Thursday, December 29, 2011

A little bit of Christmas

It has been a very FULL last week of life!  A whirl wind of activity with work in Kiev and traveling to Kherson to visit our kiddos then I quickly packed up and flew home to celebrate Christmas with my family in Seattle.  Hard to believe 2011 is drawing to a close. But what a GREAT year it has been!

I wanted to share a bit about our time in Kherson with the kids-- where we brought loads of 'all things Christmas' to 2 different orphanages and the transition home that Agape (a partner ministry) runs in Kherson. It was a bit of a ministry blitz to say the least as we didn't get nearly enough time in each location-- but it was the nature of the time we had and so we had to work with it.

Most of the kids we met with had been a part of our 2011 summer camps, so the trip allowed us to not only celebrate Christmas with the youth but also reconnect with all the kids we had built relationships with this summer.

Our celebrations also included bringing Christmas trees to the orphanages, decorations, Christmas crafts and to wrap up our visit, time decorating cookies!  It was a sweet and very sticky time indeed-- Though perhaps not very clean! (what was I thinking to have over 100 kids use sprinkles and frosting?)

The kids were thrilled when our team arrived, huddling around us as we passed out the pictures we had printed from our time together at camp.  Now bundled up in their winter gear, our recent summer fun running around in the sweltering heat suddenly felt like a distant past. But at we reminisced about our time at camp and flipped through the photos together, the memories quickly came back as we asked the kids their favorite summer highlights....and believe me-- they had many!

The kids seemed excited about their gifts (but really-who doesn't like to unwrap a present AND get chocolate!?). We are praying the Bibles we gave out will be read and absorbed.  If you think of it- be praying for these sweet faces and that the words of LIFE will breath life into their precious hearts as they read the story of Jesus.
I was quite taken away with these sweet girls...

One teen,  Sasha shared how he had given his heart to Jesus at the camp this summer and was doing his best to live for God and tell other kids about his new life with Jesus.  The joy as he spoke was undeniable.  Hearing this was definitely one of the highlights of my weekend!  It is encouraging to know that the seeds we planted this summer have not died out but are truly growing.

I also got to reconnect with two of my 'favorites' (i know that isn't supposed to be allowed!) at the Kolinenska orphanage. Natasha and Tanya regularly call me throughout the week- so that has given us a special relationship. I adore these girls so much and am sad I live so far from them--as they need much encouragement and support. I brought them a bunch of good books, so I'm hoping that will keep them occupied for awhile and their minds active.  As always it was sad to say goodbye..

So that's the Ukrainian Christmas report! (Though the 'real' Christmas celebrations in Ukraine take place on January 7th- when the Orthodox calendar recognizes Christmas).  And you thought Christmas was over?  Think again!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Santa's Little Helpers...

Tomorrow we are off to the Kherson region to bring some Christmas cheer from our Orphan's Promise team of volunteers!

We are going to be bringing Christmas celebrations to two orphanages we work with in the region and the boys house that Agape runs.  We will be bringing Christmas trees, decorations, Christmas cookies and gifts!!  We will be visiting mainly all the kids that were at our summer camps the last two summers and spending time getting all caught up.

 We are very excited about the gift we have for the kids 12 and under- The Jesus Story Book Bible!  This is a children's Bible that was published by Zondervan in the US, and a Christian publisher in Ukraine, In Lumine, has now made it available in Russian.  What's even better is if you are giving it away to orphans, you can get the Bibles for just $5! This is a steal of a deal.  If you get a chance to check out this Bible in English you should-- it has beautiful illustrations and the story telling is brilliant as it weaves the promise of Jesus, the Lamb of God into the pages of the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation!  We hope the kids like it as much as we do!

And in addition to gifts-- we are bringing cookies and cookie decorating supplies (thanks to some awesome donations we got from Ukraine Orphan Outreach).  So since we are bringing cookies- that means I spent all of today baking up a TON of sugar cookies!  Thankfully I had some helpers.  My friend Kelly came over to lend me hand, plus Rhya and Natalie who are staying with me right now (with their parents who are adopting) jumped in to roll out some dough.  We were a good team and I think I have well over 100 little snowmen and gingerbread men packed up and ready to go!

