An Opportunity to Give

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! This is one of my favorite times of the year. Everyone just seems to be in better spirits: it's the end of the semester, Christmas is coming, you get to see family, eat good food, listen to good music, etc. etc. It's the time of year where we are thankful to be alive and realize that not everyone is as fortunate as we are. At Chick-fil-A, we often see an increase in drivers paying for each other's food. Sometimes we even have a chain reaction that can go on for several cars. Everyone just seems to be happier and in a giving mood. 

As you may know, in the past I've been an avid Christmas Angel Tree Warrior for Reece's Rainbow. I've personally sponsored three girls with Down Syndrome over the years (Polina, Jessa, and Rania--now Hannah Rose), although I've given to more. Last year, I had to put that aside to focus on my own trip to Ukraine. This year, I knew I had a lot going on for my first semester in college, so I knew I couldn't commit to personally sponsoring a child. I can't organize and pull off a fundraiser right now. But that doesn't mean I can't advocate for it! 

Meet Clare

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Clare caught my eye a few weeks ago. In our speech class, we had to do a persuasive speech in an attempt to persuade our fellow classmates to a new belief or action. Any guesses on what mine was about? Yep, you guessed it. Donating to Reece's Rainbow Christmas campaign. They've since changed the name to Miracle of Adoption Christmas Campaign, but the goal is the same: raise $1,000 for a child in two months, November to the end of December. In my research for my speech, I saw her picture a few times and was drawn to her adorable face and sweet personality that clearly shines through the pictures. Somehow or another that always happens. I can spend hours on Reece's Rainbow looking through their pictures. 

Not much information is known about Clare. She is 3-years-old and has Down Syndrome. No other health complications were mentioned, although with Down Syndrome that can often be a possibility. While her profile can't specifically state the name of the country, she actually is most likely from Ukraine! She will become available to be adopted hopefully at the end of the year, but in the meantime, Reece's Rainbow is getting her picture out there in hopes of her finding a family. 

Grainy picture but look at that precious face!

Grainy picture but look at that precious face!

Quite a few children featured in Reece's Rainbow's Christmas campaigns are found by their adoptive families. If you don't know how RR (Reece's Rainbow) works, each child has an account where people can donate to them. This money is held by RR until the child has a family committed to adopting them, and needs that money. This is a HUGE resource for families. International adoption is expensive, between $36,000-$45,000. Hannah Rose, previously known as "Rania" when I fundraised for her, had nearly $20,000 in her account that helped her family adopt her. Not every child is so lucky to have that much money, which is why RR pushes the Christmas campaigns so much. Because Clare is so newly listed, I have no doubt that someone will inquire about her quickly, but she doesn't have very much in her account, only $108 as of November 13th. Only $54 has been raised in the Christmas Campaign, which means she still has a long way to meet her goal. 

I know what the orphanages are like in Ukraine. I know that even if Clare is not in Ukraine, all the orphanages are fairly similar in that part of the world. No child should ever have to end up in an institution like the one I visited. I don't want that to be Clare's fate. She needs to go home, to a loving family who will value her as a human being and love her for who God created her to be. She needs to be in a healthy environment where she can grow and play like a normal kid. Some orphanages are better than others, true. Not all of them treat children with special needs as poorly. But it is an orphanage, not a family. The sooner she can get out, the better.

So please, spread the word, share her picture, and pray about donating to her this Christmas.  

Secret Garden: Rediscovering Myself

I've been at college for a full seven weeks now and wow! has it been a whirlwind. I absolutely love it here at Trevecca; it was definitely a good fit for me. I'm doing well in my classes and I've learned how to study for my exams. I've gotten involved in the RHA (Residence Hall Association), which is basically organizing and leading events for our dorm, and I got to perform in The Secret Garden musical! I thought it would be a fun extracurricular and a good way to get plugged in and know people, and it was, but God also used it and turned the experience into so much more.

I auditioned without thinking, because I love theater. I was expecting an ensemble role, as usual, some role where they could place me in the back of the group to hide my dancing skills. I'm always the last to learn, the last to "get it," always one beat behind the rest because I don't trust myself to do it well. I wasn't nervous during the auditions because I didn't know anyone. I didn't know who I was up against or seen their past performances. I had no one to compare myself to, so I did fine.

Honk! Jr., Campanile Productions, summer 2014. I was 16 at the time and it was my first real theater production aside from church plays.

Honk! Jr., Campanile Productions, summer 2014. I was 16 at the time and it was my first real theater production aside from church plays.

They had me read for Mary, which got my hopes up a bit, but I quickly brought myself back to reality. Everyone was reading for Mary because she had the good long bits of dialogue.  I'd never played a main character before except for Grace Ferrell in Annie, and that was only because our theater class was split into 3 shows so everyone could get a chance. I believed I would not have gotten that role if Annie had been our sole production for tutorial that year. What do I know about playing "big roles" on stage? "Don't be naïve, Emily. You're a freshman, and not even a theater major. You're not going to get a big role."

Annie, Al a Carte theater productions, spring of 2016. This was my senior year, when our homeschool tutorial class split into 3 different casts for 3 separate shows.

Annie, Al a Carte theater productions, spring of 2016. This was my senior year, when our homeschool tutorial class split into 3 different casts for 3 separate shows.

I was not cast as Mary, that went to my friend Grace (who was brilliant by the way). I wasn't upset, at that point I had talked myself down to where it had been expected. When I saw I had been cast as Colin, my first thought was "well that's interesting." I had never seen the show before, only read the book and watched the movie, so I had no idea what the onstage role entailed. At the read through, I got to see some of the other cast members and hear them read or sing their parts. At that point, I thought it was a fluke. "Wow, they must be really desperate for a Colin if they had to settle for me." As I got to know them more over the next few rehearsals, I figured out that I was probably the least experienced in the cast. I'd only done two years of homeschool tutorial theater class (that's once a week for an hour and a half, group work only) and sang in choir for a few years. I've never had any one-on-one acting lessons, or private voice lessons. Now suddenly I had a role that required me to sing on my own in two different songs for extended periods of time! "Wait, what? But I've only ever been given one-liners!"

Mary Poppins, Campanile Productions, fall of 2016. There aren't many female roles for teeenagers in this show, so I was ensemble again. 

Mary Poppins, Campanile Productions, fall of 2016. There aren't many female roles for teeenagers in this show, so I was ensemble again. 

I honestly didn't believe I was good enough for this. Sure, people always told me "great job" after performances. But that's what they all say to everyone, isn't it? People have told me I have a pretty voice before, occasionally, but I never believed them. In the youth group, I would immediately think of my friends Kimber and Lilliana. "No, no, they're the ones with the good singing voices, not me." It wasn't me being humble, or even false humility. It was me down-playing myself. I honestly believed it. I honestly had that low self-esteem. Did I have fun singing and acting on stage? Oh, sure, definitely. But I didn't think I was any good.

Wheelchair selfie getting ready to play Colin.

Wheelchair selfie getting ready to play Colin.

During the opening weekend of Secret Garden, I had a nightmare that I'd been replaced as Colin, that they were kicking me out and I couldn't do the show at all. In the dream, it crushed me to my core. "No, no you can't do this to me! You don't know how much I've worked for this, you don't know how much this means to me!" I screamed. Of course, that would never actually happen. In real life, this theater community has been so supportive and encouraging of me. "Don't be nervous, you're doing great," Teal, who plays my on stage father, whispered right before I was rolled out on the bed for my first scene in our first performance. It took me awhile to accept that my cast-mates were not being polite or patronizing to spare my feelings, but that they actually meant it.

Me and my on-stage parents after our first show.

Me and my on-stage parents after our first show.

"God, do I really have that much low self-esteem, after all that I went through in DTS? Did I not change?" It was confusing at first, constantly grappling with this new revelation and view of myself as I walked around campus. In this past week, random strangers have come up to me. "Oh, you were in the show, right? You were amazing!" I'm not saying that I find my identity and self-worth in theater, or that my reason for doing it is to get that rush and approval. In fact, if this is my last show I can do here due to scheduling and course work (a very real possibility), I've already made my peace with that. But the show did help remind me of the lessons I learned this winter, and helped cement them into a reality I could believe in.

The finale.

The finale.

Actually, that reality is still changing, and so am I. I am a work in progress. I think back over the past few years and realize the key events that have changed me: working a Chick fil A, taking care of Granny, grieving, moving to Hopkinsville for awhile, going to Ukraine, going to Montana for camp, coming to Trevecca and performing in The Secret Garden. There were key people along the way (who I will not mention) from all different backgrounds who had all sorts of ideas on what a good friendship was. I experienced new relationships both healthy and unhealthy which taught me so much about life.

Me and Grace after our final show!

Me and Grace after our final show!

