88: Pathway of Hope: Introducing The Salvation Army’s initiative to solve intergenerational poverty with Ron Skeete
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that it’s been an especially hard time to be poor in America.
Last fall, a Columbia University study found the number of Americans living in poverty grew by 8 million since May 2020—putting the total at 55 million people.
It marked the biggest jump in a single year since the government began tracking poverty 60 years ago.
For a family of four, living below the poverty line means the household earns a combined $26,500 or less. $26,500.
And yet the issue is nothing new. High rates of child poverty, especially, in the United States existed long before the public health crisis.
So what happens to those kids? Studies suggest children who spend at least half of their lives in poverty are 32 times as likely to be poor as adults.
Which means a continued, intergenerational cycle of life-long poverty.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. With access to adequate resources, support and guidance, there is a way out.
That’s the premise of TSA’s national initiative—the Pathway of Hope—which started 10 years ago to provide individualized services to families with children.
By addressing immediate material needs AND providing long-term engagement, it aims to stabilize families and stop the chronic cycle.
The essential ingredient? Hope.
This season on the Do Gooders Podcast, we’re delving into Pathway of Hope and its many facets to explore poverty in America and how The Salvation Army is fighting back.
In the next 7 episodes, we’ll talk to:
An expert on poverty in the U.S.
A Salvation Army service center director engaged in helping families and a current participant in the Pathway of Hope.
An expert on hope itself.
A former Salvation Army commissioner who spearheaded much of the initiative.
An expert on psychological empowerment and self-sufficiency who has been involved with university studies of the Pathway of Hope.
And a one-time struggling young mother, who found her way into the Pathway of Hope and just this year was commissioned as an officer—a pastor in The Salvation Army.
We have a lot of ground to cover and I hope you’ll join in as we do.
Starting today as Ron Skeete is on the show to introduce us to Pathway of Hope.
Until just a few weeks ago, Ron was the initiative’s Director for The Salvation Army in the southern U.S. He also volunteers as a mentor for young men of color as a member of 100 Black Men of North Metro Atlanta—and was named in 2021 to the media agency Pocstock’s inaugural Future of Black America Top 50 list.
In his role with The Salvation Army, he led the coordination and implementation of Pathway of Hope across the south.
He saw families change forever.
And he’ll tell you he’s seen the organization change for the better, too. It’s meant a paradigm shift from serving the poor to solving intergenerational poverty. To digging out the root causes of a family’s poverty.
So allow me to introduce to you today, Ron Skeete.
Show highlights include:
- Why is it important to you, personally, to help people find a way out of poverty?
- Briefly, how did you come to work in alleviating poverty with TSA?
- One in seven Americans are projected to have resources below the poverty level in 2021, according to the Urban Institute. For a family of four, that means the family earns less than $26,500 in a year. So some 14 percent of people in the U.S. are living in poverty. What does that really mean? Could you paint a picture for us of a family living below the poverty rate? What is their reality?
- How does poverty threaten a child’s long-term well-being?
- Is poverty something anyone can escape?
- More than physical resources, is there something that can promote positive change in families? (ie. theories on change, essential element for motivation to change is hope.)
- Why did TSA start POH and what is its goal? How does it work? Who is it for?
- TSA helps 23m Americans every year. How is this initiative different from the traditional work of the Army? (known as reliable resource for short-term material help)
- The initiative aims to offer compassionate care, resource development and hope enhancement—all aimed at solving poverty. What does this look like, practically speaking?
- It’s been 10 years since the initiative began—what results has TSA seen?
- How does TSA track outcomes—the changes in people’s lives?
- What is it like to watch a family who had struggled so deeply find a little bit of hope? Find some success on their way out of poverty?
- What has the benefit been to TSA? (ie. survey reported deeper sense of workplace fulfillment and satisfaction among staff who are putting efforts toward solving poverty, more than simply giving material assistance.)
- How have you seen local corps congregations get involved?
- What is one thing we can do today, one tangible way to help alleviate poverty in our own community?
Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Christin Thieme: Well, Ron, thank you so much for joining us on the Do Gooders Podcast today, and welcome to you.
Ron Skeete: Thank you for having me.
Christin Thieme: Why is it important to you, personally, to help people find a way out of poverty?