We'll be in Kherson till Monday- so please keep our team in your prayers and for the kids we will be spending time with!  I'm eager to see many of 'my girls' who keep my cell phone ringing most of the week!

Christmas In Flight

Life has been rather full lately-- Hence the lack of blogging this month!

I just finished producing a Christmas play at my church- International Christian Assembly in Kiev (an English speaking- international church).  And this time I decided to not only direct but ACT as well! I had to dust myself off a bit- as it had been awhile since my college days! For those of you that follow along and didn't know- I studied Theatre at Seattle Pacific University- and really saw my life on the stage....until God brought me to Ukraine!

So it is really a gift when I get to pull out my old theatrical skills and put them to use. I had the honor of using the script that a friend (also an SPU grad) had written. It was fun because the show took place in the 'Seattle Airport' and was about a couple 'running away' from their family at Christmas, hence the title- Christmas In Flight.  It was a delightful show that presented a heart-warming message of forgiveness and second chances and reminded us of the God who never stops pursuing us! It was a privilege to get to produce my friend's show and see it touch the hearts of many. We did it as a dessert theatre in the round-- and we performed 4 times to sold-out crowds!

I got pretty sick after the show, so I've been spending this week trying to recover...and counting the days till I board my own flight bound for Seattle (8 more days!)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fall Фoto Fun!

I've been trying to work on my photography skills as of late, and providing free family session is a great way to get experience!  My friend Tara asked if I'd do some photos of her 3 sweet kiddos this fall so we had a fun afternoon making them smile.  I shot manually-- something my friend Karen  (a real professional!) is inspiring me towards.  I still haven't perfected any real technique but I think we got a few keepers and one even made the Christmas card for this family this year (can you guess which one??)- so I'd say that is a pretty good start!

It wasn't too bad either that my friend payed me in the form of peanut butter and cake mixes! Those are hard to come by over here!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Time in the Far East

Well I was corrected! Apparently we were further into Russia than Siberia- in what is deemed the 'Russian Far-East.' And after flying for 10 hours east- I agree-- it is pretty far!!  Apparently saying 'Siberia' is the same faux-pa as putting a 'the' in front of Ukraine.  I stand corrected.

Our time in the far east city of Khabarovsk went great. I traveled with two of my colleagues and ministry partners, Mina and Galina and we trained a group of about 20-25 people who desire to teach life skills to older orphans in this region.  There are little to no resources for working with orphans here, so they were glad to have our curriculum brought over and some basic training to go with it!  We did a 4 day training with about 6 hours of teaching each day.

I was amazed to learn of the great need in this region.  To say they have a lot of orphans would be an understatement.  This region of Russia makes Ukraine look like they have their act together.  While  Ukraine is transitioning to foster care and more orphanages continue to be merged or shut down, Khabarovsk suffers from over crowded institutions with over 150 kids in each of the  66 orphanages in this region!  I was shocked.  The statistics surrounding the trade schools where the kids go when they graduate are not any better.  Over 30% of the kids are dead within 3 years of graduating.  Sobering statistics.

The people we trained were so grateful that we came, and made us feel like saints for traveling so far.  But to tell you the truth- they were really my heroes. They are a small group of believers who have been challenged to reach the orphans in their community and are seeking out all the resources they can to be effective-- and they are the minority.

One man who attended the training was a former orphan himself. He stood up after one of our teachings and with tears in his eyes began to speak-- 'this information is so needed' he said, 'It's true what you are saying.  I look today for the kids I grew up with and I can't find any of them.  They are either in prison, dead, or alcoholics. The future is empty without God.  I would be lost like them without Him.'  