Sometimes I still struggle with my identity and self-confidence, and I expect that I always will in a way. I still talk down about myself and I still doubt myself. But after this show I think I will do better. The beauty of The Secret Garden is Mary bringing everything back to life out of their grief: the garden, Colin, and Colin's father. It isn't medicine that helps Colin get better or gives him the strength to stand, it's Mary's belief in him, and I relate to that so much. I am not the same person I was two years ago, one year ago, six months ago, or even six weeks ago, since starting college. I am changing, I am still growing, and will continue to grow here. I think I'm finally grasping an important concept: Of course, I'm amazing, the God of the universe created me!

Down Syndrome Awareness Month

Well, I have not been very active on here lately. I'll do a college post soon to catch everyone up on my adventures here, but for now, I'll continue my Down Syndrome Awareness series that I've been doing on Facebook. In case you've missed some of those, October is Down Syndrome Awareness month and I am obviously very passionate about this subject. 

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Until Achieve Camp, I'd never gotten to work directly with anyone who had Down Syndrome. I knew a lot about cerebral palsy, but there was only one person I knew with Down Syndrome--a lovely woman named Britt at our church who comes up to hug me occasionally--so I actually didn't have a very clear picture of what it looks like until I met Abby. She was one of my buddies in our Party Cabin, and I learned so much from her.

Oh how I miss her laugh.

There are a lot of common stereotypes for people with Down Syndrome: mentally delayed, childlike, sweet and happy, and stubborn. But it is so, so, SO much more than that. Abby is 16 but is only a few years behind mentally. Her rationale is more on the level of a pre-teen, and she absolutely LOVES to play pretend. Much of that imagination revolved around playing nurse (she was really good at that one, obviously she'd seen a lot on TV) or getting married, and she would rather play one-on-one with one of her buddies instead of participating in the group games. She is sweet and loving but also sassy, spirited, and yes, she is stubborn with a capital S. She understood what I'd say, but if she didn't like it, she'd try to ignore me, or say, "Uh, no. You're funny, Emily. So silly."  

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This was also Abby's first time coming to camp, so no one had ever had any previous experience with her. We all got to navigate her challenges together. We learned that Abby really loved our adaptive swing, and we could use this to our advantage. If she knew that she would get some swing time or one-on-one play pretend, she would be more willing to at least tolerate our group activities. And once she became friends with Rachel, Abby wanted to help her friend overcome her hesitancy so they could have fun together, and hence was willing to try even more things. These two had a lot of fun with each other. Still, if she didn't enough attention or we didn't let her have her way, she would act out and cry, sometimes not speaking to us for the whole morning. We learned we had to be firm with her and let her know that we were still in charge and she had to obey us and stay with the group. 

Abby seemed to understand pretty quickly that even though Rachel only said a few words throughout the week (most of them the same conversation on repeat), she still understood everything going on around her. 

Abby seemed to understand pretty quickly that even though Rachel only said a few words throughout the week (most of them the same conversation on repeat), she still understood everything going on around her. 

Yes, there were challenges. Yes, I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the week. Yes, I was glad that we had the opportunity to hand her off to another buddy in our group to get a bit of a break. But if I get another chance to go again, I'm definitely going to request to be her personal buddy again. I loved hanging out with her. We had an absolute blast, and it was amazing to watch her love riding the horses and go out on the river on the yolo board, neither of which we thought she'd be willing to do at first! There are stereotypes for Down Syndrome, and some of them are true, but it is not all that there is to it. These people are amazing, funny, caring, beautiful human beings created by God who deserve a chance for life.

Silly Scottie being a model. 

Silly Scottie being a model. 

In Iceland, of the 85% of women who choose to get pre-natal tests for Down Syndrome at their doctor's recommendation, nearly 100% decide for an abortion if their test comes back positive. In the US, the number was around 67% in 2011. The numbers supposedly have dropped a little since then, but not by much. In Eastern Europe, it is rare to find people who have chosen to keep their child who has special needs of any kind. Most end up in orphanages. I know, I was there. I've seen them.

Why such a large percentage? It breaks my heart. Is it because they develop slower than neurotypical children? Because they're stubborn and sometimes have behavioral problems? Because they would have a social stigma around them their entire lives, that they might be looked down upon or bullied at school? Because people with Downs are more likely to have heart or other health problems? Because they are less likely to be independent? Because they would view and act in the world differently? Maybe there's a chance that they might not talk? 

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But suppose you could look into the future of your unborn, healthy, neurotypical baby. What if you discovered that they were going to be a late walker, or they'd have a hard time understanding math? What if you could see they'd have a spirited, red-haired personality that resulted in an especially difficult terrible-twos stage or a frustrating, rebellious teen stage? What if you could see how much they would struggle in school because they would bullied because of who they are? What if you could see that when they were 16, they'd need to have an emergency heart transplant, like what happened to my friend Jesse? What if you could see that they would decide not to attend college, but instead stay and help you with the family business instead, because that's what they enjoyed doing?

What if you could see that they would need glasses or something would happen that would lead to their developing PTSD? They would view the world a little differently, need help with certain things at certain points in their life, but is this any different with other children? We don't treat people with glasses or PTSD as if they had special needs, we just become more aware of things that might be different. For example, making sure a movie is safe for your friend with PTSD to watch, that there wouldn't be any triggers that might upset them. Or knowing that your friend with glasses might have trouble seeing a 3D movie with a double set of glasses, or they'd need to leave their glasses behind if you were going to a water park. 

If you could see that all of these things would happen to your child in combination, would that make you love them any less? Does that make them any less than another, easy-going child? Does it not give them a right to live?  

Stop seeing the negative stereotypes. Stop seeing only differences and difficulties. Start seeing the humanity. Start accepting and loving. I promise it's worth it. 

Achieve Camp

Last week, I had an incredible opportunity to go to Camp Bighorn in Montana to be with teens and adults with special needs. Over the course of the four-day camp, we took them through a ropes course, rock climbing, zip-lining, rafting, horse-back-riding, and swimming! We played games, made some crafts, and created lifetime memories. This special camp, called Achieve, has been running for nearly a decade and allows these amazing people to conqueror these adventures in their own unique ways. At the same time, it gives the full-time caregivers/parents a mini vacation and allows young teens real life experience in the world of special needs. I felt so privileged to be a part of it! 

We had 40 campers attending, making it a record-breaking week for Achieve Camp. Originally, I went up expecting to be paired with a one-on-one buddy, and I would become her caretaker for the week. In fact, the campers outnumbered the staff so that, other than a few more high maintenance campers that needed personalized levels of attention and care, the staff was looking after multiple people at a time. I was in a cabin with 4 other staff and 6 girls, which meant we got to trade around throughout the day. We dubbed ourselves the Party Cabin because all of our girls were independent young women who liked to have a good time!

One of our girls, who is diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, waited very patiently for her chance to try the ropes course! She was the last camper to climb and even though it was almost time for dinner patiently and sometimes tediously pushed herself through the whole course. We were so proud of her!

One of our girls, who is diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, waited very patiently for her chance to try the ropes course! She was the last camper to climb and even though it was almost time for dinner patiently and sometimes tediously pushed herself through the whole course. We were so proud of her!

It was amazing to see the variety of diagnoses, even just in our group! We had one girl with ADHD, one with Down Syndrome, one with Cerebral Palsy, one with moderate autism, and all with varying mental delays. For the most part, they just seemed younger than they actually were physically (our age range was 16-27ish, but I've forgotten specifically), but all of them were fairly high functioning and independent. Still, some of them got distracted and liked to wander, so we definitely had our hands full some days! 

I loved having multiple buddies. It meant that over the short time we were together, I was able to know 4 out of the 6 girls on a personal level. In addition, I was able to hang out with some of the other campers, like Justin (featured below) and some of the other guys, without having to worry about my own buddies on a constant basis. Everyone took care of each other, even among campers! There were no differences or diagnoses among them, we were all just people, here to have a good time together.

Justin survived a severe brain injury as a teenager, but that didn't stop him from also completing the ropes course with the help of his buddy Ben! It was amazing to witness these brave campers go out and achieve their dreams!

Justin survived a severe brain injury as a teenager, but that didn't stop him from also completing the ropes course with the help of his buddy Ben! It was amazing to witness these brave campers go out and achieve their dreams!

This week really pushed me physically in more ways than I thought. One time, one of my campers asked me to go with her on the ropes course, which I had never done before. Not only did I have to conquer my own fear of heights, I also had to help her in the places she struggled physically. Another day, I helped three campers who had difficulty walking reach the swimming hole by pushing their raft upstream over slippery rocks and through cold mountain water. It was also mentally challenging. I had to learn a lot very quickly, like how to keep my campers involved and happy, what upset them off and what calmed them down. There were definitely some difficult, learning moments for sure. But once it clicked I was able to help them have a great time! This has been one of the most rewarding experiences and my favorite memory of the summer so far (not counting my homecoming)!