Ron Skeete: Wow, personally. Well, for me, I hail from Brooklyn, New York, which is an urban city with a lot of all the interesting things that go around with poverty. All of the interesting blights that come with it. And what I’ve been able to see is that with the right supports that poverty is a circumstance, and it’s temporary with those right supports, right? I think the big danger in poverty is getting into a poverty mindset where then somebody doesn’t see hope or a future. So Pathway of Hope allows those who we work with, those families with minor children to get reconnected to their dreams in a powerful way and on a path to sufficiency.
Christin Thieme: How did you come to work in this realm of alleviating poverty with The Salvation Army?
Ron Skeete: Good question. Well, I usually say this, and it’s kind of like a joke. When I was going to school and getting my college degree, I was getting a degree in economics and I thought I was going to wear a suit to work every day and be rich. So, one out of two isn’t bad. I still wear suits to work every day, but I’m not rich. I found a calling in nonprofits. And just really helping people, I always say, it’s my ministry. So, through my career, I think it built me up actually to this work in the Salvation Army. I’ve worked in boys and girls clubs, I’ve worked in foundations and around those areas. So I’ve worked with schools as well, and now it kind of culminates and pulls all of that experience together to help families get out of poverty now.
Christin Thieme: And today, one in seven Americans are projected to have resources below the poverty level, and this year according to the Urban Institute. For a family of four, that means the family earns less than $26,500 in a year. So, some 14% of people in the U.S. are living in poverty. And at that rate, that’s just staggering. What does that really mean though? We hear those numbers and those statistics, can you paint a picture for us of a family of four, say, living below the poverty rate, making less than $26,500? What is their reality?
Ron Skeete: Let’s talk about the impact of poverty. Their reality day in and day out is they have to make choices that they shouldn’t have to make. So, whether they pay for medication, whether they keep the lights on, or whether they are able to put a nutritious meal on the table that evening is their everyday reality. And then that’s coupled with stability for housing. So they may actually be, in many cases, in transition. And what does that mean? We often hear about homelessness and in our mind’s eye, we think folks are just walking on the street and aimlessly with nowhere to go. But there is that hidden population who are bouncing or couchsurfing as we hear about more recently.
And those are families, right? Living with somebody else, a family member or friend for a period of time, that may be anywhere up to three months or a little bit longer. But think about the other impacts. So, you mentioned that one in seven being in poverty and that number is even worse when it comes to children. So, when you think about children in those households, what the research tells us is that, the longer they stay in that environment, and in a poverty-stricken environment, that they’re more destined to never be able to escape it. So, Pathway of Hope comes in as The Salvation Army’s approach to intervene, break that cycle, and ensure that not only the head of households get what they need to alleviate poverty, but their children will not have to deal with that same circumstance. And we’re winning.
Christin Thieme: So, how does poverty then threaten a child’s long-term wellbeing? I mean, there’s even more children who fall into that. What’s the long-term effect?
Ron Skeete: Well, the long-term effect that you’re seeing is that, one, I talked about it a little bit earlier in terms of that mindset, right? Where your mindset starts to limit the possibilities of the future. Imagine that, right? Where you have very limited view on where you can go in the future. So that’s one of the biggest things, at least for me, that is an impact in that child’s life. But then you think about schools that may not be the best school for that child. I have a family myself, and when I think about my children, I have the option to relocate, right? I have some mobility that a family in poverty does not have. If I’m not satisfied with my school, I might go to a better school district, consider even a private option. That doesn’t occur, and that’s not even a thought for many families who are dealing with poverty. So the educational outcomes are limited. And then you add in the nutrition and health aspect where daily meals do come in and they may not be the most nutritious. And then when it’s access to healthcare, we still have a great number whose primary care comes from the emergency room.
Christin Thieme: So you said that poverty is a circumstance.
Ron Skeete: Absolutely.
Christin Thieme: Is poverty something that anyone can escape?
Ron Skeete: Yes. So, we’re seeing that in Pathway of Hope. But key elements in Pathway of Hope is assessing the family and the head of household, are they ready to change? What stage of change are they in? It’s called the transtheoretical model, the stages of change. So we do assessments to see, are they ready, right? Because it’s also a circumstance that we can’t change unless we’re doing it together. We’re talking about how we cannot drag a person through this process, right? Even though we may want to, our heart and our desire may be there to say, “Oh, we got to do something better for this family and the children in this family.” We cannot do it if the person is not ready to make that change.