I am always amazed at the testimonies of former orphans like this man Yuriy, and hearing how God saved them.  Yuriy now has a 19-year-old boy under his wing that he is trying to help rehabilitate- a boy he picked up off the street-- destined for a life like that of his friends. But Yuriy is determined to help give this boy a different future.  This boy recently gave his life to the Lord and is trying to turn it around--but it isn't easy.

most of the people we trained- on the last day!

It was a privilege to have this opportunity to travel east and equip more of the saints to reach these kids...the many many kids.  It was very humbling.  I now see through even different eyes the work that God has done in Ukraine and how far we have come and how now Ukraine is paving the way for Russia.  My friend Galina keeps telling me I can't leave Ukraine until all the kids have homes-- but now I am reminded that the work is far greater than just Ukraine. Don't know if I'm ready to be sent to the far-east permanently-- but if you are praying about a mission field-- then I'd add that to your list!  The need is overwhelming.

Our time in Khabarovsk was pretty much spent at the church teaching. But what little we did see of the city is below...

I felt right at home in Khabarovsk when I saw a sign with my name!
The caption says 'clothing from Great Britain'--(yes please!) :)
My fearless travel companions and friends- Mina and Galina
Cathedral in center of Khabarovsk- a winter wonder-land

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Coming full circle

I've known Illya for a couple years through various ministry we have done in Kherson (Illya grew up in the main Kherson orphanage). However I didn't get to know him better until this past summer at camp, when he was in my English group. I always make kids sing silly songs in English and it seems to make us connect!  He went along with it anyway-- good sport that he is.  We had a lot of good laughs in the process.

Illya is just the sweetest most polite kid! He was one of my 'best' students and I quickly learned it was because he had spent the Christmas holidays in the US, with an American family. I also soon learned that this family was amidst the paperwork process and would soon be traveling to adopt him! I was so excited when I found this out!  A 16-year-old boy-- on the verge of aging out, would be given a family-- just in time.

I knew that Illya would do well in America.  I also knew that a boy who is biracial would be accepted better in the US- then he ever would amidst the racism that is so prevalent in Ukraine.  I asked Illya all about his soon to be family and made a point to remember their names so I could track them down and connect with them.

After camp I searched all over the internet and could not find this couple who Illya said was going to adopt him. It seemed I must have had the name wrong or something!

Well about 2 weeks after returning from camp I get an email guessed it-- Illya's adoptive mom!  Apparently she has been a blog follower of mine for awhile and when she saw Illya's picture posted along with the story I had written about camp she figured I must know her son and decided to write me and connect!  I just love when God allows connections like this to happen-- just too cool.  The woman I was looking for had found me!

So all this back story to say....Illya's family finally got their adoption appointment to travel over and get him this fall.  His parents stayed with me on their way to the region so I got to hear more of their story and how adoption was the last thing on their mind....until they met Illya!  I love when God moves like that!

This past week Illya and his mom stayed with me again as they were finishing up at the embassy and getting ready to head home today. The other night as we were all hanging out in the living room I looked at Illya and I looked at his mom and I couldn't help but smile. I love when life comes full circle like this. A boy I meet and get to work with at summer camp winds up being an adopted child that I get to see placed in a family-- a family that I then am able to open up my home to.

It really doesn't get much sweeter than that! 

Friday, November 11, 2011

All grown up...almost

I was in Kherson last week preparing documents for a small group of kids who will be traveling to the US over Christmas. One of the places I always try to visit while in Kherson is the main internat (orphanage) in the center of the city.  I've known some of these kids for nearly 5 years now.  Really I don't get their often enough because I'm always amazed at how much the kids have grown and changed!  I am also reminded that they are still there.

One sibling set has weighed on my heart all these years. Edic, Sasha and Nika.  We've taken 2 of these 3 sweet kids to the US, so I've gotten to know them decently through that time. Paperwork was never done for them, as there mother was in prison all these years--making them never available for adoption.  Edic will age out of the orphanage this year as he is 18.  It amazed me as he still recalled memories we shared together on bus rides in the US 4 years ago--when he seemed like such a kid!  Those trips were so meaningful for the kids...I'm reminded of that when I hear their stories.

