Portrait of Jeny
My parents were drug addicts. I wasn't sure what drug, though; after all, I was only eight. My Dad was always in and out of jail. My Mom and Dad always argued, over anything. Sad part was that my Dad was abusive to my Mom. That's the part that hurt the most. My older brother and my sister and I used to cry and hope that one day it would all stop. Even though my brother didn't live with us because my Mom was too young to support all of us, he lived with my Grandma right in front of our house, so he was always with us. We all grew close because we were all hurt and knew we had to stick together. Until one day when my Dad had just gotten out of jail, and the cycle of drugs, arguing and abuse went on. My new brother was only a few months old in the year 2000, when my Mom decided that she wanted a better life for us. So late at night we packed and left on a Greyhound bus to Colorado.
Jenifer Martinez didn't know what Colorado was, but she knew that her mother was right when she said they had to get away from California. Jeny's mother, Rosy, asked her to keep it a secret from her little sister, Carmen, who would have told their dad.
Rosy had met Sam Martinez when she was just sixteen. Born in the United States, she'd moved with her father to Mexico after her mother died, when she was just one. Sam's father had sent him to Mexico after he graduated from high school in Los Angeles because he was rolling with a Sureños set, already a seasoned drug dealer. Rosy's father objected, but she ran off with Sam to California, where their son, Sam Jr., was born in 1991. Jeny followed a year later. And then came Carmen, giving Rosy three kids before she'd turned twenty.
Denver's Road Home
With Sam often in jail on burglary and controlled-substance charges, Rosy needed help. Sam's mother and father cared for their grandson while Rosy looked after the girls. But it was when Sam was out of jail that Rosy really needed help — although she didn't accept that yet. "We always partied on Fridays, and sometimes it would last the whole weekend," Rosy remembers. "Since I was sixteen, every weekend it was a party at somebody's house." They'd drink and smoke dope. And then Rosy asked Sam to get her some crack.
"I liked the rush," she says. "It's a funny feeling. You go numb and your brain functions differently, your breathing gets harder, your heartbeat increases, it chokes you up, numbs your mouth, but it only lasts for fifteen minutes. That is the problem with this narcotic: always a fifteen-minute rush and you want more. And when you do it so often you can't function, you need a 'wake-up call' — that's what we used to call it. You take the wake-up call and you want more and more."
But by 2000, when Rosy had a second son, Rudy, she realized she couldn't do it anymore. She called her father, who'd moved to San Francisco, and asked him for some money so that she could escape Sam. While she waited for the money, she packed a suitcase. When Sam found it, Rosy told him it was just laundry. When Sam found the makeup she'd packed in another bag, Jeny quickly came up with a story about playing dress-up with Carmen.
Rosy's father never called back, so Rosy waited for her October welfare check. That, along with her last paycheck, gave her $1,500. Leaving her oldest son with his grandmother, she took the girls and the baby and boarded a bus.
Along I-70 in the mountains, the bus stopped at a Wendy's. There Jeny and Carmen saw snow for the first time in their lives. Rosy had picked Denver because a friend who has family here told her it was a nice place to live, slower-paced than Los Angeles. It was cold and rainy when they arrived, and Rosy checked into a Holiday Inn. The next day, she and the kids went to the Denver Department of Human Services, which gave her a week-long voucher and sent her to the King's Inn on East Colfax. Social Services also told Rosy about the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which got the family into the Sacred Heart House of Denver, a shelter where they stayed during the month of November. Sacred Heart also helped Rosy find a job, as an administrator with United Airlines' cleaning department at the airport. By the end of December, Rosy had enough money for a used car and an apartment in Aurora. Carmen and Jeny both enrolled at Kenton Elementary, where Jeny finished third grade and found a boyfriend, Luis.
The airport job didn't work out, and Rosy moved to a temporary gig as a customer-service agent at the Aurora Mall, then to a better-paying job at American Linens, doing inventory control. She moved her family out of Aurora and into a big house in the Swansea neighborhood, but when that proved more than she could afford, she moved everyone into a basement apartment right up the street. Rudy was in daycare, and Carmen and Jeny took the bus to Swansea Elementary School.