If you think of somebody who may be a smoker or even doing some health changes, “Hey, I want you to lose some weight,” it only really gets traction when the individual themselves recognizes that need for change. So, once we can assess that, then what we do is just have these families dream, lay out their goals and help them start to remove the barriers and obstacles that are preventing it.
Christin Thieme: In some of my prep for our chat here today, I read a little bit about the theories on change and how there is this essential element for the motivation to change being hope. So can you talk a little bit more about why hope is so critical?
Ron Skeete: Yeah. And I like to say it’s the secret sauce of the Salvation Army, right?
Christin Thieme: That’s right.
Ron Skeete: So there is a correlation in many ways, and actually, in even the medical health world, we hope we can actually improve your physical wellbeing, right? There are some studies that talk to that. But in Pathway of Hope, the key element of hope allows them to see something on the horizon that they may not have seen before. The families that we work with, they didn’t fall into poverty overnight, I like to say, and they won’t get out of it overnight, right? Many of them have this one pass down, right? So, from their parents, to their grandparents and possibly even great grandparents, living in this circumstance of poverty has become the norm for them. So we’re actually working with certain families and saying, “Look, we want you to break from what you know, what may be your comfort zone, and take a chance with us,” right? And hope is very essential to that.
So when we have our corps officers and our pastoral care teams that can pour into our families and wrap around our families, it’s an amazing thing. And the last thing I’ll say on that, Christin, is that in the Central Territory where they’ve been doing this and they led the way in this, Dr. Mary Beth Swanson and her team, they led the way since about 2011, and they had researched because they had more data than everybody else. So, Loyola University did a longitudinal study with them, and what they found is there is a direct correlation between hope and sufficiency. So, as they are increasing, they’re helping each other in a powerful way, and also faith-based supports are essential to that growth.
Christin Thieme: So the Salvation Army has been around for a lot longer than 10 years since Pathway of Hope started.
Ron Skeete: Yes.
Christin Thieme: So, why did the Salvation Army start this specific program? The Pathway of Hope. And what is its goal? If you had to give somebody the elevator pitch on what it is, what do you say?
Ron Skeete: Sure. Sure. So why it started is really because you had staff and you had officers that realize that, “Wow, we are doing the most good.” That’s our brand promise, that in many instances we’re doing a lot of good, but when we really do the most good is when we can change somebody’s circumstance. So, the Salvation Army commissioners’ conference, the leaders of the four territories realized with all the great work we’re doing in meeting human needs, I think we’re one of the best who’ve ever done it, right? In meeting human needs, that it still wasn’t enough, right? And in many cases it fell short.
So, whether we pay that bill, provide food, clothing and shelter, within that year, we could still see people fall back and still not be in that circumstance. So, Pathway of Hope is the Salvation Army’s national effort to say, “Let’s work with the most vulnerable families with minor children, and let’s be able to work with them a little differently through strength-based case management to break that cycle, to not only help the heads of those households change their circumstance, but if we do it well enough, then their children will never have to worry about that.”
Christin Thieme: So, the initiative aims to offer compassionate care, resource development and hope enhancement all to solve poverty. What does that look like practically speaking?
Ron Skeete: Sure. What that looks like is–I can give you a story without names– a mom of six who comes into a corps, almost going into a shelter because she was recently divorced. And she was pregnant when she was left by the dad in that household. So she’s now got six children, one on the way, “What am I going to do?” So the corps wraps themselves around that person and says, “Let’s take a look at what’s happened. Let’s give you some immediate service in terms of a stable place. We can put you into some housing right now that will help you to be stable with your family. Let’s help retool you and see where you are right now.”
That particular family that I’m thinking of was working at the time, but had an issue with their car. So, we then were able to help get them connected with somebody locally in the community where we get some repairs at a reasonable rate. But that housing stability was important, not having to worry about where they were going to be from night to night. Help that mom to be able to focus on the other things that she needed to thrive. So, over the time that we’ve worked with them, the mom was able to improve her job, is now back in school, and the children are thriving, and they’re ready for the next challenge. That’s what it looks like.
