A Postcard from Belarus

This Fall has been quite busy. After traveling to the Arctic last month, I’ve just returned from Minsk, Belarus where I visited Stoneworks partner Spring of Revival (SOR). I visited the Minsk Family Homes, boys’ and girls’ homes for graduate orphans, helping teenage orphans make the transition from life in the orphanage to life on their own.

Olga Goncharenko, the Director of SOR, is doing very good work.  In addition to the Family Homes, SOR serves several shelters, orphanages and foster families. You can see where they serve by visiting the Stoneworks Ministry Map and read news about SOR here.

Sergei Tovstopyat (the new Executive Director of MIR) traveled with me, and it was very nice to have time with him. One result is that some of the girls will serve as counselors at our Camp Elama this summer. Also, Alla Shestak (above, at left), the director of the girls’ home, will come to Russia to learn from Sergei how to lead Eco programs in orphanages and shelters. It’s gratifying to see various Stoneworks ministries working together.

Valerie is doing great. The picture at left was taken at Camp Gideon in Estonia this summer. She sure doesn’t look like a 5 year old in that picture, but she looks more like herself in the picture below. Her English is coming along, and she’s learning her numbers and letters (two alphabets!) quite well.

The adoption process continues, however slowly. We’ve completed all of the documents we need from the US and are waiting for the final apostilles before they can be sent to Russia. We are also finalizing documents in Russia, most of which are medical checks (which take a LONG time to complete). Hopefully we can submit documents to the court this month. My FBI background check is taking the longest time; last spring we were told by social workers here that we didn’t need it. If we’d known we could have gotten it months ago. The process is full of frustrations, but we trust the Lord’s timing and are content.

I had to return from Belarus a day early because Oksana, Valerie’s birth mother, was released from prison on Friday. Oksana has been in prison for two and a half years. Olga visited Oksana many times and we’ve exchanged letters and phone calls with her as well.

We met Oksana at the prison when she was released. I cooked her favorite food (my version of potatoes au gratin) and we had a nice visit with her. She hugged us and called us Mama and Papa. It was an emotional day for her, as you can imagine.

Oksana is now in a Christian rehab center. She wants to make a new life and not fall back into her old way of living, but she’s torn about what to do next. In the rehab center she is surrounded by loving believers and has a good structure for her life. She is HIV positive and has Hepatitis C, so her health is not good. Please keep her in prayer. Her life is in the balance right now, and we pray that she’ll live by faith and abide in the Lord.

Val Rides!

The training wheels have come off.

We’ve been at dacha for the past few days, and Valerie asked if we would take the training wheels off her bike. After a day of mama keeping her steady, she finally got the knack of it:

Happy Birthday to Valerie

Valerie had her 5th birthday a few weeks ago, and I’m just now getting around to posting this video. One gift was a singing card from Grandmother Nancy in the States:

We’ve also started a tradition. Each year we take a picture of Valerie in the same dress, one of Olga’s. It will be fun to watch Valerie grow into it as the years pass.

Here are the first two photos in the series:


4th Birthday                                                        5th Birthday

Snapshots from Russia

We were all at dacha for the May 9 Victory Day holidays earlier this week. I go to Montenegro tomorrow to meet a mission team, and it was nice to have this family time before my trip.

The little white flowers are called “Under the Snow” and are considered to be the first flowers of Springtime. The daffodils are also blooming now.

The buds are on the trees:

We organized and cleaned the summer kitchen. It looks worlds better than it did:

Of course, we have a meal together. We cooked shashleek the day before and had good leftovers as well as traditional Russian salads.

Great-granddad Orest came to visit our home a few weeks ago. I like this picture:

Vids of Val

Here are a couple of recent videos of Valerie.

By the way, she’s doing great. Beth Shanklin, a good friend who is a neuro-developmentalist, visited recently from the US. Beth assessed Valerie about a year ago and wrote a program to address some developmental issues. Olga has been faithful to do the program over the months.

Beth checked Valerie last week and Valerie is almost at her age level developmentally, with just a few small issues. Remember, just over a year ago Valerie said about three words (at age 3). She’s really catching up, speaking more and more English, too.

We went to a park:

And today she did something really great. I’ve set out my small travel hammered dulcimer for her to plunk around on, hoping she’ll take interest. I showed her how to play the Alphabet Song (she doesn’t know it as Twinkle Twinkle yet). Today, after some rough starts, she did this:

That’s m’girl!

A Postcard from Russia – Loss

I am so very thankful for my family. Olga and Valerie are wonderful people, and I’m humbled that the Lord has called us together as a family.

We have some sad news to share. We lost a baby last week. Olga was about 8 weeks pregnant when we found out. She recently returned from the hospital and is doing well as she recovers. I was due to be in Murmansk right now, but it’s clearly the priority to be with Olga and Valerie as we recover.

Today at dinner Valerie started crying because the baby isn’t coming to us. She said we need to pray to Jesus and ask Him to send us one. I often say that we want to live in such a way that our lives are full of miracles, made up of relationships and events that are clearly not of our own doing. So, we await God’s miracle in this area.

Thanksgiving in Russia

We celebrated Thanksgiving on Sunday. Since thanksgiving is not a Russian holiday, it’s a bit easier to have the meal on Sunday.

In addition to several friends, Olga’s mother and grandparents joined us. Olga’s grandfather, Orest Maxmilianovich Grotten is 92 years old, and we were very glad he could be with us. Above is Olga with her mom and grandparents. Valerie is not in the picture because she was busy having her face painted by Natasha Pavlova.

We had turkey and dressing (my mom’s recipe), gravy, mashed potatoes, and a variety of non-American dishes including Korean carrot salad and Russian mushrooms with onions. At times like this, I look back in wonder at the life God has given me. We are so very thankful for His love and guidance.

News about Valerie: we’ve submitted documents to the court regarding the removal of parental rights from Valerie’s birth mother, Oksana. We were expecting a court date this month, but the judge is on holiday and won’t set a date until she’s back on late January. So, we wait. We continue to be in touch with Oksana, helping her and encouraging her. Olga has visited her in prison several times, and we stay in touch by mail. Olga is homeschooling Valerie using some basic kindergarten material, and that’s yielding good results; Valerie is speaking better and learning her numbers pretty well. It’s fun to watch her learn and improve.

I go to the US this week; I will attend a Stoneworks board meeting in Chattanooga on December 7. Olga and Valerie will join me a little later. We plan to spend Christmas with my family in Georgia and Tennessee and then make a trip to Texas in January.

Ministry continues. We’re planning several mission trips to Russia, Estonia and Montenegro next summer. One team will be 40 teenagers! That should be fun. I’ll be in Montenegro in May with a team, in Russia with a team in June and in Estonia with a team in early July, then back to Montenegro with a team in late July (if all goes as planned). I’ve recently made several trips to Estonia and things there are going very well. I’ll have news about that soon.

I recently wrote a friend in the US something that’s been on my mind for a while: More and more, I’m feeling grounded in the knowledge that the flow of love is God’s most important action among men. The greatest commandment is to love God; the second greatest commandment is to love others; people will know we are followers of Jesus by our love for one another; God is love; He loved us enough to save us. All of these scriptures prove the primacy of real, heart-felt, selfless love.