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Stories of service from Catholic Volunteer Network volunteers.
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Tue, 09/19/2017 - 6:00am
A Poverty of Connection: Loneliness as a Social Justice Issue
By Maria Shibatsuji, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry  
“You’ll come back next month, right?” Alice, one of the residents of the Senior Buildings I visit suddenly asked me. The question took me by surprise. I had finished taking her blood pressure and a few moments earlier we had been discussing our current crocheting projects. As a Program Assistant for the Tele-Heart Program at Bon Secours Hospital, part of my service involves Community Outreach, visiting Senior Apartments in West Baltimore to conduct blood pressure screenings, teach nutrition classes, and help out with the monthly newsletter education. While my supervisor, a cardiac nurse, goes over our newsletter, I take the blood pressures of the senior residents who are present. Alice had been a regular participant in the newsletter education event we hold in her building. She had severe arthritis in her hands and because her disease had progressed, she could no longer use the controller on her motorized wheelchair. When I assured Alice I would of course be back in a month for another newsletter education and blood pressure screening, she replied, “Okay, because I’ll be waiting for you.” Her comment warmed and broke my heart simultaneously.

Social injustices are caused by an imbalance of power and resources, perpetuating feelings of powerlessness and isolation. I am discovering that loneliness is a social justice issue that impacts many of the people I serve. I see loneliness as a form of poverty; a poverty of connection. I would be naive to think that seniors come to my monthly nutrition classes and blood pressure screenings for the sole purpose of gaining knowledge and to monitor their blood pressure. I am realizing that they also come for the conversation, a chance to connect with another fellow human being, and the opportunity to share their wisdom through story-telling and conversation. Talking about loneliness feels taboo, but the truth is, we all have experienced moments of loneliness; of wishing someone, a good friend, a family member, would reach out to us via text or a phone call. While I work primarily with seniors, I know experiencing loneliness is not limited to the elderly. I know when I experience loneliness, I am accessing one of the most human parts of me; a part of me that connects me to the human race, the natural yearning for connection and belonging. We are not the only humans who have felt lonely before and we won’t be the last ones to feel this way.

I am realizing that one of the most important ways I am practicing justice this year is providing an antidote to loneliness; through cultivating connection and developing relationships with those living in poverty-stricken areas. If loneliness results in an individual not feeling heard, practicing justice creates a space where one is acknowledged and fully heard. I have chosen to be a constant companion to the seniors, even if it is only for a year; to be a voice that validates their experiences and encourages inclusiveness. It is in this way that we mutually experience justice.

Anticipating my year of service, I expected to encounter emotional walls that the people I were to serve had put up. I believed these walls would prevent me from fully connecting with them. I remember putting myself in the senior residents’ shoes and concluding that I would have a difficult time letting a stranger into my life. Little did I know, the walls that I imagined were of my own. Transcending cultural borders and age differences, the senior residents I have interacted with have welcomed me into their lives, sharing more deeply than I ever have when I first meet someone. I have had the privilege to learn about their social backgrounds, details about their family members, see their childhood pictures, and tour their apartments. From the sharing of their memories, I have a deeper appreciation for and knowledge of the people of Baltimore. While taking blood pressures and engaging in patient education is important, my actions are futile if not paired with what many seniors value most: the time I spend with them one-on-one. My favorite, and the most important aspects of my position are the same: being fully present to each individual I serve. I listen to and respond to their stories of finding hope amidst change and challenge. The gift of their presence, in turn, has broken down my walls and I hope they feel the same joy they bring to my heart.

To learn more about service opportunities through Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry, please click here.

I'm Not Sure...

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 9:00am
By Brian Bayer, Rostro de Cristo Volunteer 
Before I knew nothing, I knew everything. I had just graduated from John Carroll University and knew exactly where my next year would lead me – with a Bachelor’s degree in hand and two week-long immersion trips to El Salvador under the belt, this social justice warrior was ready to fix Ecuador. After all, a minor in Spanish and an open heart were all the tools needed to address the daunting poverty-scape of the developing world, right?
Confidently armed with these skills, I remember rolling through the disparate sprawl of urban Guayaquil towards our final destination in suburban Arbolito, thinking about how I could follow the famed Ignatian aphorism to “go forth and set the world on fire.” A free bike maintenance service was my first idea – how great would it be if I could use my knowledge of bike repair to offer people a free service? Or maybe repainting the dilapidated benches and pews of the parish would help! I was ready to sweat, and sweat I did; but not for any of the reasons I thought I would.