Christin Thieme: So it’s been 10 years since this really kicked off, and seeing families like the one you just described. I mean, what results has the Salvation Army seen in that time period?
Ron Skeete: Sure. So it’s been there about 10 years starting from the Central, right? But that was really when it was, I guess you could call that a pilot. So, in about 2015, that’s when we took it on nationally. So, we’re going into our sixth year, really, and what we’ve been able to do is build on that. So, imagine that positive domino effect coming out of the Central Territory, moving into the Eastern, the Southern, and of course, the Western Territory. I sit on a national committee, so we see these numbers. You’re talking about, let’s say, probably over 11,000 households and families whose lives have been transformed through this work that we’re doing, local community collaborations, income increases. And the other thing that we’re looking at right now, we have a target nationally to increase in year one, the families’ stability in three key ways. One, by increasing their hope. Two, increasing their stability, and making sure that the goals they obtain hit what we call three, anti-poverty areas, and that’s housing stability, income stability and food security.
So when all of those things come together, we’re seeing income gains that range anywhere from that $2,000 a year, upwards to $6,000 for families. We’re even seeing that, Christin, with families who do not quote-unquote successfully complete Pathway of Hope. So even if they leave before their time, we’re still seeing the positive impact in terms of their economic stability. But in addition to economic stability, they’re also becoming stable spiritually as well. We’re seeing pastoral care being able to continue with them on that journey to solidify their hope, and help them position themselves so their families can thrive.
Christin Thieme: So traditionally, the Salvation Army service has largely focused on providing a meal, like you said, or paying a utility bill or helping in some material very specific way, which is easy to count how many meals have been distributed and so forth. But Pathway of Hope is more of a long-term effort and really trying to find that change. So, how do you stay connected with these people? I mean, when you talk about long-term, what kind of long-term are you looking at? And how are we going about staying connected and tracking those people in this initiative?
Ron Skeete: Sure. You’re absolutely right, right? We meet those basic needs. We meet the majority of folks that we’re in times of crisis, right? So even when you think about right now and what happened in 2020 from the pandemic to social justice, to politics, there’s a lot of angst in the air. So, we’re meeting people who are in crisis and turmoil, but that’s what Pathway of Hope comes in even for a situation like the pandemic, because it’s about that long-term stable support. It’s not just, pardon the term, it’s not just a shot in the arm, right? While that will help you for some period of time, you’re going to need a booster shot, if I want to put it in those terms, right? That seems to be relevant. And what we do is we say, “We’re going to have a Corps stick by you for the long-term. A Corps that’s going to stand by you, walk alongside you, feed into you–not only with skill development, but also some counseling and support, but also with spiritual support as well to keep you on that path.”
So when we think about the key elements, we actually track outcomes. So, that’s a little bit different too. So, we can not only tell you how many we serve, but we can tell you how they change. So every three months, we’re doing our interim assessments with the families in Pathway of Hope that track their level of hope and their level of efficiency. And about 19 different domains, everything from legal support, childcare, employment, housing stability, we track how well they’re doing and what those improvements are. And one of the things that really sold me on this when I was interviewing for this role about five years ago, it seems like forever, was the Salvation Army was doing something that nobody else really wants to do. And that is follow-up, Christin.
So after our immediate work with a Pathway of Hope family, after they achieve a successful completion, some call it a graduation, we commit for the next year to continue to follow up. So at the three, the six and the 12-month mark, we reach out and we want to have a conversation. We check those same areas to see are the changes sustainable. And you know what? For the majority of our families, they are sustainable. So, most folks say, whether it’s a high school or whatever, “Hey, you graduated? That’s it. You’re on your own.”
Christin Thieme: You’re done.
Ron Skeete: It’s because a nonprofit has less control over the factors after you leave our immediate service, but the Salvation Army is brave enough to say, “We want to see what happens, and we want to see if the results are sustainable.”
Christin Thieme: I love that. So you’ve been involved with so many of these people, what is it like to meet with a family, to watch some family who’s struggled with poverty to see them find those little glimmers of hope or find some little success on their way out of poverty? What’s that like?