In July 2002, Rosy got a better job, working as a translator for the laundry workers' union. She moved her family back to Aurora, into a duplex, and Jeny was back at Kenton for fifth grade. Twice that year, Rosy drove the girls to California for a week-long visit with Sam, their grandparents and their older brother. Three-year-old Rudy went along for the ride.
Back in Colorado, Rosy would occasionally call Sam to ask his advice about their youngest son. She knew that Sam had a new girlfriend, but she still loved him.
In the spring of 2003, Rosy's employer wanted to send her to a seminar in Wisconsin, and she needed someone to watch the kids. Without giving it much thought, she asked Sam to come to Denver.
For a while, my Dad was the perfect dad. He spent so much time with us and he got back with my Mom, which was cool. We got involved with the school basketball team and were in Girl Scouts. But that didn't last. They got on drugs again, they argued all the time. All of a sudden we weren't allowed to go outside. We could not answer the phone or even look out the window. My sis and I were locked up in our room. We didn't go anywhere. Not even to do laundry. We hand-washed. We had one friend that knew what we were about and helped us out. She convinced my Dad to let us out. She invited us places. She was truly our best friend. But my sister was my only friend through all this.
It was hard living. We barely had enough food to eat. Constantly we ate Ramen noodles. And food pantries helped a lot. Our clothes were dirty. They were hardly ever washed, considering we didn't have much to start with. Our shoes weren't any better. We walked with holes and dirty socks. We were in middle school. It was embarrassing. At times, I felt there wasn't much to live for.
At Kenton, Jeny had gotten back together with Luis. But boyfriends were against her father's rules.
"Boys are no good," Sam told his girls. "Boys are disease."
"You guys wanted your dad," Rosy said. "Your dad has rules, too."
One rule was that the family needed to stay on a budget. The girls loved it when Rosy would take them out in her Honda, open the moonroof and cruise to 7-Eleven for Slurpees on payday, but Sam didn't like to splurge. At least he was bringing in money: He'd found work with a laundry service and at Ross Dress for Less, where he could buy his kids clothes and toys.
The rules went out the window one night when Sam and Rosy went to Hollywood Legends — a now-defunct club on West Sixth Avenue — for Old School Fridays, their regular getaway when they had enough money for a babysitter and a few drinks.
"We had one too many," Rosy remembers. Driving home, they saw a guy at a Colfax bus stop and gave him $25 for some crack. The guy ran across the street with their money, and as Sam chased after him, a cop passed by. The guy who'd taken their money flagged down the cop and said Sam was trying to rob him. The guy was a Colfax regular, and the cop knew it was bullshit, but he still patted down Sam and Rosy and ran their names.
They were clean. The cop left, and Sam and Rosy went down the street to get something to eat. They ran into the same guy again. Sam told him he could keep the $25 if he'd just find someone who could score them some rock. Eventually they got their drugs, got home and got high.
It had been three years since Rosy had smoked crack, but it soon became a weekend thing, something they did when they went out. Then they stayed in to do it. Then they did it all the time.
"If there's money, why not?" Rosy remembers thinking. "You can't beat 'em, join 'em. And that made it easier for me to get high."
As a fifth-grader, Jeny was deep into DARE drug-awareness training. She'd come home and read her DARE literature, and even asked Rosy if any of her aunts or uncles used drugs. Rosy told Jeny about one of their friends using meth, which was pretty obvious to everyone. And while Jeny never talked to her parents about their drug use, that was becoming pretty obvious, too.
Looking for random stuff like batteries, Jeny would find crack pipes in her parents' dresser. She knew that the big, bald black man who came to the house — their parents' "friend" — was really the dope man. When he arrived, she'd round up Rudy and Carmen, knowing that soon her parents would be in their room, doing their "medication." After that, they'd get paranoid and the kids would be stuck inside all day.