Over the course of the next year, I witnessed, experienced, and loved the true faces of those trapped in the whirring cycle of systemic poverty. But in order to do that, I had to first sacrifice the toxic notion that I could do for others and instead embrace the idea of being with others. This is the mission of the organization with which I volunteered– Rostro de Cristo, the Face of Christ. We call this form of service a ministry of presence, the idea that our actions are temporary but our presence, our being, in the lives of those around us, regardless of the socioeconomic barriers that distinguish our backgrounds, is the most essential aspect of modern service. 
During the day, I did the standard activity trademarked to so many programs: teaching English to kids who don’t have access to great education otherwise. It was definitely rewarding every time I saw that bulb light up over a student’s head when the First Conditional finally clicked, and it gave me a sense of mission and purpose. But this part-time job of playing teacher was merely the backdrop of a deeper experience. At the core of our program were the five pillars that made up the Way of Life – Spirituality, Simplicity, Service, Community, and Hospitality. Our jobs provided a lens through which to contextualize these values, but our time with neighbors and each other helped us to truly understand them.
At the end of the day, it’s all about intentionality. How are my decisions affecting the world? Where do I fit into the bigger picture? And is that bigger picture a portrait of justice for all or justice’s evil twin brother– privilege?

Our seven-person community of volunteers worked in different parts of the city in different jobs – education, after school programs, healthcare, and community outreach programs, to name a few. But each night, after an exhausting day of being present to the Ecuadorian community, we broke bread together and eagerly shared the highlights of our days.
For as many days as our stories were uplifting, there were a proportionate number that were heartbreaking. What do you do when a friend tells you that they won’t have water to bathe until the next day at some point (maybe)? What do you say when a mother of three tells you in confidence that her husband hits her?
The answer is: Nothing. There is nothing you can do or say to change this reality. You listen. You cry. You try unsuccessfully to wrap your head around why it’s like this. And you pray that they will be able to find comfort in the solace of God and each other.
As we digested our food each night, so we digested our days. We had community and spirituality nights each week where we sat down in the candle-lit corner of the house that we designated as our chapel and worked through the glorious and devastating mysteries that we were experiencing. I found that I was uncharacteristically silent during most of these nights – I yearned to share my feelings about what I had witnessed and gone through each day; but in the soft glow of the candles in the company of my volunteer family, I could rarely find the words to even begin to express my thoughts. I guess not much has changed.

The founder of our program, Father Jim Ronan, once told us that this one year of service was akin to filling up a cargo container to the brim, which we would then gradually unload for the rest of our lives at the unlikeliest of times.
So now it’s been three years, and I’m just starting to crack the combination lock on that cargo container, wading through the ocean of experiences and trying to figure out what it all means. I no longer live in the sweltering equatorial heat of a simple concrete house cooled only by grinding ceiling fans; I no longer cook for six other people on a strict poverty budget; I no longer feign simplicity to strive towards solidarity; I no longer dizzy myself spinning dust-covered five-year-olds out of their arm sockets to offer them a moment of the much-needed attention they might not otherwise get. So what does it all mean? I don’t know. In fact, I know less now than I ever have. But maybe that’s the whole point – it’s not about knowing, or doing; it’s about being and loving, and beyond that everything else will fall into place.

To learn more about service opportunities through Rostro de Cristo, please click here. 