If you look closely, you'll see that Nika (on the right) is the same little girl that is with me on the right hand column of this blog. I've never had the heart to change that picture, as her little face has always been so endearing to me.  It was taken on the last day of a camp we did-- when she was sad to say goodbye--nearly 5 years ago!   When I saw her this time I was stuck by how grown up she looked-- that little girl look had left--she is now a young woman.  And yet when she saw me she came running up with a big smile on her face-- something in her little girl eyes seemed to remain-- distant-- but it was there.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Orphan Sunday

Yesterday we honored Orphan Sunday across the nation of Ukraine...well across the world for that matter-- but I was in Ukraine-- so that is where I took part in an event!  The Alliance for Ukraine without Orphans launched a campaign to challenge churches across Ukraine to take part- whether it be corporate prayer or an entire service dedicated to speaking about the concerns of orphans and our role as Christians in solving the problem.  In Ukraine the event was deemed 'Day of Prayer for Orphans' since the word 'Sunday' in Russian literally means 'resurrection.' We figured a day called 'Orphan Resurrection' may not work as well, and decided to use the word 'prayer' instead :)

I had the privilege of getting to speak at my church- International Christian Assembly here in Kiev.  I go to an amazing international congregation here with people representing all corners of the world.  The awesome part of our congregation is that we have so many people with a heart for orphans and involved in orphan care, adoption and other forms of out reach to orphans in Ukraine.  In order to show our church a picture of God's heart for the orphans I decided to talk on camera to those in our church who are out on the front-lines in orphan ministry and what resulted was this little film, which I will share with you here....

grab a tissue and be prepared to ask the question....what will you do?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Our kiddos 2 months later...

About 2 weeks ago I had the privilege of going to visit all the kids we had brought to the US on our hosting trip this past July and August.  We brought 13 kids from the Khmelnestsky region to my home church for 3 weeks and after my quick goodbyes with them at the airport in Kiev, I had yet to reconnect with all these sweet faces and see how they are doing.  So recently I made the venture to see these dear kids.

It's about 4 hours by train and then an hour driving to get to their little village.  When I walked into the room I was mauled with loads of hugs and quickly became even more popular as I handed out letters from all their host families and bars of chocolate.  They all retreated to their own little corners as they read the letters their families had written (and we had translated at my office into Russian).  It was so cute to watch them sharing with one another the news that they were reading!
They were so excited to get these letters and hear what their host families were up to and of course play the 'remember when' game with me.  I was amazed at the little details the kids remembered from their time in the US. From foods they ate, to various adventures they went on with their host families, all the kids were able to recount moments and the things they loved.  

3 of these kids are in process right now of being adopted, so I'm super excited about that. Most likely the families will travel over in the first part of 2012.  And for the rest of them that desire to be in a family I am praying!!   (If anyone is willing to advocate for 2 amazing boys- the two boys pictured above on the right are brothers and are pretty darn sweet!- email me for more details.)

After my time with the kids at the orphanage I went to Tanya's  house for dinner with her family (Tanya was the caregiver on the trip).  What a humbling experience that was.  The village where the orphanage is located is very tiny.  About 400 homes I was told.  

 Tanya's family lives very simple.... toilet outside, no bath or shower, no running water.  And yet she is one of the happiest most gracious people I have met-- as is her mama. They made me a lovely dinner and packed me down with loads of food to take home! Fresh fruit, canned veggies, walnuts, and a sack of potatoes that I could hardly carry home, and I'm not exaggerating!  Their generosity out of the little they had amazed me. I felt bad that they gave me so much-- but they wouldn't have it any other way.  

Tanya was so so so grateful for her time in the USA and all she learned about God while she was there.  She continues to read the Bible since returning to the village, but struggles not having any Christian friends or community.  I can tell it is hard for her to grow, but she was asking some great questions that showed she has a heart to learn.  So, if you think of it, pray for sweet Tanya! Pray she can some how get connected with local believers and that she will continue to seek out a relationship with Jesus. I love her heart so much.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

7 years ago...