"They know Mommy and Daddy are in the room," Rosy remembers. "And they knew if we had any plans, a teacher's conference, anything, we wouldn't go. The kids got used to it, and that was the sad thing. The kids got used to it."
Sam did make it to Jeny's DARE graduation, though he was really strung out. A police officer had brought a drug-sniffing dog to the ceremony to show the kids. "Do you think the dog can smell it on us?" Rosy recalls Sam asking.
Sam and Rosy bought Jeny some balloons to mark the occasion. Then they went home and smoked crack.
When her parents were high, Jeny took on the responsibilities of cooking and cleaning and watching Rudy. Carmen helped, too. Her specialty in the kitchen was fried Ramen noodles. But the "spread" — slightly cooked Ramen noodles mixed with a bag of crushed Doritos and mustard and mayo — was the girls' favorite. Jeny and Carmen would make mayo sandwiches, with just mayo between two pieces of bread. They also ate a lot of cereal and frozen burritos.
Sam would constantly spray air freshener to hide the stench of crack smoke. If they were out of air freshener, he'd spray Febreze. When that ran out, he'd mix laundry detergent and water in the Febreze bottle and spray that.
Once in a while, Sam would "spoil" the girls, giving them each $20 to buy whatever food they wanted at the store or tortas at the local carnicería. But the girls would have to come right back home, with no talking to boys. And they never got to play Ghost in the Graveyard or bote, a Mexican Kick the Can, with kids in the neighborhood.
"We knew how to take them to Lakeside and they would forget," Rosy says. "We would take them to the pool and they would forget." But Jeny and Carmen never really forgot what life was like behind the closed doors of their house.
At night they'd lie in bed, trying not to laugh when their paranoid father would walk around, holding a stick to defend himself, poking behind doors and the shower curtain at some imaginary figure. Sometimes Sam booby-trapped the doors with chairs or bungee cords.
Eventually, Sam lost both of his jobs for no-call, no-show. Then Rosy was laid off. She got some severance pay, which she spent on rent and crack. Then she started collecting unemployment while Sam tried the day-labor spots.
For two years, Sam and Rosy bounced around different jobs, always behind on their rent. It was impossible for the girls to keep up with the mess their parents had made of their lives. The hot water heater broke, and there were so many cockroaches that Jeny made them her "pets," naming one Bob and another Phil. "They were the homies," Carmen jokes.
In the summer of 2006, when Jeny was getting ready for high school, an eviction notice finally arrived.
Jeny suggested they have a yard sale. While her parents were at work, she sold off the furniture and other household items, getting sunburned in the process. Rosy gave Jeny $25 of the $100 that she had made that day. Sam and Rosy bought Subway for dinner and crack for dessert.
The next day, the Martinez family checked into a motel on East Colfax.
We ended up moving to a motel called the Sands. Everything was okay, so it seemed. We had more freedom, got to play outside, made lots of friends and got to go to school with them and actually had washed clothes and new shoes. Starting high school was fun, new people and it was just awesome. But coming home was the worst part. It was like living in a small dungeon. My Dad was paranoid and carried an ice pick along with a stick. Me and my sister tried to make the best of those moments. We made fun of my Dad, calling him Tarzan and "old man Jenkins." My Dad constantly had friends over. Every morning getting ready for school, my Dad's friends were sleeping on our couch like bums, as if they lived there.
For Jeny and Carmen, the Sands seemed like heaven. Their two-bedroom unit had a kitchen, hot water and air-conditioning, and no roaches. Carmen fixed the place up with the leftover curtains and linens from the duplex. There were lots of other families living there, and other girls to play with. But the adults had their own idea of fun; one day a neighbor knocked on the door and asked for a metal spoon.
Rosy and Sam still managed to get jobs. Rosy was working as a driver for Dollar Rent a Car, taking cars to get cleaned. Sam got a job there, too, detailing the cars. But when they weren't working, they were at the Sands, drinking and smoking crack.
One day there was a knock on the door: It was Pastor Dwayne Johnson of Mean Street Ministry, a non-profit Christian outreach group that goes to the Colfax motels offering clothes, food, school supplies and hope to the homeless.