Our ever-smiling Rachel, diagnosed with mental delays and sensory processing disorder, conquerors her initial fear of the horses and gleefully rides "Boots."

Our ever-smiling Rachel, diagnosed with mental delays and sensory processing disorder, conquerors her initial fear of the horses and gleefully rides "Boots."

Now that camp is over, college is up next! I'll move into the dorms on August 24th, and official classes start on the 29th. I'm sure you'll hear more from me soon as I start that great adventure in three weeks! 

Loving Home, Missing Home

"Re-Entry." It's the term missionaries use to describe their coming home process, comparing it to the part of the rocket ship landing where the rocket re-enters the earth's atmosphere. While the astronaut is glad to be back in a familiar place on earth, re-entry is rough. It's fiery, painful, disorienting, and a full bag of mixed emotions. I've been home a full month now, and I'm only just now understanding the full extent of the term.

I asked my grandfather, a photographer, if he could bring his camera to the airport to take pictures of my return. I'm so glad he did. I treasure these pictures of such a sweet moment.

I asked my grandfather, a photographer, if he could bring his camera to the airport to take pictures of my return. I'm so glad he did. I treasure these pictures of such a sweet moment.

On one hand, I love being home. I've had a lot of fun in the past few weeks making up for lost time. My sister and I went to a friend's wedding and got to swing dance. I took my youngest brother to the zoo. I introduced my other brother to Back to the Future trilogy in one mega-movie-marathon. I've read 3 new books and finally finished watching Gilmore Girls. I went to college orientation, got to hang out with my awesome future roommate, and start buying things for our dorm. I've taken our dog out for a few walks and gave him a bath (he was appreciative of the former, less of the latter). I went on two out of town trips to visit two sets of cousins. A few of my friends have been able to come over for a sleepover that resulted in some good late night talks, mostly me sharing about Ukraine. I've seen almost all of my good friends at church, including almost all the kids I know from helping in the children's ministry. I've seen three kids/teens musicals put on by my friends. I got to babysit some awesome kids the other night. And our family had two awesome 4th of July parties over the weekend.

My and my roomie Rachel at orientation.

My and my roomie Rachel at orientation.

I've kept myself busy. My dad complains that he's hardly seen me since I've gotten back. I've had fun and am counting my blessings. For the most part, I've maintained a pretty good balance of keeping busy, getting things done, but not over-doing it without any fun time to relax or spend time with my family. I missed Ukraine but on a low-level frequency. It was there, but not crippling. It wasn't like when I come home from theater camp and get really depressed for a week and then move on. It looks different, in fact, it looks like I'm handling it better, but it's actually so much harder than I thought. It hit me on Saturday. I took the day off and decided to get in one day of relaxing before work started this week. And that's when it hit me. When my mind was finally still and I wasn't looking forward to the future, I looked back. And I really, really started missing my Ukrainian home. 

Crowded onto the train car coming home from our retreat. Still one of my favorite memories!

Crowded onto the train car coming home from our retreat. Still one of my favorite memories!

I miss getting on the (sometimes claustrophobic) trams and heading downtown to the mall. I miss going to First Love Church and all my lovely friends there. I miss going to the orphanages every week and playing with those beautiful kids. I miss my friends in Paris, who taught me so much Russian in 3 weeks that, for the most part, I could understand what they were saying. I miss all my friends in Poland. I miss playing with David and Camilla. I miss going to the cafes with Marjolein and just talking for hours on end, knowing that nobody around us understood what we were saying. I miss laughing with Sasha and Tamara as we tried to understand what the other one was saying. I miss the little moments, the big adventures, and everything in between. I miss all of my YWAM family. 

Hanging out in Poland the day after Easter.

Hanging out in Poland the day after Easter.

For the most part, the memories are more like a dream. Ask me about something, and I have the answer clearly, but it's more like lines from a play. My brain pulls the files from somewhere inside me and I answer truthfully with all the emotion in the world because yes I remember, and yes I miss it, but it's surreal. It's weird being back home because suddenly YWAM and Ukraine is a memory and sometimes it doesn't feel like I lived it. Then I have little triggers that bring everything into sharp reality. The way someone moves, a certain word or phrase, a stray cat on the street or any object I associate with a person reminds me of them so much it hurts. Today on the radio the Christian radio station played "How Great Is Our God," in multiple languages. I turned it on during the Russian bit, recognizing every. single. word. Наш Бог так велек. And I stopped the car and just cried. I wanted to go back right then and there. 

Right now it's a lot of processing and trying to find a new routine. I've talked with three of my spiritual leaders and fellow missionaries about my journey. It's been nice to talk about it with people who've walked a similar path and understand exactly what I'm talking about and can help me along the way. Cheryl Tolbert, our missions pastor, reminded me that during this time I'll need to give myself grace. Because I have changed, I can't fit back into my old life the exact same way. The puzzle pieces have shifted. Things have moved on while I was gone. Life has changed. I'm different. 

Zoo selfie!

Zoo selfie!

I have my good days and my down days. For the most part, it's been really good days. But this weekend was one rough day after another. And that's ok. It's ok to grieve and miss my friends and dream about going back. It's ok to have days where I don't think about it at all because I'm too busy with other things. It's ok that I talk to my dog in Russian to practice and the neighbors might think I'm crazy. Friends, be warned. During the next few weeks, I might inexplicably laugh at something you said or did and instantly start relaying a story from my adventures. I'll probably talk about it a lot. Or I might be unusually silent and sad. You might hear a few foreign words that slip out automatically. I might randomly sigh when a song comes on the radio or I see a cat. These are things that may not make sense to you, but for me, they bring back memories. Go ahead, ask me about it, I don't mind. Talking helps me process all these emotions.

My favorite song right now is "Home," by Chris Tomlin. Please listen to it, if you haven't heard it already. They keep playing it on the Christian radio stations and I'm so glad. This is the concept I'm clinging to right now, that Earth is not where we belong, that we have a home in Heaven, in Jesus' perfect loving arms. Like I've said before, God is my only constant, the only One I have in both places, and the only One who will one day unite my two homes in Heaven. Right now, my Ukrainian home and my Nashville home are painfully far apart. I can only be in one place at a time, and no matter where I am, I always miss the other. In time, it will be easier. I will always have days when I miss Ukraine, but currently, those hard days will come more frequently. I ask that you please continue to pray for me during this time of transition. Right now, I need a lot of prayers, a lot of grace, and a lot of love and hugs. I know this post has been long and emotional, so thanks for sticking it out to the end. Thank you again, dear friends, for being so incredibly supportive of me. 

DTS Ukraine: A Summary

I've been putting this post off for a few days now (also my computer broke, but I should have had this done before that happened). It's not going to be my last blog post, but it is the last one for DTS. I'm readjusting to life back in the States fairly well, but I also miss Vinnitsa and all my people so much that it hurts. This is my wrap-up post. This brings it all to an end. Five months ago, I left for one of the greatest adventures of my life. It has been an amazing five months, filled with a whirlwind of laughter, tears, incredible people, powerful ministry, learning and growing. So much happened in such a short amount of time, I can't believe it's only been less than half a year. On the other hand, it seems much, much longer. So what all did happen to me during this DTS? I'm glad you asked.

This was the DTS where I fell in love with a beautiful country called Ukraine. The language, the food, the weather, the people; in short, the culture. In this time I fell in love with the story of the Bible and the author behind it. I grew closer to God and discovered the plans He has for my life. But the biggest change I think you'll see is that, during this time, I fell in love with myself again. I accepted myself for who I was created to be and understood how loved I was. 

I miss these crazy people already.

I miss these crazy people already.

On this trip, I became a missionary. I loved on some amazing Roma kids and children at multiple orphanages across Ukraine and Poland. For a brief time, I was able to make them happy, to let them feel special. Their sweet faces will never leave me. God's given me this amazing passion to share His love with those who the world calls "the least of these." This is what God has called me to do; I know beyond a shadow of a doubt. I became a missionary, just like I always dreamed, and I loved every minute of it. Something happens when you step out in faith into your calling, when you discover that, oh wait, you can do this. Something changes when you actually hold these precious babies in your arms and look into their eyes. I can't ever get away from that. I'm glad I don't even have to try.

I miss Ukraine already but I am glad to be home. I'm grateful that I get so much time this summer to spend with my family. God has called me to be a missionary, but first, there are some things I need to take care of here. I need to invest in relationships with my family and my church. I need to go to college and get some training so I can help the kids who have special needs. There are things I need to learn here before I can apply them there. I will be going back. I just don't know when.

I am not the same person that I was when I left five months ago. 

I am not the same person that I was when I left five months ago. 

