not of value.” The Soviet Union practice of trying to hide weakness also lingers in Ukrainian culture. “The way we fulfill our mission is by showing people are made for families, not institutions. Our dream is a big goal because so many people with disabilities are tucked away in institutions.”
Wide Awake International strives not only to change lives, but also change a way of thinking for an entire culture. “We work with all Ukrainians, raising up young professionals to be specialists in caring for the boys.” With God’s help, young Ukrainians are gaining skills to be psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and special education teachers. Because, as Kim says, “Once you take them out of the institution, that’s just the beginning.”
Jed and Kim began volunteering in a rural institution after moving to Ukraine. The institution for men and boys with disabilities is divided into three sections. One section houses the oldest boys and the men, a second section houses the younger boys who have aged out of the orphanage, and a third section is the isolation hall. Boys with more significant physical disabilities exist hidden away here. Sadly, many of the men and boys in Ukrainian institutions are deemed too old for adoption, so they have no chance to get out. However, first Jed and Kim searched for those boys eligible for international adoption and discovered seven teenagers. Kim is thrilled to report, “All of those boys have been adopted by Americans.”
One blessed boy became a Johnson. Vladik, affectionately called Vlad, was born with Apert syndrome, just like the small boy Jed and Kim initially hoped to adopt. At the time of adoption, Vlad was a happy and social fifteen-year-old boy. When he was adopted, he was non-verbal and only made sounds. Five years later, Vlad is twenty and speaks two languages, English and Ukrainian. Kim says, “He’s learned to read and write, and he is just brilliant! He’s kind and so loving. Vlad doesn’t really have fingers. He has thumbs, but he’s a woodworker. We have a woodshop on our property where he and Jed spend hours. Vlad has his woodworking clothes and his stool, and he’s curious. He calls himself Vlad the Builder. That’s who he is. We would never have known that if he were still in an institution.”
How many more valuable people, like Vlad, are hidden away in institutions? Too many. Yet, one by one, Wide Awake International is striving to get them out. They have gained guardianship over twenty-eight-year-old Boris, thirty-two-year-old Anton, and thirty-three-year-old Ruslan. Boris lives with the Johnsons in the remodeled old farmhouse on their rural property outside Zhytomyr, Ukraine. His diagnoses include cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol syndrome, and autism. Anton was born with a genetic disorder known as Williams Syndrome, and Ruslan lives with the affects of cerebral palsy and microcephaly. Both of these boys currently live in nearby city apartments with WAI team members.
Finding Ukrainians who believe in the value of all people is the key to the hope Jed and Kim have. Kim says, “We know Ukrainians are going to be the ones to solve this problem of institutions and the way their country treats people with disabilities. We don’t believe we’re the ones going to fix it, but that we’re just supposed to be the spark.”
The dream is for the next generation of Ukrainians to change their country. Wide Awake International hopes what they accomplish is replicated all across the country by Ukrainians. Kim says, “They don’t need Americans to come and fix it for them. We are supposed to be an example of what can be. We don’t want to provide just nice group homes with all the best therapy and equipment. We really desire something God-breathed.”
“I want all of our boys to be able to find joy in something and be creative.” Because their boys have been abused and neglected for so many years, specific tasks take priority. Kim says, “First, the boys need to feel safe, get healthy, and learn how to be people because they’ve been raised like animals.” For instance, Anton never lived with his family. Rather, he was confined to an institution from birth, for twenty-six years. “Anton’s path to discovering who God made him to be is three steps forward and two steps back because he’s been so broken by other people.” Anton is not very verbal, but he started learning to sing about a year after living with the Johnsons. They have also discovered that Anton likes water. So, they bought him a membership to the pool. Now Anton can go with an assistant to sit and take pleasure in the calming water.
Kim says, “With our boys, as long as they’re moving forward in their healing, it’s a success.” The process will look different for each boy. With Boris, they are just beginning to do sign language so he can learn to communicate. “He’s safe and loved, and he’ll blossom in his own time.” Jed and Kim dream their boys are not just feeling safe but treasured. They hope the team members who live with the boys will delight in them. They desire for the boys to discover who God created them to be.
Like a culture is broken and bodies get broken, our spirits become broken, too. Jed and Kim work with adults with disabilities who have lived in an institution for twenty plus years. Kim says, “You kind of feel like nothing has prepared you to help them. Honestly, we’re learning as we go along. This work requires everything, and we can’t just say yes to this calling one time.” Jed and Kim must say yes every single day.