"I knew that they had to be off the streets," Johnson says. "You can't really concentrate on your life or the direction it's going when you have to worry about your next meal or where you're going to sleep the next day."
Johnson speaks from experience. He was a drug dealer in Fort Worth, then a drug addict, then suicidal. He was locked in a motel room when someone came knocking on his door and told him that Jesus could set him free. Johnson went to rehab and then to ministry school, graduating in 2001 and moving to Denver, where he joined the brand-new Mean Street Ministry.
"The Martinezes were looking for some hope," he recalls. "A lot of the people out there have no hope and aren't even looking for it. What made me really want to get ahold of the Martinezes was that the family structure was already there. They were one of the families that I knew I had to reach out to."
Although Sam answered the door with a bottle in his hand and a mouthful of profanities for Johnson, he kept knocking. He asked if he could take the kids to church. Sam didn't want to let his kids go at first, but they were bored, and eventually he agreed to let them out.
"Normally, if the cycle isn't broken, what you're looking at is a generational curse, and that curse is passed on through the children," Johnson says. "We have to break the cycle with the parents, because if not, that kid is headed in the same direction. The Martinez kids really love their father, but they have been damaged so much by watching him."
While Johnson was helping the kids, he didn't give up on Sam, either. "I went scouring the streets looking for him," he remembers, "and I would run into him at the drug houses, and he would dodge me and avoid me. And then one day he called me on the phone and said he needed help."
Both Sam and Rosy had lost their jobs. The car was in pawn, and they'd fallen behind on the $61-a-night rent on their motel unit. The family was a step away from the street. Again.
In October 2006, Johnson referred the Martinez family to the Crossing, a former Holiday Inn on Smith Road now run by the Denver Rescue Mission. Denver and the State of Colorado had kicked in a total of $1.5 million to help acquire the facility as transitional housing for the homeless, with a special emphasis on families. To qualify for the Rescue Mission's Strategic Transition Assistance and Response (STAR) program, Sam and Rosy had to generate an income of about $700 a month and pay about $12 a day in rent to the Crossing — first nightly, then weekly, then $388 monthly, to acclimate them to responsibility. They also had to cover their phone, electric and cable bills — each discounted to $10 a month. Sam soon got two new jobs — 35 hours a week at a Popeye's and 21 hours a week at a beverage-distribution center. Rosy found work at the Ross where Sam had been, and the kids once again benefited from her employee discount. Although the Crossing offers a meal program, Rosy cooked for the kids in their one large room, making mac-and-cheese in the microwave and cooking meat on a hot plate.
The Crossing had another requirement: Sam and Rosy had to be married. They'd been together for the better and worse — much worse — parts of seventeen years when they finally tied the knot.
Life at the Crossing came with strict rules, including obeying curfews and submitting to random drug tests. Sam and Rosy also took classes in budgeting and other life skills, in hopes of qualifying for a long-term housing program with Denver's Road Home, the city's ten-year plan to end homelessness.
While the newlyweds stayed busy working, Jeny and Carmen would come home from school and talk with "Mr. Dave," the Crossing's youth and family coordinator, who held discussion groups for teens and a couple of mature twelve-year-olds. Jeny and Carmen were always the first ones at the meetings, David Medina remembers, and they often led the discussions. During one, the sisters talked about forgiveness and how it makes you a better person. Jeny and Carmen said they'd seen other kids get angry at their parents and angry at each other, and they knew the feeling — but instead of anger, they encouraged forgiveness.
"There's so many things going wrong with homeless kids inside the schools and everywhere else because of the emotional strain that's based on what's taking place inside of the family," Medina says. "If I can reach the youth in an emotional area where they can find emotional healing, then it's easier for them to see how it plays a part in how they react to education and to their peers. I look at how they are spiritually and how they are emotionally, because those are the two key ingredients to get healing in any other area in their lives. Putting that foundation underneath their feet, giving them a desire to fulfill dreams and to fulfill their goals, none of that could've happened if not for Carmen and Jeny knowing where God was in their life."