Ron Skeete: It is probably the most heartbreaking and rewarding experience you could ever have. And why do I say that? Heartbreaking because we have a graphic that we use in our training where you have success as a straight line on one side, and what it really looks like in terms of success as the squiggly line. You may have seen that, it’s out there on social media. And it’s that squiggly line, right? Because since it’s long-term, sometimes the person who presents themselves to us on day one is really the person that they wanted us to see. But as we learn more, we may learn about some other challenges that they’ve experienced, some trauma. So trauma-informed care is a good part of our work there too that they’ve been covering up, right? Because nobody wants to lead with that. It’s kind of like our social media pages, right? We show the best of the best, not the worst of the worst.
But our journey with them we’re going to see the worst of the worst if we’re really doing that work. So, we’re going to see some failures and some shortcomings, and we’re going to see some sort of times when we have to fall back to be able to succeed, right? You’re here you take one step back to take two steps forward. And that journey is there. But on the other end, then we can say things like, “I’ve been using this of late.” Guess what a Pathway of Hope family does with their stimulus check, Christin?
Christin Thieme: Hopefully uses it for good.
Ron Skeete: Yes. So we have stories where the stimulus comes in and what do they do? They roll it right into their plan. We have one family in Florida who got that stimulus check and was able to pay down some debt that they weren’t expecting to pay down. And that positioned them now to get an apartment of their own. We see people buying their own homes, believe it or not. And I love that because what also is sort of, I guess it’s a hidden value in some senses, is that, when you don’t have a plan, anything goes, right? So, folks you get a stimulus, you get a windfall, you don’t have a plan, it’s like, “Okay. Well, what do I do now?” But a key element of Pathway of Hope is that plan. And we’ve set that plan starting when the first time we meet with a family, where do you want to be in the future and how we’re going to get there? So then when we have these opportunities, it fits right in.
Christin Thieme: I love that. So what does it take then for a family to graduate?
Ron Skeete: Yep. So, what it takes is some of those same elements I spoke about before, but it takes a great case manager or case worker working with them, a great core team. And what we do is connect them to services. And sometimes it’s services internally a lot with the Salvation Army, but then also it’s external. So collaboration is important to that. So, we may connect them to resources for financial literacy, for workforce development. We actually are intentional right now to do a lot of retooling efforts. So we’re looking to work with other companies and local businesses who can help mentor them and be career coaches for the families that we’re serving, to help them change the economic circumstance, but get that next job, right? Potentially move from part-time to full-time employment, with livable wages and benefits.
But then also one of the things we know is that, if they have better economic opportunities, we want them to be prepared with the skills to manage that well. So, financial literacy is a key element of this as well, and we’re actually increasing and paying even for some of our staff, investing for some of our staff to get it certified in financial social work, to help them be able to help others.
Christin Thieme: So the benefits are clear for those who are involved in this effort, but what has the benefit been for the Salvation Army, do you think?
Ron Skeete: Well, that’s a good question. And I know I’ve said that a lot, but you’re a good interviewer. But for the Salvation Army, when you think about an organization that has such a rich history, but it’s still an organization. It’s 150 plus years old, right? What does that mean? That means we have some traditions, we have some long-standing foundational policies in ways that we operate that Pathway of Hope is helping us to grow on, right? So, it’s helping us to shift from just meeting those basic needs to adding in solving. So, it’s helping us focus on root causes, right? Like I mentioned, trauma-informed care. On the organization side, we’re providing additional support and training for our staff to be better at what they do, right? When we do surveys with the Pathway of Hope clients, they say they’re like life coaches, right? So they don’t think of them as case managers.
And on that journey, they’re not only getting the support, they’re getting the motivation, that shoulder to cry on, but it’s a vast difference than just processing paperwork to see if somebody is eligible for, as you talked about, that basic needs support, that crisis-based support. Now, you got somebody that you want to come in on a Friday afternoon to talk to, because I’m going to tell my coach about something that happened. “You know what? I applied for that GED program, and I got in. I passed my test. I got accepted for this apartment.” Those conversations are quite different from crisis-based conversations.
Christin Thieme: Right. Getting to share that hope.
Ron Skeete: Oh, yeah. And then the other thing is focusing on outcomes. We love statistics in the Salvation Army so we can tell you who we serve, 30 million, these number of meals served, et cetera. But now through Pathway of Hope we’re better able to show the difference in every person who comes through this initiative.