October 4th, 2004 I boarded an airplane that was bound for Kiev, Ukraine.  I had never been there before and I had no idea what I was going to be doing when I arrived, but I was ready for an adventure--- I just didn't know at the time how long that adventure would last!

I remember the tears that fell as I tried to be brave as I said 'goodbye' to my family. 9 months sounded like such a LONG time for someone who had picked the closest University in order to go home on the weekends!  If you had told the girl sitting on the airplane that day that this flight was going to change the course of her life-- and that 7 years later she'd still be in Ukraine-- I think there is a good chance that girl would have bolted the other direction.  But I'm glad she didn't know.  God knew she didn't need to, because he knew he would work on her heart through time.

I remember praying a scary prayer before I left for Ukraine. I remember praying and telling God that if I was going to go on this adventure then I had to be open to what He wanted it to be about. I told God that I didn't want just some 'experience' so that I'd be able to check a box on some list of life long goals---('live overseas- check!')  So instead I prayed, show me what you want for me in Ukraine, and let me be open to more than just an experience....

I think that prayer changed everything.

So here I am. 7 years later.  God burdened my heart with the stories of countless orphans and he put a spirit of adoption in my heart, and as a result my life looks a lot different then I ever would have planned.

I've been in quite the reflective mood for the past week as I've thought back to memories over the course of the past several years.  I've been thinking about all my favorite moments and all the things I've learned-- the funny and the serious  alike.

This country has shaped who I am.  I realize now that I've grown up here...I've become an adult here.  I was thinking the other day about how I couldn't tell you the price of a gallon of milk or a pound of bananas in America- but I get by fine with day to day life in Ukraine and negotiating with the babushkas selling their fresh produce on the streets of Kiev.  Isn't it amazing what time does?

There are times when I am tempted to think, what would have happened if I had never left?  What would my life look like in the US? Would I be married and have a family? Would I be pursuing acting? Would I be working with kids?  Really pointless questions I realize...since they can't be answered.

Lately the desire to be a mother has been stronger than usual (maybe it's the whole turning 30 thing!) I see babies, I see kids in the orphanage, and I think- Lord- I want that! I want to be someone's mama- to have children--to mother--to nurture.

Yet a thought struck me the other day as I was praying and once again surrendering this desire to the Lord.  I started thinking about all the kids I've 'had.'  Not kids I've given birth to....but the kids that have come into my life, the kids I've seen adopted, the kids at the school I've mentored, my cousins in Kiev, kids at camp. So many faces. And I remembered a verse in Isaiah...

"Sing, o barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor, because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband" says the Lord."  
Isaiah 54:1

And it's not to say that I'm a 'desolate' woman (because I don't see myself as such)...but at times I think loneliness can tempt you to feel that way.  I started thinking of that phrase....more are the children of the desolate woman, and I thought, yes-- that is so true!!  If I had been married with kids the last 7 years, I'd have never 'given birth' to any of the kids I have now.  And really I've birthed a lot!!  :)  This week I counted that I've been involved in over 54 adoption processes for some 75+ kids.  Wow.  Do I want to be a mother? Yes!  But I recognize that God has given me so many children in this season of waiting-- and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

So being in the reflective mode that I mentioned, below you will find some of my 'highlights' of the past 7 years. In reality there are too many to be mentioned here, but as I sat and made a list, these are the first 10 that came to mind as I reflected on the goodness and faithfulness of God throughout my time living in Ukraine.

'Top 10' life moments in Ukraine (in no particular order)....

1.)  Being the 'older sister' to my 6 cousins and getting to watch them grow up.
 Having never had younger siblings it has been a privilege to have these kids in my life-- they have blessed me in numerous ways.  I especially have loved having 'little sisters.'  When I first came my sweet Gabrielle was only 7 and now she is a freshman in high school!  And Victoria and Honnah who were in middle school when I arrived have since left home to college and work!  It has been a JOY to walk with these girls and to do my best to speak truth into their lives at this vulnerable age.  They are the best sisters I could have ever asked for.