More Than Just a Volunteer

Tue, 09/05/2017 - 8:30am
2017 Volunteer Story Contest WinnerBy Andrea Haller, Mercy Volunteer Corps

Dear Future Volunteer,
This soon-to-be title of yours makes you so much more than you now know. Yes, you will be volunteering as a nurse, or teacher, or social worker, or care provider. These are all important roles – but as your service progresses, you will realize you have taken on many more roles than you first intended. 
Last August, I joined Mercy Volunteer Corps, and set off for Georgetown, Guyana in South America, where I began my year of service as Intervention Specialist for a primary school at a boys’ orphanage. I was thrilled to bring my knowledge and skills to a place that had never had special education services before. I would be able to help children who felt stuck. Within the first month, I realized that I was needed for many more reasons. 
When the boys cut their feet while running barefoot in the field, they needed someone to clean and bandage their wounds. I became a nurse, even though I hate the sight of blood. When they got into rough fights with other boys, they needed hugs and consolation, so I became a comforting mother to boys who couldn’t be with their families. My boys also needed a girl’s advice as they developed crushes, so I became a friend with whom they could share gossip and laugh about their flirting slip-ups. They craved attention, so I became their biggest fan and cheerleader. My favorite role of all came when the boys needed someone to lovingly pick on – so I became their sister. I started the year with three brothers and now I am proud to have 55.
My heart overflows with love when I realize these new roles I have been granted through service. I did not intend for this to happen – however, I'm so glad it did, because it is the most rewarding part of my volunteer experience. The additional roles you take on will be the most meaningful and fulfilling piece of your service. You will realize your strength, your purpose, and how deeply you can love. Your service has no limits, so let go of expectations for your work and dive in. Of course, it is far from easy, but I promise it is worth it.

Over time, I realized that I also had to make time for self-care. I couldn't always fill every role when I neglected myself. I learned that self-care was necessary to be healthy and to fulfill my many roles successfully. So as you dive in, don't lose yourself. Your first  role is to take good care of yourself. When you fulfill that role successfully you will become a volunteer, and more. 
Let yourself go beyond your title of nurse, teacher, social worker, care provider, and so forth. You are a volunteer now. Take that title and be everything you can be for the people you serve. You will be fulfilled and transformed. Amazing roles and experiences are ahead, Future Volunteer, I assure you.
Love, Andrea HallerIntervention Specialist (Nurse, Mom, Friend, Cheerleader, Sister)

To learn more about service opportunities through Mercy Volunteer Corps, please click here.  