 

Most of you probably know the story of Esther. But did you ever notice the timing of her story? Unlike in the movie adaptations, whether it be VeggieTales or One Night With The King, a lot of time passed. In the 3rd year of his reign, King Xerxes called for Vashti and she refused. Xerxes met Esther and proclaimed her queen in the 7th year of his reign (Esther 2:15-16). But it was only in the twelfth year of his reign, Haman cast lots to decide when to kill the Jews (Esther 3:7). Five whole years passed before Esther realized she was called "to the palace for such a time as this." (Esther 4:12).

I am currently in my own time of waiting. In fact, it will probably be around 5 years before I can move back to Europe permanently. Until then, I will continue my training. I will continue seeking the Lord and being open to His direction and guidance. And I will, of course, continue loving on kids and going on mission trips. This is a new and different phase of my life, College Phase. Tomorrow, I have orientation at Trevecca Nazarene University. New place, new friends, new home. It's a little bit scary. But one thing that God has taught me, especially since I came home, is that He will always be there for me. He is the one thing, the only constant that will continue to follow me through all stages of life. My Ukrainian/YWAM life of the past few months will never fully intersect with my life here or my Trevecca life. But God does. He is the only connection, the only friend who follows me wherever I go. And that is really good news. 

I have attempted to condense five months of this amazing experience into a six and a half minute video. Please enjoy!

Outreach: Full Circle

After 3 weeks in Paris, we headed back to Lublin, Poland, where we spent our first night of Outreach so many weeks ago. Luckily, we didn’t break down anywhere on this trip. We made it to our hostel in Krakow after almost 17 straight hours in the car, leaving at 4 AM. In Krakow, the Yarbrough’s took their leave and got on a train home so they could prepare for our last week in Vinnitsa. We were sad that they couldn’t join us for our ministry in Lublin, although we were glad for the extra car space. ;)

We were very busy in Lublin, as well. They took us evangelizing three times in the ten days we were there, each time located in beautiful Old Town. We were able to pray for several people on these days. Our team also organized a couple youth events for the new youth group the church just started and helped their leader come up with ideas to lead in the future. 

Our main project at the church, though, was re-doing the youth room. We gave it a desperately needed coat of paint, scrubbed the floors (literally, on our hands and knees), and painted some boxes to create a table, bookshelves, and coffee bar. I wish we had taken a before picture because the transformation was beautiful! Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to see the project completed, but we definitely gave it a good jump start. 

We were very fortunate to visit the Majdanek concentration camp. One of the leaders from the church, Anthony, lives right next door and admission is free. He led us around on a personal tour. It was the first concentration camp I’ve visited, and it was heartbreaking. Even I don’t have the words to fully describe it. We saw the ovens where they burned the bodies of the victims they killed and the pile of human ashes that has been turned into a memorial. You could still see some bones. But it was the shoes that really broke me.

We also had the opportunity to do our intercessory prayer at the camp. After walking through the gas chambers, there was a little grassy area where most people sat down to process. Our team sat down and prayed for the Christians who are still being persecuted today in similar or even worse methods. It was an incredibly powerful and emotional time. 

Our time at Lublin quickly came to an end, but at that point, we were all ready to get back to Vinnitsa. Praise the Lord, the border was clear and we made it through in 35 minutes as opposed to the expected 3+ hours. We made it back no problem and are now in our final week of the DTS. This week we are learning how to process what we’ve learned, how to share our story and testimonies, and how to transition back into our home lives. Tomorrow is our last day of class, we will have a graduation ceremony on Saturday, and on Monday I will be flying home. These next few days will be very emotional for our whole team; saying goodbye is never easy. We would all appreciate your prayers during this time. 

Tales from Paris

I have fallen a little behind in my blogging because the last few weeks of Outreach were so busy. So I'm going to do a few catch-up posts. First of all, Paris was SOO much fun. Yeah, the Eiffel Tower was kind of cool and we had a nice day off at Disneyland thanks to a generous sponsor (thanks, mom!), but that's not what made it so great. We've had a fantastic time hanging out with the people at the Ioppie church. It's pretty epic, let me tell ya.

Fun games with the youth group, which, in France, goes up to 25.

Fun games with the youth group, which, in France, goes up to 25.

The church is very active and community-oriented. We organized a couple youth/young adult events and joined their home groups. Our main ministry with them was fellowshipping and encouraging them to do missions. I shared my testimony about being called into missions at such a young age and having to wait and trust God to show me His plan instead of trying to follow my own. Several people have talked to me about it and have been really encouraged. I've also shared how we as Christians, even though we think we are inadequate to serve, are enough because Christ works within us. I wondered how I could possibly do any kind of work or fellowship when I didn't speak Russian, French, or Polish. Well, it turns out that I was willing to go, so God brought me to people who can speak or at least understand English. AND He used the little Russian that I've learned to bless people as well.

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We also got to play with a bunch of kids at this church! Daniel and Tetyana held a family seminar one night, so the girls and I provided childcare. We had a dozen kids from 4-11 years and all but two had high energy. They were quite a group but between a few organized games and Toy Story 3 (which I watched in Russian) we managed ok. The kids especially loved the game where I was blindfolded, spun around 19 times (because of my age) and had to catch them and guess their names. I got really dizzy but we all had fun. Like most nights here, it ran late and we were exhausted by the end of it. But it was totally worth it.

I want to end with a story. This picture was taken during one of our evangelism walks through Paris. Mostly, this involves Zoya (the blonde lady, one of the members of the church) speaking to the homeless and beggars in French, while we provide smiles, prayers, and the occasional sandwich when someone's hungry. This man wasn't asking for anything up front, just constantly looking around eagerly for something or someone. Zoya talked to him in French, translated quickly into Russian, so Tamara told us in English what was going on. Zoya was giving him the address where her team also feeds the needy, and the man was on the verge of tears because no one ever talked to him. When I heard this, I got down so I could look him on eye level and smiled. I only know a little bit of French, but it was enough. His reaction was everything: "Je m'appelle Emily." I shook his hand. "Stephan." "Enchante." (Enchanted to meet you.) His eyes disappeared behind the crinkles of his huge smile, the first one, I'm sure, in a long time. 

Bounjour, Paris!

Well, it has definitely been a wild, crazy week. We left Opole Lubelskie last Monday, everyone packed tightly into our crowded van. We left early and drove several hours into Germany. Once there, we discovered that our alternator was dying. It was, in fact, pretty much dead. Miracle of miracles, we somehow managed to drive solely on battery power until we found a small dealership in Dresden, Germany. Unfortunately, it was closed. And after driving 50 kilometers our van refused to start. Ok, we thought. Guess we're spending the night here instead of our previously planned destination, Erfurt. We found a good hostel, though, and spent a nice night in real beds again.

As you can see we didn't quite make it to Erfurt.

As you can see we didn't quite make it to Erfurt.

The next morning, we discovered that nowhere in Dresden did they have the part needed to fix the van. It would take at least a day for the part to get shipped in. So, the shop charged the battery up, which allowed the van to drive another 10 kilometers to a bigger dealership, where they had more room and could fix the car quicker than the little shop. In the meantime, while Josh and Mitch were dealing with all this, the Yarbroughs, girls, and I got to tour Dresden! 

Now we come to my birthday. Originally, I was going to get to spend it in Paris. Instead, I got to wake up in Germany, where my mother was born, which was also incredibly cool and special. The team lit sparklers and sang to wake me up, and then a few hours later we got in the newly fixed van to continue our drive. I spent the rest of the day in the car, watching movies with Sasha and occasionally being handed chocolate. And I was able to call my family when we stopped for lunch. For dinner, we found a Pizza Hut in Luxembourg, and the waiters came with little chocolate treats and sang to me again. We arrived in Paris at 1:30 AM, which technically wasn't my birthday here, but it was still back in the States. Either way, I got to be in 3 different countries for my birthday! 

So we have now been in Paris for a few days. We're living at the church, which is technically outside the official city limits but everyone calls it Paris anyway. Luckily, we had a day of rest after a long journey. Naturally, we spent the day preparing for our various ministries and exchanging money. Oh, and we saw the Eiffel Tower, too. We didn't get to climb it (yet), but it was still pretty cool.

We've only been here for a few days and I already love this church. It's fairly small compared to what I'm used to, but it's very healthy and active in ministry. We got to attend their weekly prayer meeting on Friday, and I was able to speak Russian (in very small, limited topics with awful grammar) to people from all over the world! The church has people from Belarus, Kazakstan, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Japan, and more. Everyone speaks Russian and French, some speak a little bit of English. Sunday the church was full all day; after the service, we had dinner and fellowship until 6, but some people stayed around until 8. It was really tiring to have to constantly figure out what people were saying without a translator, but I think I did pretty well and was encouraged by several people. I have a feeling my Russian speaking skills are really going to improve over the next few weeks.

Me hanging out with one of the kids. His family invited us over for lunch and he was pretending to give me a haircut.