By last February, Sam and Rosy had saved enough money to visit their oldest son and Sam's parents. Although Sam encountered drugs on the trip, he says he just said no. But when Rosy failed to show up for a budget meeting at the Crossing the week after the family returned from California, the staff got suspicious and decided to test the couple.
When a staffer knocked on the door and asked Rosy for a UA, Rosy told her daughters that she had to pee in a cup.
"Ewwwwwww," Jeny said.
After Rosy came out clean, she called Sam. "Hey, you better drink some water, dude," she said. "Drink something, because they're asking for a UA."
Then she turned to Jeny and told her why her father would test dirty. A few nights before, he'd gotten off work and stopped at a bar on Colfax for a few drinks. Someone had offered him a line of cocaine, and Sam had snorted it. But coke doesn't affect Sam like crack, so the kids couldn't tell he was high.
Sam tried to dodge the test, but the staff found him that night. He tested positive, and the family was told to leave the Crossing. Sam and Rosy didn't argue. It was tax season and they'd gotten a refund, so they opted to move to an apartment.
When Jeny and Carmen went to say goodbye to Mr. Dave, they talked about forgiveness. Again.
While her family moved into their new place, fifteen-year-old Jeny went to her first rock concert. When she got home, she found Carmen asleep on the floor. Her parents were still awake, obviously high.
Well, at the new place, things just got stranger. There was no furniture. My parents would just sit in our living room and just stare at a TV with no sound, watching paid programming. What I loved most is that all we would do all day was play outside with our new friends, eat soup and go to bed. It was like I didn't even have parents. They didn't know anything that was going on with me and my sister. There was no communication.
Jeny knew her parents needed help, and they weren't getting it while locked inside their unfurnished apartment, which was "so ghetto." Not only was there no furniture, but there was no shampoo, and Jeny had to wash her hair with laundry detergent. At least Rudy was older now and could play outside with other kids, which meant she and Carmen could spent time with kids their own age.
After two months, Sam and Rosy realized they had to try to clean up their act. They applied to return to the Crossing, and case managers there concluded that the family deserved a second chance. The Crossing is usually willing to give families a break, as long as their finances are in order and they don't have a record of defiance. But staffers say the Martinez family seemed particularly worthy because of their will to succeed, their positive energy and their determination not to allow their past to overcome who they can become. This time, though, Rosy and Sam had to comply with stricter rules, including weekly rather than monthly assessments. Drug tests were more frequent, too, and Sam had to submit to a test three times in one week. Rehabilitation classes were also part of the plan, though Sam often got out of them because he was working so much at a new landscaping job.
This past summer, Jeny and Carmen were two of a dozen Crossing residents who went to a week-long Christian camp in Missouri. The girls had to practically be pried away from their parents; Jeny even dropped a tear or two.
Jeny's never cried much. But at camp, as she thought about what her family had endured, she broke down, bawling. "And then afterward I felt better," she admits.
There were more than a thousand kids in attendance, and Carmen received one of the camp's highest honors: for putting God and other people before herself.
The week apart was hard on everyone. Carmen and Jeny couldn't even call their parents, and their reunion was joyous.
By the end of September, the Martinez family had graduated from the STAR program and enrolled in the Family and Senior Homeless Initiative, run by Denver's Road Home. By then, Denver's Road Home was already two years into its ten-year plan and had established more than 800 new units of transitional and permanent housing — including the Crossing facility. "Denver's Road Home is about reaching out to all of our homeless," explains project manager Jamie Van Leeuwen, "and the Family and Senior Homeless Initiative is a critical piece to achieving our objectives to end homelessness as we know it in ten years. Without reaching out to our families and without reaching out to our seniors, we wouldn't be able to accomplish that."