I Chose Service: Antoinette Moncrieff, Salesian Lay Missioners

Tue, 08/15/2017 - 5:17pm
My name is Antoinette Moncrieff, and I am from Ypsilanti, Michigan. I am 27 years old and I served September 2013 – August 2014 as a Salesian Lay Missioner at Hogar Sagrado Corazon, a girls’ orphanage in Montero, Bolivia. I suppose I am a bit of a rogue since I chose a year of service in the midst of college, rather than waiting until I graduated! At the time I went to Bolivia, I was sort of in between majors and both feeling disillusioned about higher education and burning to make a positive difference in the world. I considered the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as well as the Vincentian Volunteer Corps, but ultimately I went with the SLMs because of their special focus on children. I have always loved children! The calling I felt to international service work was itself rooted in children; I distinctly remember sitting in my physics class, wishing I could be doing something else with my life, and feeling a strong desire to go love the children who had no one to love them. My boyfriend at the time had done a year in the Amazon with the SLM’s, so I was somewhat familiar with the organization. 
My time in Bolivia was one of the rawest, most pivotal periods of my life. The girls I worked with were a special group of children. Bolivia does not have a foster system and so the children who live in orphanages are not only kids who are missing parents but also kids who are there for all the same reasons that kids might be in foster care in the United States; these included poverty as well as having been removed from the home by the Bolivian equivalent of Child Protective Services for all sorts of abuse, abandonment and neglect.  I learned nine months into my volunteer period that our Hogar was a sort of last – chance asylum for all the kids that other orphanages didn’t know how to handle. Some of the real challenges we faced included sexual abuse within the Hogar itself as young survivors attempted to process the abuse they had experienced through exploiting younger kids.  Stealing from staff and fellow children was a common occurrence; they definitely broke into my room several times before the lock was fixed!  While at the Hogar, I saw and experienced hunger and poverty firsthand. Breakfast and dinner were often a piece of bread; we tended to fare better at lunch, which was usually a mixture of meat scraps, vegetables and rice, but once went a whole week where all we had for lunch too was a bowl of soup apiece.   
Despite all these challenges, my time in Bolivia was still full of joy. I saw many small miracles, every day. I experienced firsthand on a daily basis how far a little bit of love and a safe place can go in the life of a child. I watched a very sick and depressed little girl, who had spent her early childhood years wandering the streets with her schizophrenic mother, blossom under my care into a joyful little person able to talk to her peers and name the colors of her crayons. I watched a frail little toddler whose back had been injured when her mentally ill parents threw her against the wall as an infant learn to walk and begin to thrive in my care. I helped nurse a sorry little street cat who was covered in scabies back to health and reaped the benefits when she gave birth to four delightful little kittens on top of me in my bed in the middle of the night!  I was present when two of my little ones were adopted by lovely Dutch families and am able to see Facebook pictures of one of them on a regular basis. I saw two more of my little ones go to loving Bolivian families. I received constant little acts of kindness from the most ordinary people: a moto taxi driver, a nurse, a father whose little one was also in the hospital, a little girl selling bread in the market. I was surrounded by beauty, both from the rich and vibrant colors of the trees, sky, flowers, buildings and animals and from the smiles I encountered every day in the little people I cared for. 
I ended up graduating a few years after I came home, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Individualized Studies with a concentration in Elementary Education, Spanish and Women’s and Gender Studies from Eastern Michigan University in 2016. I am now working in an early childhood center and pursuing a career in Direct Entry Midwifery. I can honestly say that my time in Bolivia had a profound impact on many areas of my life. On a humorous note, I am now an expert in identifying and removing lice, navigating long-distance relationships over patchy internet access, washing clothes by hand and changing diapers with toilet paper instead of wipes. I am known for my flexibility, resourcefulness, creativity and adaptability!  On a deeper note, Bolivia for me was the catalyst for many personal questions about life, the meaning of life, faith, poverty, Western colonialism, gender inequalities, sexuality and my own past. My faith was severely challenged by the heartbreaking conditions I was living and working in, yet strengthened by the resilience I found in both the children and myself. I witnessed firsthand a lot of hypocrisy and abuse at the hands of Church representatives and the questions I brought home with me both changed the way in which family and friends looked at me and changed the way in which I looked at the world.  But I think that the questions Bolivia raised for me were ultimately good ones which have opened the door for new life and personal growth, enabling me to serve the world around me in a unique way.  I am truly grateful for the time I spent there and for the brief opportunity I had to share the lives of so many beautiful children. Every morning when I wake up I see twenty of their little faces smiling back at me from a large frame on my bedroom wall and I know that I really did make a difference in their lives.

My advice for someone considering post-graduate service? Follow your heart! Listen to what your gut is telling you, even if it doesn’t always make sense to others.  And if your heart is telling you to go serve in the middle of your schooling? Go for it!  Don’t be afraid!  Embrace your calling to serve and open your heart. I can promise you it will be broken and mended a thousand times, and it will be worth it. The world will change you, but you will also change the world! Wherever you go, and whatever you do, if you follow your heart, you can’t go wrong! I wish you all the best!
To learn more about faith-based service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.

I Chose Service - Amanda Scanameo, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry

Tue, 08/08/2017 - 6:00am
After graduating from college, you have lots of options. This series highlights people who chose service, and how the volunteer experience has made an impact on their lives.