Me hanging out with one of the kids. His family invited us over for lunch and he was pretending to give me a haircut.

Saturday we helped the church feed some of the homeless. Most of them are Russian-speaking and the church is trying to develop relationships with them. Since I don't have that much speaking skills yet, I helped hand out the food so that those who actually could talk had the time to do so. And it was across from Notre Dame, too, so that was cool. Monday night we organized a young adults gathering to get to know them more. A good number of them speak English, and I loved getting to talk with them more in depth than I can in Russia. I love the fact that we're in Paris but what's even cooler is getting to minister and talk with people from Russia and all over Eastern Europe! These next few weeks are going to be so much fun!

Daniel and Tetyana preaching on Sunday.

Daniel and Tetyana preaching on Sunday.

Roma Kids Ministry

So, luckily, I still get to do my favorite part of ministry while in Poland. Playing with kids! This is definitely an area where God has gifted me; I love coming and playing with them no matter how much work we've already done that day. We can't understand a word each other says (they don't even speak Polish, it's a dialect from their community), but it doesn't matter. We have fun and I can make them laugh anyway!

From our first night, after we walked them back to the camp. We had over a dozen kids that night.

From our first night, after we walked them back to the camp. We had over a dozen kids that night.

We've been several times now, and each time I love it. We start by walking down the block to their camp to see if which kids are around and if they want to come. The buildings are low, long, cement buildings divided into small apartments, From what I saw it seemed like there was a good number of people per home. Our first day was pretty popular. Four or five came immediately, the rest followed and joined a few minutes later, a little shy of us newcomers.

Decorating waffles, a favorite edible craft. Sometimes we only had 4-5 kids that were home.

Decorating waffles, a favorite edible craft. Sometimes we only had 4-5 kids that were home.

Every week we do a few dances so the younger kids can get their wiggles out. Musical chairs also turned out to be a fantastic game to play, though a little rowdy at times. Then we started getting artsy. One night we had a painting craft with water colors and Tamara drew designs on their arms. We've also made paper plate butterflies and given them pictures of us to color. Another night we brought waffles, filled in the holes with chocolate, and let them decorate them like Christmas cookies. That one was definitely a hit.

This girl was one of my favorites! She came almost every night and really attatched to me.

This girl was one of my favorites! She came almost every night and really attatched to me.

Sometimes we can only find 4-5 kids at home, but then it's really cool to get to play with them more one-on-one! They like to watch us dance but are shy when there aren't many people to join in. So the solution, of course, is to dance with them. 

Our last two times were some of my favorites. We had 15 kids one night, which was more than we had expected! We also made the mistake of giving them hot cocoa at the beginning of the event, which meant there was a lot of extra energy in the room. Well, we know for next time. Two of the older girls spoke a little English, so I was able to talk with them some, which was a lot of fun. 

For our last event with them, we wanted to go out with a bang. We created a mini scavenger challenge hunt around the park outside the church, which seemed to go really well. They enjoyed moving around outside, even though it was a little chilly, and all of them were pretty well engaged. Then we let them try candies from Ukraine and America and gave them paper plates with the above picture taped on. It was such a simple thing but they really appreciated it. I don't know how often these kids receive something of their own or are told how wonderful they are, but based on their reactions I'm guessing not all that much. It was a really cool way to end our time here, and I'll miss them a lot.

One of our fun games in the park!

One of our fun games in the park!

A Very Polish Easter

Happy Easter everyone! Yes, I know I'm a few days late for Easter. But, you see, here in Poland the main celebration lasts two days. It started with your typical Easter Sunday celebrations. Our church service is at 4:00 PM, so we had a relaxing morning of reflection and an Easter egg hunt. For the service, Vasyl, Natalka, and their team led worship entirely in Polish, which was nice for us to get a short break from leading. 

We decorated the church Friday afternoon.

We decorated the church Friday afternoon.

After worship, Mitch led communion. It's always interesting when we have an English speaker leading something because we have to do a double translation. Someone does from English to Russian, and then someone else has to go from Russian to Polish. Fun times. After communion, we put on a short drama, Sasha shared her testimony of redemption, and Tamara preached. Then we enjoyed a nice community dinner with the church. 

Now, the interesting part is Monday. In Polish, the holiday is called Smingus-dyngus, better known as Wet Monday. I like to call it NATIONAL WATER FIGHT DAY!!! This was our day off so we fully got to experience the tradition. We had already planned to drive to a little touristy town called Kazunierz (I think that's how you spell it, at least phonetically). There, we were treated to what must be the biggest water event in the area. The main square had a working well which was constantly spouting water. The kids flocked around it with water balloons, guns, and buckets. They were all soaking wet, despite the cold.

The sidewalks around the square were packed with adults watching from a distance but not fully partaking. I was trying to see if they were waiting in line for something, or if there was a big event. I soon found out when I heard the fire trucks coming. I remembered reading an article about the holiday and how occasionally fire trucks were used in the fights, but I didn't expect to see them in action. I started taking pictures and videoing, then realized it was heading right towards us. I ran down a side street with a bunch of other people and ducked into a little museum and cafe, where I was able to stay dry but still catch a good view: (Let me know if the video doesn't work for some reason, this is my first experience with Vimeo.)

After circling around a few times, the trucks left and the crowd dispersed to find warm, dry clothes. We still had some free time, so we got to explore the colorful, festive little town. The riverfront had several fancy boats, horse-drawn buggies pranced along the cobblestones, the churches and castle towered above to remind us of its former grandeur, and street performers entertained the kids once the square had dried. It was definitely an event! We found some nice souvenir shops, a great pizza place, and enjoyed our walks through the town. Man, I love Europe. 

Towards the end of our visit it had warmed up enough for some ice cream. It was still a little chilly, but at least the ice cream didn't melt while we were eating it. 

Top row: Tamara, Elina (Tetyana's niece), Josh. Middle: Me, Tetyana, Sasha. Bottom: Daniel with Camilla.

Top row: Tamara, Elina (Tetyana's niece), Josh. Middle: Me, Tetyana, Sasha. Bottom: Daniel with Camilla.

Later in the afternoon, Sasha, Mitch, and I took a bike ride through the woods. (Side note: I LOVE being near the woods again! I've missed the trees after being in the city for so long. It's so nice.) We had a great time and the weather was actually very nice. Well, when we got back, we were greeted by the kids and Natalka on the balcony...with water balloons. On the bright side, we were warm from our bike ride so it wasn't that bad. On the other hand, my hoodie got wet and it's still cold today. Oh well. That's why I brought another jacket. Luckily, I think it's going to be warmer in Paris, where, by the way, we will be in just one week!

Outreach Has Begun!

Hello from Poland! 

It has been a very busy past two weeks. Our last week in Ukraine was spent cleaning up Berezina, the orphans' transition home, from a fire that took place last November. We also cleaned the DTS house and said goodbye to the rest of the staff staying behind. Then we loaded into the van, all 8 of us and our bags, and left Vinnitsa! It was a 7-hour drive to the border of Poland, and another 3-hours to get through all the checkpoints. For those of you, like me, who have never driven across a border like that before, it was shorter than expected. From there, it was another 3-hours drive to Lublin. We stayed overnight at the church we will be coming back to later on, and enjoyed a wonderful hospitality meal of Ukrainian meat and Polish cake. It was a pretty epic first meal. 

One of the pretty Polish churches we passed.

One of the pretty Polish churches we passed.

We found out shortly after we arrived that we were being asked to sing and share something at the church service in the morning. Um...ok, sure. Why not? Luckily, the service started at 10:30, so we had about 2 hours to prepare. Things were a little tense during practice because we were all a little nervous but the service went great! We sang Bless the Lord (10,000 Reasons) in English with choruses in Russian, performed a drama, Sasha shared her testimony, and Daniel preached. Everything went very smoothly and we all enjoyed lunch and fellowship afterward. There are quite a few international students who speak English, and I enjoyed talking with them. 

After lunch, we got back in the van and drove to Opole Lubelskie, about an hour and a half away. There, we made it just in time to join Tetyana's sister Natalka and her husband Vasyl at their church service. We blessed them with the same program we used in Lublin, minus the drama. Their church is pretty small, only about 5 regular members, so we're doing a huge thing just by coming and encouraging them. 

Downtown Opole, from just outside the church.

Downtown Opole, from just outside the church.

Mondays are our day off (so most likely my new day for posting the blog), and on Tuesday we jumped right into ministry again. We helped an older lady who is not a believer on her farm. The work was not difficult, just raking the field and laying down an irrigation system of plastic hoses, but it would have been very time-consuming on her own. Her husband and sons are no longer there, so with no one to help it would have taken her all day, but we did it in a few hours. It was a neat time to be able to bless her and help Natalka establish a stronger relationship. She also owns a few small apple orchards and made us some wonderful apple crepes and sent us home with several kilos worth of apples from last autumn. 