Christin Thieme: That’s amazing. I saw another survey too that reported on a deeper sense of workplace fulfillment and satisfaction among the staff who were putting their efforts towards solving poverty for people. So, it’s not only impacting the lives of people who are part of the program, but it’s also impacting the lives of the staff who were involved, which is really cool.
Ron Skeete: Yeah, and I’ll say two things with that. One, because the need is great, right? And last year in 2020, we saw that. The need just went out the door, right? There were already great needs in the communities that we serve, but everything almost doubled last year in terms of the pandemic, right? And a lot of our work, even food pantry, et cetera, sometimes it’s one-and-done, if you will, right? You provide that service, but you don’t know what that end to that story is. So Pathway of Hope is allowing us to not only intervene, but see the end of those stories.
Christin Thieme: Right. Absolutely. What is the needed outlook right now would you say?
Ron Skeete: Well, the biggest thing is, as I mentioned, retooling and preparing for life after the pandemic. So what does that mean? It means that families… I think we can look at it ourselves, right? We have certain support. I know I have certain support economically, family-wise, but even still, 2020 still shook me to my core, right? So, think about another family who does not have those additional supports and that additional stability. Think about the child in that household that has to grin and bear it, right? And who may not have seen their traditional friends because they’re going to school virtually for over a year now, right? Think about the developmental assets that they’re not achieving because of that gap.
So our work is about retooling and using this time to get them ready for life after the pandemic. So for families, the adults retooling and getting those skills, whether they are going back to school for a course, or thinking about how they now prepare for life after some of these stimulus supports go away, but also connecting to the children in these households. We do it virtually, we do visits, we drop off care packages and fun packages to those young people, it’s because we really want to keep pouring into them as well, and give them hope.
Christin Thieme: How have you best seen corps congregations get involved?
Ron Skeete: Ah, yeah. So corps congregations, it’s so funny, right? Because everybody has a lot of love, but we got to guide it in the right way. So what we do is, corps congregations when we have that chance to wrap around that Pathway of Hope family, what it looks like pre-pandemic with things like family nights, right? So there was a lot of good fellowship where they can get a chance to be nurtured by somebody who is at the corps. Somebody who can show them the love that the corps and the Salvation Army is all about. Somebody who can help and reassure them and say, “Oh, no, no, no. trust the salvation army. This may be a little bit hard right now, but we’re going to be there for you throughout.”
Now that we’ve been virtual in the pandemic, we still have ways to engage where we are virtual, but where we are still in person, maintaining of course the social distance guidelines, you can see things like mentoring, you can see things like career coaching, helping them with interview skills, helping with sometimes it may be a local event. We’ve had women retreats because a lot of our Pathway of Hope families are mothers leading those homes on their own. So women’s retreats came up as a big way to not only provide fellowship skill development, but motivation and support.
Christin Thieme: I love it. So what is one thing that anybody listening today who maybe feels challenged or inspired by everything you’ve shared today? What is one thing, one tangible way they could get involved in helping to alleviate poverty in their own community?
Ron Skeete: Oh, wow. Well, the first thing is to connect to your local Salvation Army.
Christin Thieme: Absolutely. Good answer.
Ron Skeete: Yeah, because we’re doing it every day. And it’s a tireless effort, but it is tiring. So it could be as simple as telling somebody, “Thanks for what you’re doing,” but it couldn’t be as elaborate as reaching out and asking if there’s a Pathway of Hope initiative in that particular corps. But even if there is not, how can you help in that same tangible way? So everything from donating clothing and food. But what I like to talk about a lot are leveraging relationships, right? You may have a connection when you hear about what the needs of that corps are, that will be more beneficial than clothes, and sometimes even more beneficial than a check, right? So it may be a connection to a higher education opportunity, right? You may know somebody at the local community college and that may be a connection that helps us help our families achieve their high school degree. It may help them go back and learn a trade, maybe the door opener that we needed as well. So I’m big on relationship building.
Christin Thieme: Absolutely. Well, Ron, thank you so much for sharing today, and hopefully we can help to spread this idea of hope a little further.
Ron Skeete: It’s my pleasure, Christin. Thanks for all the great work you’re doing and telling these amazing stories.
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