Name: Amanda ScanameoVolunteer Program: Bon Secours Volunteer MinistryLocation: Baltimore, MDHometown: Muncie, INCollege: Marian University, '16 - Biology major
How did you first learn about post-graduate service? My school organized a post-graduate service fair and a mentor invited me to it (thanks for the nudge, Jeanne!). I got to speak to recruiters from several different programs and I found that I was most intrigued by the faith-based healthcare ones.
What other options were available to you, and why did you decide on your service program? Throughout college, I had an internship at a nonprofit doing clinical research that I absolutely loved. When I was applying to service programs, my boss offered me a full-time position and I was deeply torn between the two options. I found my answer through prayer in Scripture: Mark 8:22-26. In this Gospel story, Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida.  Before Jesus laid hands on him it reads, “he took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.” It was then that I realized that I was the blind man and that Jesus was leading me outside of the comfort of my own “village” to Baltimore to grow in faith and further explore my love for social justice through service. I was attracted to BSVM in particular for several reasons: growing in faith with my awesome intentional community, living in the same neighborhood I work in, continuing the mission of the Sisters of Bon Secours as a lay person, and serving in a health care setting. 
Share about your service placement and volunteer community experience. My intentional community is like a family to me. Meeting five strangers on the day you move in with them and instantly being friends is an amazing experience. We spend a lot of time together doing ordinary things like cooking and commuting, and we have lots of fun exploring the city and checking out all of the (free!) things it has to offer. It’s really nice to have friends to do life with, whether we are celebrating a medical school acceptance or feeling a little extra homesick. It also provides a great space for me to process everything I’m going through this year, from living in the inner city to the joys and challenges I face at work each day. 
What benefits have you gained from this experience that you might not have received otherwise? I have gained professional experience in the field of social work, which has been an incredible opportunity for someone like me, who did not study social work as an undergrad. That being said, it has also been a whirlwind of a learning experience! I’ve been able to live in the inner city, and trust me—it’s just as beautiful and messy as the suburbs I grew up in, and not nearly as exotic as I expected. Living in community has made me a better roommate, sister, and daughter; it has helped me get better at communication (passive-aggressive sticky notes don’t count!) and building relationships based on trust and vulnerability. Living simply has helped me to better discern my true needs and live more responsibly, in a way that respects others. I’ve relied more on my faith this year than ever before, which has deepened my relationship with God. I have also learned the great value of being present to others, and been able to practice doing so in my work with dialysis patients and also in my community. 
What advice do you have for someone considering post-graduate service? If you’re thinking about it, DO IT! Sure, post-grad service isn’t the best fit for everyone, but if you’re even considering it, chances are it would be a good fit for you. It’s a great chance for personal and professional growth. It’s an amazing opportunity for human formation and a good way to be challenged and become a better person because of it. Pray, journal, and talk with a mentor on a regular basis to help make the decision. Contact organizations that interest you and ask to speak to a current volunteer to get some perspective. Be open to the possibility and eventually to the experience!To learn more about post-grad service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.

I Chose Service - Maria Cruse, Lutheran Volunteer Corps

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 5:36pm
After graduating from college, you have lots of options. This series highlights people who chose service, and how the volunteer experience has made an impact on their lives.

Name: Maria CruseVolunteer Program: Lutheran Volunteer CorpsLocation: Milwaukee, WI Hometown: Edgewood, WACollege: Pacific Lutheran University, 2016, Bachelor of Arts in Women's and Gender Studies with a Music Minor
How did you first learn about post-graduate service? I learned about LVC through my college's community engagement and service center.
What other options were available to you, and why did you decide on your service program? Having an interdisciplinary degree allows me to be fluid with my post-grad options, such as service, a career, or graduate school. I decided to do a year of service because it allowed me to live in intentional community with my housemates, and engage in sustainability and social justice. LVC also gave me the opportunity to explore a career in way that I haven't thought about before.
Share about your service placement and volunteer community experience. My service placement is at a high school for "at risk" youth, where I'm a math teacher. Instead of viewing students as "at risk", I think a more encapsulating description of students that I work with are "at-promise"--the promise to graduate and to have continued success throughout their lives. I am not only a teacher, but program coordinator, cook, facilitator, and mentor. Living in intentional community has taught me to be patient, willing to compromise, and understanding of your own values in comparison to your housemates.
What benefits have you gained from this experience that you might not have received otherwise? Something I've gained from being a part of LVC is learning how to live on my own, in a new city, and graciously having a support system to help me do that. I've also gained a fuller passion for social justice, youth, and education. Finally, doing LVC has challenged me to critically think about my values of spirituality, communication, sustainability, and community and how they relate in comparison to my housemates. 
What advice do you have for someone considering post-graduate service? Live fearlessly, have an open mind, and get involved...
To learn more about post-grad service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.

I Chose Service - Mike Bucaria, Augustinian Volunteers

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 1:20pm
After graduating from college, you have lots of options. This series highlights people who chose service, and how the volunteer experience has made an impact on their lives.