We were too busy working to really take pictures on the farm, but afterwards, I relaxed on the swing while waiting for the apple crepes. Can you tell I enjoyed it?

We were too busy working to really take pictures on the farm, but afterwards, I relaxed on the swing while waiting for the apple crepes. Can you tell I enjoyed it?

Wednesday night we visited a foster home and played with the kids. We had face painting, dancing, and soccer. One of the boys who was about 8 had special needs and I got to paint him into Batman. He was really sweet and it was so much fun!  Because it was one of the girls' birthday, they also had a bonfire going and we roasted sausages. Friday morning we were invited back to help them with landscaping projects, and Saturday night the 4 boys came to our barbecue.

Our team with the family who runs the foster home.

Our team with the family who runs the foster home.

Friday afternoon we did a prayer walk around the city. Opole Lubelskie is a small town but there's still so many opportunities for ministry. As far as I can tell, the majority of the town and surrounding area is Catholic, with a small protestant church and a few Jehovah Witnesses. In Opole Lubelskie itself, there's also a Roma community that Natalka and Vasyl are trying to serve (more on that later). On our walk, we did a loop around the main downtown area. We started at the church building and walked by the main catholic church, the corner where they do evangelism, the city hall, and the marketplace where they also occasionally do evangelism. It was really neat to pray for the city and the people we passed.

So as you can see, we had a very busy first week here in Poland; too much to put in one blog post! I'll try to update later on this week, now that we've settled down here and learned how the routine works. Until then, thanks for your support and prayers!

Halfway Mark!

So yesterday we reached an exciting milestone. As of Saturday, March 25th, we have reached the halfway point through DTS! We have finished week TEN and have TEN weeks left before our graduation! Ahhh! It's so weird to think about the fact that our time in Ukraine is rapidly dwindling. In some ways, it doesn't seem like I've been here very long at all. On the other hand, I can't imagine my life without knowing these amazing people.

Left to right: Josh, Gert, Mitch, Daniel, Camilla, Tamara (very top), Tetyana, Me, and Sasha.

Left to right: Josh, Gert, Mitch, Daniel, Camilla, Tamara (very top), Tetyana, Me, and Sasha.

Last week was fun. Derrick, one of the staff on base, taught on leadership. Over three days he talked about how to avoid temptations and pitfalls, handle conflict, and become a person of integrity. To finish it all off, we had an amazing dinner with Derrick and his wife Vika and watched We Were Soldiers and had an in-depth conversation about leadership. The movie was well done and had good examples of leadership, although I can't say I enjoy war movies that much. Still, it was a good week. I must say, I have really enjoyed Lecture Phase more than I ever thought I would. I've learned and changed so much you might not recognize me when I get home. ;) 

We celebrated Sasha's 18th birthday on March 17th! Our communication is getting better every day, each of us working on the others' language. 

We celebrated Sasha's 18th birthday on March 17th! Our communication is getting better every day, each of us working on the others' language. 

This week we went to the Zmerinka and Nemeriv orphanages for the last time. At Zmerinka I helped the kids with crafts indoors while soccer was played outdoors. The kids were happy to finally be outside with us after weeks of cold weather! There weren't as many kids indoors which meant I got to spend more one-on-one time. Two the girls that I had seen previously latched on to me and we had a lot of fun. It was really hard to leave them. At Nemeriv nobody wanted to be inside since it was even nicer weather, so we ditched the crafts and games and just got to hang out with them. I was also able to talk with the director of the orphanage with Gert (one of the other students if you don't remember) as a translator. He really liked me and what I wanted to do and even invited me back next week. When he heard we were leaving, he said I could come back after college. :) 

Not the best quality because I didn't have my camera with me, but this is one of the girls I played with at Zmerinka. She and several other kids waved goodbye and tried to crawl in the van with us as we left.

Not the best quality because I didn't have my camera with me, but this is one of the girls I played with at Zmerinka. She and several other kids waved goodbye and tried to crawl in the van with us as we left.

On Friday, Marjolein took me to visit the baby hospital. It was my first experience with any sort of hospital or medical building in Ukraine, and it was definitely not what I expected. Most of the floors were dark, heavy on cement, definitely left over from the Soviet Era. The floor where we visit just got renovated and has been freshly painted a cheery bright yellow, which made a huge difference. There were five kids that we visited, all of them orphans, three with special needs. I held a baby with hydrocephalus, named Sophia. She was sooo sweet but never got super comfortable. Her head was very heavy and I could only hold her for about 15 minutes or so.

One of the other girls with special needs was five and too big for me to pick up, but I rubbed her head and sang to her. Her name was Nadia, which means hope. And I also got to hold baby Anya, who was also an orphan but didn't have special needs. We weren't sure how she was sick or why she was there. She was very active and just wanted to play and see the world. I really enjoyed my time there, even though it was hard. Those poor kids have no one to come and love on them as they wait for medical care, which usually lasts a long time. Orphans are the lowest priority at the hospital because they don't have families. Nobody cares for them as much as the "regular" kids.

 In other exciting news, Outreach starts next week! As often can happen in missions, the plans have changed a little bit. Daniel, Tetyana, Camilla, Josh, Mitch, Tamara, Sasha, and I are going to pack into the van and drive to Opole, Poland on Saturday. Tetyana's sister and her husband have planted a church there and we are going to serve them for three weeks. We'll be very busy there, ministering to Gypsy kids, the local schools, the church youth group, and helping a family on their farm. After that, we embark on our 17-hour drive to Paris to minister with the Russian-speaking church there. We'll arrive on April 25th, the day before my 19th birthday, and will stay for three weeks. Then, we'll head to Lublin, Poland for the remainder of outreach, returning to Vinnitsa in late May for a week of debriefing. 

Sasha working on worship songs while I read our book assignment. All a part of getting ready for outreach.

Sasha working on worship songs while I read our book assignment. All a part of getting ready for outreach.

Exciting times are coming up! I will definitely be writing more about what we're doing, although depending on our heavy schedule and wifi service, the blog may not get the updates precisely on time. We'll see how it goes. Thanks for sticking with me everyone!

Exciting Outreach Announcement & Other Updates

Well, I think it's high time for an update! The past few weeks have been amazing, but I'm a little tired. I can't believe it's been almost two months since I've been here! I haven't really even said anything about the school yet. We've had so many amazing guest speakers! After Sergey left, Oleg came to teach about evangelism. He only spoke Russian, so it was an interesting experience for me to listen to him through a translator all week long. Still, I learned a lot. 

Two sweet Ukrainian babooshkas baked and prepared the goodie bags to hand out. We were very grateful for their help.

Two sweet Ukrainian babooshkas baked and prepared the goodie bags to hand out. We were very grateful for their help.

We went to Plyskiv again! This time, our visit was shorter. I learned the name of the girl I met before, Svita. It's a pretty common name in the Slavic world, so it's safe to use it here, but no pictures. We also handed out snacks to all 100 residents. They are divided into four houses, based on sponsors and mental state. Last time, we were not allowed to enter the fourth house because of "quarantine." But typically it houses the more violent people with behavioral problems, so it was not unusual to be denied entrance. This time, though, we were allowed to enter for a few minutes to pass out the food. It was heartbreaking to watch as the two or three attendants tried to control the excited, rambunctious crowd. Most of them sat calmly. One grabbed my arm and hugged it, he was so desperate to be touched lovingly. The whole experience was very intense but I'm glad I got to see it. 

This past week we also had a light ministry week due to the nature of our classes. The title of our week was Taste the Story, and boy we did. Angela and Thelma came from the YWAM base in Kiev, where they teach the School of Biblical Studies. We went over the entire Bible in one week. Well, the story part at least. We read aloud from most of Genesis, parts of Exodus, Leviticus, Micah and Haggai, the entire gospel of Mark, parts of the epistles, and the end of Revelation. There were skits, quick overviews covering vast amounts of time, two models of the Tabernacle, and a study on the book of Philemon. Usually, we only have two classes in the morning and ministry in the afternoons. This week we've had that plus some afternoon classes, and an evening session. It was quite a lot, but I really enjoyed it. 

English and Ukrainian teams rushing to build the best mini-model of the Tabernacle in 15 minutes.

English and Ukrainian teams rushing to build the best mini-model of the Tabernacle in 15 minutes.

I can't believe we just finished week seven of our Lecture Phase! If you remember, DTS is divided into two parts: three months of Lecture and two of Outreach. Our time in Ukraine is rapidly drawing to a close. Our last week of lectures we move west to the city of Ternopil. Then, at the beginning of April, we'll load up the van again and drive to Poland. We'll spend a week at a new church planted by Tetyana's (one of the DTS leaders) sister and her husband. And after that...