“We have very broken people living with us every morning when we get up. Their healing is so long, it’s going to be a forever journey,” says Kim. “We’ve made great strides, but we’re dealing with so much brokenness, without Jesus, we cannot do it. And I try to do it on my own way too often.” Jed says, “Working with weak people shows us the brokenness in ourselves.” Kim adds, “They’re broken on the outside, but I’m broken on the inside because I’m selfish. And I want my time. And I want my way. And I want it on my schedule.”
Jed and Kim’s life demonstrates the lesson all who follow God will learn. Every day requires a new yes to Jesus and another no to self. Kim says, “I think when it gets hard, and we feel like the need is too great, we just look at the boys who are with us and see how their lives are changed.”
Trusting God’s Yes
Jed and Kim have learned to trust God’s timing fully. “Every time we need something, it’s there right when we need it. Not earlier. Just right on time.” For instance, when they needed a larger van, God stepped in. While considering how to raise funds, a partner in Germany contacted them to say, “We want to give you a van!”
Wide Awake International is building a large duplex behind Johnson’s house to bring more boys out of the institution. Both sides have room for four boys. The upstairs will be living quarters for team members who will care for the boys. Kim says, “A church in England gave us money for the land.” The duplex’s first side was already financed before they had any team members willing to live there. It will be finished and ready by February 2021 and the second side is about sixty percent complete.
The best news came in September of 2020 when a couple from Indiana contacted Jed and Kim to say they want to be live-in assistants for the boys. Max and Morgan Martinez are committed to joining the team for at least one year. The fantastic news is that they are available to come right when the duplex is ready in February. Kim says, “God delivers right on time. That always happens to us! God meets every single need. He always shows us; this is His work. If it’s important to God, He will complete it.”
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
~ Micah 6:8 ~
Raising American Children in Ukraine
One of the best ways to teach our children to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly is to include them in God’s purposes. Although it was a sacrifice for their children to leave the United States, they thrive in Ukraine. In November 2013, when they moved to Ukraine, the Johnsons had four children. The eight- and nine-year-olds, Ezra and Addy, were being homeschooled, which continued in their new country. Still, there were adjustments to be made. The younger two, Seth and Havalah, who were three and five, fit right into their new surroundings.
In Ukraine, people tend to be more reserved. Because of this, the Johnson family found it difficult to make friends and acquaintances. The best way to get to know people in a new community is to become involved. Kim says, “We needed to get to know people, and the kids needed to learn Ukrainian, so we put the kids in school in February. It was really hard, and they cried a lot of tears that first year. But it was the best decision we ever made! Now they’re all fluent in Ukrainian and thrive here. It’s their home. I’m very thankful.”
Since the move from America, Kim gave birth to a sweet little girl, Evie, and they adopted Vlad in 2015. Today, the Johnsons are a full family of eight with guardianship over three additional boys. Kim says, “It’s cool that since we’ve had the boys in our lives for seven years, this is what our kids know. Like the different behaviors, sounds, and smells the boys bring to the home. It’s just our family. It’s who we are, and it doesn’t faze our kids.”
Kim recalls how while living in the United States, their oldest daughter was frightened by the reality of nursing home residents in wheelchairs. “Now our youngest daughter? Nothing about this life frightens her.” From adults feeding adults to the noises coming from non-verbal boys, it all seems normal to her.
Kim is concerned that Ukraine doesn’t offer resources to help their son, Seth. As you recall, Jed and Kim adopted Seth while he was in their foster care in the United States. His challenges originate with a drug addicted birth mother. “I sometimes worry about his future,” says Kim. “Then, I see he has the softest heart for Boris.” Boris is a non-verbal, clumsy walking, twenty-eight-year-old the size of a nine-year-old. “And our Seth, who has his own struggles, is so gentle and kind with Boris. I think he needed the boys.” Concerning all of her children, Kim says, “For whatever God is growing them up to be, they needed this.”
The Johnson family cannot do as many things as other families. They move slower and currently they need to protect their boys from the threat of the Covid-19 virus. Kim says, “If they get sick in Ukraine, it’s not going to go well. They don’t get good care in the hospital, so we have to find the balance of living our own lives and protecting our boys. We have to adjust for the people in our family who are weaker.”
“Our journey to Ukraine and our journey in Ukraine is a journey of simply saying yes. There is no greater value in one person’s yes over another,” says Kim. All Christ-followers who keep their eyes wide open and ears wide awake will receive the Holy Spirit’s guidance. He has been leading the Johnson family ever since Jed and Kim took their marriage vows. The Johnsons claim, “We’re just two people who fell in love with Jesus and decided to say yes to the next thing he presented to us.” As a result, some of the world’s most marginalized people are now beloved.
How to Support Wide Awake International
If the Lord is urging you to support Wide Awake International, you can donate online through Room to Bloom.
To learn more about Wide Awake International, visit www.wideawakeinternational.org