Name: Mike BucariaVolunteer Program: Augustinian VolunteersLocation: Ventura, CAHometown: Rockville Centre, NYCollege: Villanova University, 2014, English Major
How did you first learn about post-graduate service? I was always aware of the positive impact of post-grad volunteering since my mom spent a year with the Jesuit Volunteers in Omak, Washington, but I became more consciously aware during my sophomore year I went on a fall break service trip to Birmingham to work with their Habitat affiliate. There one of the construction site supervisors was a guy I went to high school with back on Long Island who was a few years older. We pieced our connection together and from there I learned that he was spending a year after graduating volunteering through AmeriCorps. This was the interaction that made me aware that spending a year volunteering post-grad was an option apart from going straight to work or grad school. Not only that, but that trip, sponsored by Villanova Campus Ministry, challenged and motivated me in ways that showed me I wanted to learn and do more to meet people and serve communities.
What other options were available to you, and why did you decide on your service program? I applied to a few jobs and a few volunteer programs to keep my options open, but none of the opportunities I had seemed at all like a better choice than going with the Augustinian Volunteers. I was ultimately convinced that a volunteer year was the right choice because, through talking with friends who had also deliberated a volunteer year and family as well, I gained the perspective that a one year gap in between college and work was not as daunting as I initially thought. How long is a year? For me, I knew that as long as I did something worthwhile with my time there was no rush to get a job and just move into the seemingly endless phase of working life. And since doing something worthwhile was the baseline, I wanted to something incredibly worthwhile. And the Augustinian Volunteers allowed me to do that by living in community with other volunteers and engaging a community with meaningful service.
Share about your service placement and volunteer community experience. Having a good time in Southern California is not challenging, but living in community with other 20-somethings can be. However, my community and I all fully leaned into this experience and knew that it was as instrumental to our service's impact as our individual effort. We all wanted to live the same simple lifestyle and dive in at our service sites, and living with other people of the same mindset (not to mention budget) provided a strong context to the volunteer work itself. Plus, we experienced the positive and fun parts of our community together and not just the sections and subsets needing a little TLC, which gave us a more holistic look at our host city and our place in it.
I worked at St. Bonaventure HS in Ventura, CA for their Christian Service program. I planned service projects, helped students find volunteering opportunities pertaining to their interests, and conducted reflections to help the students think about their experiences in different ways. But, volunteers always find new ways to get involved, and I also worked in Campus Ministry helping with retreats, with student events, and (my favorite) chaperoning trips and dances.
The most impactful facet of my year was with Many Meals, a weekly opportunity to reach out to the community with dinner and the community of a dinner table. Even beyond bringing students, I found this experience unique because of the relationships volunteers could build with guests over the weeks. When I think about the aspects of my year so essential to my overall experience - living in community, being useful to the school, and connecting with both students and those we served - I cannot think about any one apart from the other.
What benefits have you gained from this experience that you might not have received otherwise? The support of the Augustinian Volunteer program allowed my community and I not to be too bogged down in the challenges of moving to and living in a new city. Rather, we were able to work full time and treat our positions as they should be, with complete engagement. My first job was imbued with purpose, which is more than what a lot of people my age can say. My enjoyment also encouraged me to be more involved, which in turn increased my exposure to different professional areas of the work I was doing. But, most essentially, at three months out of college I was able to live with other young people but work in a diverse workplace, and that experience began my growth and prepared me for working alongside people other than other 23 year olds.
What advice do you have for someone considering post-graduate service? Consider all the reasons for and against doing a volunteer and then weigh each of them against the impact it will have on you beyond just the year you spend and the year or two after. I worried about maintaining friendships while moving far away, and I thought that I would miss out on too much being far from where my friends and family lived. But, with so much time ahead to work toward your personal, educational, or professional goals, why not just take a year for a productive and intense way to do something different? It really is not that long, just think about everything that happened three years ago and what a distinct time capsule that seems like compared to what you are doing now. How can that one year head start on getting a job compare to the education, capability, and personal growth you gain from an experience like a post-grad volunteer year. It is easy for me to say this in hindsight, but the cost of a spending a year in an unconventional way against the benefit of a lifetime of lessons and memories would not even be a question at this point. Come to think of it, I kind of want to apply again...
To learn more about post-grad service opportunities, check out our RESPONSE directory, listing thousands of opportunities across the United States and abroad.