The painting that hangs in our room that reminds us everyday where we're headed.

The painting that hangs in our room that reminds us everyday where we're headed.

That's right, we're going to Paris! We'll be there for three weeks, ministering to a Russian church, gypsies, homeless, and most likely some refugees. We'll actually be there on my birthday! I'm very excited to be returning. I was definitely not expecting to go that far west in Europe! After three weeks, we'll be returning to Poland to a city called Lublin, and we'll stay there for all of May. There's a small church that we'll be serving, mostly by cleaning and helping their youth group, I think. 

I am beyond excited for outreach and can't wait to get started! Please keep praying for us as we still have four more weeks of teaching and we're all a little tired. Spring is coming and most of the snow has melted, which also means allergy season. I've been a little stopped up the past few days and really hoping it doesn't progress into an actual virus or sinus infection. As always, thank you for your support!

The almost four-foot mound of snow that covered this whole square is almost completely gone. It's good to see the grass again! I didn't even know we had plants here.

The almost four-foot mound of snow that covered this whole square is almost completely gone. It's good to see the grass again! I didn't even know we had plants here.

5 Things I've Learned About Ukraine

Wow, what a week! Our guest speaker, Sergey Glushko, taught on identity in Christ and led us in several different ministries. We attended Sasha's baptism, visited another orphanage, and ministered with some rehab programs for addicts. It's been quite the emotional, tiring week, but it was amazing.

Our team at the rehab center on Tuesday after a 4 hour session of prayer and worship.

Our team at the rehab center on Tuesday after a 4 hour session of prayer and worship.

So now time for some fun! Here are five things I’ve learned about Ukraine: 

1. "Gretchka is life"--Josh Anderson.

Gretchka, pickled cabbage salad, and bread-three staples of Ukrainian food.

Gretchka, pickled cabbage salad, and bread-three staples of Ukrainian food.

The brown stuff on the plate is known in the States as buckwheat, and it's surprisingly delicious. It's served as a base food for a lot of our meals. If Asia serves rice, Ukraine serves gretchka. Also, I hope you like pickled foods because they’re served with every meal. Mainly pickled cabbage, which I don't like nearly as much as I like the gretchka.

2. Time moves slowly.

As we learned in one of our books, Foreign to Familiar, there are warm-cultures and cold cultures. In warm-cultures, time is oriented towards relationships instead of tasks. America is a cold climate, tending to be more efficient. Ukraine is a warm culture (ironically), so it's a lot more laid back. So, if Sasha calls and says she’ll be home in an hour, expect her back in 2-3.

3. Public Transportation.

The yellow and white marshrtuchkas are faster than the trams but I've only ridden them once.

The yellow and white marshrtuchkas are faster than the trams but I've only ridden them once.

In Ukrainian, you have the trambai, trolleybus, and marshrutchka to connect the city. Not many people can afford cars or gas, so they use these to get around. I use the trambais mostly since they're cheap, fast, and simple to use. Rush hour is a nightmare, though, as we're all packed into those cars like sardines in a can. Luckily, everything is pretty close together, so if it's a nice day you can just walk. 

4. сквозняк (skvoznayk).

I think it was Thursday when the sun finally showed up after weeks of hiding from me. I discovered the window sill is a lovely place to recharge and soak up the rays.

I think it was Thursday when the sun finally showed up after weeks of hiding from me. I discovered the window sill is a lovely place to recharge and soak up the rays.

In English, it's translated as The Draft, and it exists. We learned during our worldview week that reality is actually subjective. In Ukraine, because of the climate, it is dangerous to open two windows. One window is completely fine and normal, even if it's snowing, but if you have more than one opening in the house, NIET!! And may the Lord be with the poor soul who tries to open two windows on the marshrutchka with a babooshka on board. Apparently, you've just endangered everyone on board of getting deathly ill.

5. Tapechki are a necessity. 

Surprisingly, this is not because of the cold, like I originally thought. Ukrainians like things clean, so it's just common sense to wear socks or slippers around the house, especially if you have company over. Because I live, eat, and have class in the same building, I normally just wear socks (although I am guilty of going barefoot occasionally). Some of the staff leave an extra pair of slippers here so they don't have to bring them back and forth.

So there you have it. Five crucial things I've learned about Ukrainian culture. Hopefully, this lets you get a little glimpse into my world. At this point, it's just normal for me. So what would you like to know about Ukrainian culture or my new life? 

How then do we love?

Can we love someone when it's hard to love? That seems to be something that our team has been doing unintentionally. During intercessory prayer in the past few weeks, we've prayed for Turkey, Russia, and North Korea, among others. We've prayed against discrimination and for unity in the church. We started to notice a pattern of dying to our own wishes, praying for the hard places, and forgiving those we hated. 

Is this even possible? Can we love someone even if we can't understand them? When we don't speak their language or know their culture? When every decision or action seems backward and foreign and frustrating? And, in addition to all that, they have a completely different personality. Can we love them?

Sasha and I have made huge strides in our relationship recently. It's been very encouraging to watch her start to initiate affection on her own despite our differences.

Sasha and I have made huge strides in our relationship recently. It's been very encouraging to watch her start to initiate affection on her own despite our differences.

Can we love somebody when they can't speak at all? I don't think I'm allowed to post pictures, but there was a very sweet lady I connected with at Plyskiv, the institution for adults with special needs. She could not talk or make any sounds at all. But they told me she loves to dance, so I immediately went and danced with her. And when I looked into her eyes they were "normal." I didn't see the rest of her that the world called disfigured. They were beautiful eyes. She was beautiful.

What about someone we've never met? Can we love them? There's a little girl in Russia who turns 7 this month. Her name is Jessa. A child with so much potential, but the rest of the world can't see it because she has Down Syndrome. Jessa doesn't have a chance of finding a family within Russian borders, and because of the adoption ban 3 years ago, she can't have a loving American family either. My heart breaks for her, and it hurts because I will never know what happened.

Can we love someone who is seemingly impossible to love? Someone who we harbor anger and resentment for? What if they hold authority over us? Even if they scare us, can we love them as part of God's kingdom, as one of his children? Can we apologize for our harsh feelings and forgive them? I know that I personally can. I did it a few weeks ago for President Vladamir Putin. I no longer hate (Yes, I actually did hate him for awhile.) him for what he did to sweet Jessa. I'm not even angry at him anymore. I'm still heartbroken over the situation, but I've forgiven.

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Many Americans are happy with Trump's victory. But there are plenty of others who are angry and scared and hateful. If you are one of those people, can you forgive him? Can you learn to respect him as our leader and pray for him? I know it's hard. This was a tough election, and I was never going to be exactly thrilled with whoever won. But guess what? God loves Donald Trump. And He wants us to love him, too, whether or not we voted for him. The Bible tells us to love our neighbors and our enemies. 

Can we love the strangers, the people on the street? The homeless, who smell but still need care and the love of Jesus. The Muslims and the atheists who just want a friend. The refugees, who are scared of deportation. The orphans, who have no one to care for them. The drug addicts? Today, our team spent four hours at a Christian rehab center outside the city. We sang a few songs, our guest speaker spoke for over an hour, then we prayed for two hours straight. It was hard, it was scary, especially if you didn't know the language, but we persevered. Can we love the people who are different from us? Can we love the sinners?

Hey, you know who actually did all these things?

"Prince of Peace," by child prodigy Akiane Kramarik.

"Prince of Peace," by child prodigy Akiane Kramarik.

Oh yeah, that's right. Jesus. And that means we can do that too, surprising as it may sounds. Because if Jesus lives in us, then we have his power and capability to love. Through Him, we can love everyone, regardless of race, gender, culture, religion, sexuality, or political beliefs. So I have a final question for you, and this one is not hypothetical. Today, what are you going to do to show God's love? It's not enough to just know that God wants us to love. We have to get out and actually DO IT. In real life, out of our comfort zones. Ask Him, and He'll show you what He wants you to do. Pay for someone's meal. Encourage a mother with a crying baby that she's doing a great job. Introduce yourself to someone while standing in line. Go talk to your neighbor that you haven't talked to in awhile. Get off your phone, get off Facebook, and engage. Love. 

Don't just trust me on this. I'll let you discover for yourself how rewarding it is.

Week in the Cabins

I have now successfully survived in rural Ukraine. Take it from me, village life is hard. Coming home, I now fully appreciate running water, central heating, a good soft mattress, a gas oven, and a full night’s sleep without waking up to stoke the fire. 

I will miss the view, though. The girls’ cabin sat a few feet away from the cliff, so we had spectacular sunrises and sunsets when we stepped outside. Their idea of a cliff is more of a really steep hill, almost like middle Tennessee hills. There's a river that acts as the border between Ukraine and Moldova. There was a village a few miles into Moldova, but we couldn’t see anybody.