2.) Seeing God answer prayers for the orphan in the seemingly 'impossible' circumstances.
One of these 'miracles moments' was seeing Rimma and Lizzie Roge finally get to go home after many years of their parents battling through a mess of documents.  The Roges are my heros for their perseverance on behalf of the orphan.   Another 'impossible' circumstance was the Peck's adoption this year.  We saw God move in amazing ways as he moved the hand of the US govenrment to give Julia a family.  It reminded me that God's heart is with the fatherless and he seeks those who are willing to fight for justice on their behalf.

3.) Seeing Friends embrace God's heart for adoption.
 I've had the chance to walk with 2 friends from 'home' through the adoption process. One was a family from my home church who came and adopted Oksana, a girl very dear to my heart.  Now a piece of my Ukrainian world resides at my home church when I visit. 

The second instance was when a girl I went to college with came with her husband and adopted 2 kiddos from Ukraine-- that experience bonded us for life and we went from being college acquaintances to dear friends!

4.) Having my family get to see 'my world' and see why I love Ukraine.
The first year I was here my parents and brother made the long trip over and since then my parents have been back two additional times.  Having them see my life here was so important to me and as a result they now have an appreciation for Ukraine and support me in being here--which means the world to me. (Love you family!)

5.)  Having Kristi as my 2nd mama, auntie, mentor and friend. 
Kristi Weber (the wife of my dad's cousin) has truly poured so much wisdom and council into my life as she has walked along side me in Ukraine.  She daily points me to Jesus and cheers me up on the 'bad' days.  We have prayed and fasted together, cried together, traveled together, laughed together and have challenged one another on our faith journeys. We are very different--but she is my favorite person to spend time with.   I know she has made me a better person and has shaped me in many ways.  I love doing life with this gal!

6.)  Seeing an increase in national adoptions and getting to promote adoption among Ukrainian Christians.
One such highlight was planning a conference in 2010 for Adoptive families in Ukraine.  Over 200 people attended and it was simply inspiring to see how God is raising up the body of Christ in Ukraine.  
7.)  Seeing the very first orphan I ever met adopted into a loving Christian home 

Ira was the first child I met in Ukraine when she was only 11 year's old. I prayed she would find a family and God answered that prayer just 2 years later.  Ira became Erin and is now 18.  Her parents have become dear friends as well and 'adopted' me as a daughter too.   

8.) Starting a hospitality ministry to adoptive families
I truly love getting to open up my home to families adopting from Ukraine.  Since I opened this 'hospitality house' I have hosted just over 30 families and have so enjoyed getting to hear the various adoption tales and see kids in their forever families.

9.) Being a part of ICA church, a place I love to worship and live life with my church family.

I've been a part of International Christian Assembly since I arrived in Ukraine and it has become a place I love to call 'home'. I have a wonderful community there of internationals- all living in Ukraine for various reasons and following Jesus. 
10.) Directing plays for students at Kiev Christian Academy
When I left the US I had surrendered my life in the theatre to the Lord, thinking there would be no opportunity for using it in Ukraine.  But soon after arriving, the Lord gave me huge gift when I was connected with Kiev Christian Academy.  I was asked to help with their drama program and ended up becoming the part time drama teacher! I've since directed 7 shows at KCA. This has been my creative outlet and a chance to use my theatre education. I also just LOVE these kids.

I know I could come up with many more moments and memories-- but I will stop with 10 for now!  It has been an amazing 7 years of living life in Ukraine and seeing what God has in store around each bend.  People always ask me 'how much longer' and honestly that is a hard question for me to answer. My easy answer is, "well, I never thought I'd be here this long!"  And that's the truth!  Like I said, I never would have imagined this life-- but I see God in it, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

Thanks for following along on the journey!!