On Wednesday we hiked to an ancient monastery. The oldest parts of the monastery were carved into the rock, and most of that section was in ruins from disuse. Only a few monks currently live and worship there today. In their worship area, I guess is what you call it, we saw several paintings, mosaics, and Russian Orthodox icons. 

I will never say that monks don't have a sense of humor. When the time came to ring the bells, our monk guide invited us into the belltower and showed us how they work. This giant bell supposedly has healing powers if you touch it while or after it rings. Regardless, it feels cool to feel the vibration of this giant. After the first few deafening rings, everyone else mostly hung back, but I went up again with Hilary, our guest speaker. As I was watching the visible vibrations I neglected to see the monk swinging the clapper back for another ring. 

I think I nearly jumped out the tower. My whole body was already vibrating, but even more so after that. Yikes. Very loud. Just trust me on this one. Afterward, my voice sounded like I was underwater or autotuned. As we left the bell tower, we noticed the sun was getting low, so we said goodbye and booked it back. It was nearly an hour hike along a slippery army road and then a scramble up the hill to the cabins. Luckily, we made it back while there was still a little light left in the sky.

So, it was cold. Remember a few weeks ago I had that blog post titled "Out of the comfort zone, into the cold?" Yeah, I should've saved that till now. Inside the cabin when we first got there it was 0 degrees celsius. Later with the fire roaring it got up to 10 or 15, which is 60 in Fahrenheit. That was inside. The first few days it was so cold that I was wearing 3-4 layers of clothing, indoors and out. I didn't even look at the temperature because it wasn't relevant. It was so cold it didn't matter how cold specifically. One night it got really icy and it took a few minutes just to watch 15 yards from one cabin to the next.

But the teachings this week were wonderful and totally worth it! Hilary and Michele Lind have ministered in Ukraine for years, but have recently been in the States with their parents. They flew back over for a week with us in the cold and we couldn't have appreciated them more! Hilary is a fantastic teacher. He has such a father heart and it was great to hear him teach on God's heart as a father. There was a lot of good healing and forgiveness for several of the students, myself included. It was a beautiful time and I loved it (even through the cold). 

Meet the Team

Hey, everyone! I'm still alive and haven't frozen yet. I would apologize for not posting sooner, but I've had a great time hanging out with the rest of the team the last two weeks. By now I figure it's high time for some introductions! 

From left to right: Marjolein, me, Mitch, Tamara, Sasha, a penguin, Josh, and Igor.

From left to right: Marjolein, me, Mitch, Tamara, Sasha, a penguin, Josh, and Igor.

I live on the base with Tamara and Sasha. Both of them are from Ukraine and have lived in Vinnytsa for awhile, so it's nice to have someone who knows the area. Tamara knows a fair amount of English, but Sasha is still learning. We've all learned a lot about the other's language, but we're still slowly getting over the language barrier. Mostly this involves me being a little silly and dramatic (if you can imagine that). It's been fun trying to communicate but we're getting better everyday! I have a feeling we'll be able to talk fairly fluently by the end.

Sasha with Camilla.

Sasha with Camilla.

Me and Tamara. Can you tell I'm cold?

Me and Tamara. Can you tell I'm cold?

Also on the team are Mitch (my fellow American) and Gert. So far I haven't gotten to spend much time with Gert since he has a family he's with when we don't classes. But he did go with us to Plyskiv, one of the orphanages he's been caring for for years. (More on that later.) Other than Gert, the rest of the team usually will eat dinner together on the base. We have an amazing cook that makes us two hot meals a day, and it's wonderful. We've had lots of fun, late nights together.

First day of class!

First day of class!

In addition to an amazing team, we also have a fantastic staff. You've probably also seen pictures of Daniel and Tetyana, and their daughter Camilla. They're in charge of the DTS, while Andrew Ford leads the base. Mostly we see Andrew and his family at our weekly community dinners, although he does keep an eye on us. Then we have Josh and Igor, the ones who picked me up at the train station in Kiev. Igor is from Ukraine and speaks a little English. Josh is from Canada and did his DTS in Vinnytsa last year, which is nice to have someone who just recently went through this.

Tetyana, Josh, Igor, and Daniel, all amazing teachers.

Tetyana, Josh, Igor, and Daniel, all amazing teachers.

Sneaky selfie

Sneaky selfie

We also see Marjolein (Mary-o-line if you don't know Dutch) and Justin fairly regularly. Both are on the base staff, which means they're more involved with ministry than the actual DTS. I see Marjolein once a week as part of our one-on-ones, which basically means she makes sure I'm doing ok throughout the school. Then we have Lena, our translator, who is phenomenal and has been helping me learn Russian! 

Overall we've been working really well as a team and are already at home and comfortable with each other. And that's just after two weeks! I can't wait to see how God moves and changes us through these next five months. I can already tell it's going to be great. Today we're taking a road trip to some cabins (and I mean Little House on the Prairie old cabins) up in the mountains near Moldova. We'll be gone the whole week, so when I get back expect lots and lots of pictures!

Bittersweet Goodbye

I said my last goodbye yesterday. After a week of travels and adventures, my mother headed home. In some ways, it was the hardest one of all. My last connection to home, my biggest support and comfort, the one who helped me keep a level head when we were stuck in all those airports, is now a thousand miles away. And in that respect, it was immensely difficult. I love my mommy and I don’t want to leave her for five months. 

But in other ways, it was the easiest goodbye. I’d already gotten partially used to being out of American culture, I made it across the ocean, and we’d had so much fun in Vienna. We’d spent a lot of time together. Oh, also, I’m in UKRAINE!! Yay! The fact that I had finally, finally, finally made it to this country made it easier. I’ve wanted to do YWAM for seven years, I’ve wanted to come work with orphans for six, I’ve waited to do this DTS for a year, and I’ve been traveling for a whole week. And even as I write this on our four hour train ride to the base, I still can’t believe I’m here. Mostly I’m hungry. I’ve switched over to the time zone just enough to want to eat something at every meal, but not enough for me to eat an actual meal’s worth of food. 

Backtracking to Friday, I’ll spare you the details of our delayed flights that caused us to land in Kiev after dark. Probably a good thing, because we were exhausted as it was. We found our hostel, where half the staff spoke moderate to fluent (i.e. that host was from California) English. We exchanged our money and went grocery shopping for our early breakfast, heard some American songs on the radio, and memorized the map to get us to the metro. And we got the best hot chocolate ever in the shop down the street. I’m not exaggerating this time, it was even better than Vienna’s! I’m pretty sure they just melted chocolate and put some whipped cream on that thing. Saturday morning we took the metro to meet my new friends that are taking me to the base and will help me pull around my 50 pound suitcase. 

I’m currently accompanied by Josh (pictured left) and Igor, two of the staff from the base. (I’ll do some introductory posts of the staff and students later, when I’ve met anyone.) They helped my mother get back to the airport and then took me around Kiev for a bit before our train to Vinnitsa. First, we saw Miaden Square, where the revolution took place two years ago. Igor was actually there, so I learned quite a bit about it. Then we took a walk up the hill through the park, where we were treated to a spectacular view of the city and saw the lover’s bridge, which had recently been replaced because so many locks had been placed on it. 

St. Sophia's bell tower.

St. Sophia's bell tower.

Then we went to see two of the orthodox churches nearby. St. Sophia’s we only saw from the outside, since you had to pay to get inside. This is actually just the belltower. After you go through the gate and walk through the courtyard, you can find the actual church, which is no longer used other than a tourist attraction.

We also got to see St. Michael’s, just up the street. This one was free to enter, but no pictures were allowed. Just believe me when I say it was gorgeous. Gold ornamentation everywhere, and paintings of saints on every wall and column. Definitely worth the walk up another steep hill. In the medieval ages, all of the bells in the set would be rung to alert the city of danger. They've since been replaced, but in 2013, during the revolution, permission was given for all the bells again to warn people of the police violence. This was the first time the bells had been rung since 1240 when the Tartars invaded the country. I can’t even wrap my mind around how old some of these buildings are!

A view of the city from the lover's bridge.

A view of the city from the lover's bridge.

Our Kiev visit concluded with a traditional Ukrainian buffet lunch. I’m still trying to get acclimated to the different foods and spices, and after a week of Viennese sausage, albeit delicious, I went straight for the chicken with soft baked french fries and garlic bread. However, I did try Josh’s favorite dish, something like pierogi's with cabbage, and it was surprisingly tasty. 

Going around the table we have me, Tamara, Mitch, Daniel, Tatyana, their daughter Camilla, and Josh.

Going around the table we have me, Tamara, Mitch, Daniel, Tatyana, their daughter Camilla, and Josh.

After a four-hour train ride, I finally made it to the base at Vinnitsa! I met two of the other students, Mitch and Tamara, over another delicious meal. Mostly, I’m just glad to be home!