With the help of FSHI, the Martinezes moved into a new, $900-a-month townhouse with luxuries they'd never imagined enjoying again: a TV, beds, shampoo. But housing isn't the only part of this program. Families need more support and structure to keep on the right road. Last year, Mayor John Hickenlooper had asked for 1,000 congregations in Denver to step up and help sponsor homeless families. Some religious groups are acting as both mentors and fundraisers, contributing up to 30 percent of the $1,200 cap on each family's security deposit and first month's rent. (The rest of the money comes from homeless organizations and city fundraising.) "Mayor Hickenlooper was looking for a creative way to engage the faith community on the ten-year plan to end homelessness," explains Brad Hopkins, FSHI's program director. "So many of our families are socially isolated; they don't have that social network around them, and the network they do have around them could be more of a negative presence."
The Martinez family requested that their mentor come from Victory Outreach, the church they were attending at the time. Their mentor claims he has lost all contact with the family and declines to discuss the matter further. But that hasn't yet affected the Martinezes' status in the program.
"About 77 percent of our families are doing all of their mentor program meetings," says Hopkins. "What we're asking for is seven meetings total over four to six months." So far, 333 families — including the Martinezes — have gone into FSHI. "Eighty-three percent of them are still in housing one year later," Hopkins continues. "This is just the real deal. The very core philosophy of our program is a relationship, and you can't force a relationship. There has to be that option to chose."
Sam says that even though it's been tough to get to church or meet with mentors, he and Rosy are sticking by their choice to get their act together and give their kids a better life.
Ever since I was young, I always had this angry love for my parents. They put this family through so much, all because of an addiction they couldn't quit. This cost me my childhood and my innocence as a kid. Being a kid, you're supposed to have no worries or cares. I did. I always worried if my parents would ever come back. Or one day we would get taken away. So young, not knowing what's wrong, why are my parents fighting, why can't we go outside, just living such a life of mystery. I am not ashamed of my life, nor would I change anything for the world. It made me the person that I am today. Just at times, I wonder how it would have been like to just be normal. To have that life of a normal childhood. To not be a child with so much anger and pain in the heart and nowhere to let it out. This happens everywhere. I know I'm not the only one. There are others. I'm just one of the first to admit it.
Jeny, who's about to turn sixteen, has no problem meeting with her mentor. She sees Judy Rowe, a retired teacher from Maryland, quite often. Jeny and Rowe were matched up by Save Our Youth, a mentoring agency that has paired adults with kids since 1993.
David Medina recently left the Crossing to work for SOY. "Kids don't have positive influences," he says. "Sometimes the things kids face these days, with a father in prison or the separation of mother and father in divorce, living with their grandparents — there's no structure in their life. They're so surrounded by what's taking place, they don't have that influence that there's something better."
Rowe, who has no children of her own, appreciates the chance to fill in where help is needed. Although she jokes that Jeny is a little too mature for her, the two frequently go out together — shopping or to Starbucks or to a museum or to eat. Both Rowe and Medina stuck by Jeny when her parents took the family from the Crossing, even though Sam and Rosy didn't let them actually see Jeny during that time.
These days, Sam and Rosy encourage Jeny to spend time with supportive adults.
When Rowe signed up for the mentoring program, she was warned that a lot of the kids have issues.
"And where are your issues? I'm waiting for your issues," she jokes with Jeny over lunch. "I think I got off very easy. We just have fun."
"When I'm with you," Jeny tells her mentor, "I don't really think about stuff at home. It's just like I'm with Judy."
Jeny is eager to get a job, but Rowe cautions her not to let it "get in the way of being in high school." Jeny's blossomed at Aurora Central High School, where she's doing well in classwork, has joined the dance team and the choir, and spends time with friends.
For school one day, Jeny wears a sweatshirt with Tinkerbell designs over capris and fresh DC kicks. Both of her wrists are wrapped in plastic and rubber bracelets. "Mi Familia Primero" is the message on the red, white and green one.
In the hall she hugs friends; in class she hugs more. She hugs while she's walking and while she's standing. She's got a crush on one boy, and a boy in whom she has no interest has a crush on her, but she hugs both of them the same way. Plus, she can always count on hugs from Carmen when she sees her kid sister. At their new townhouse, Carmen has a bedroom of her own for the very first time — but she still sneaks into Jeny's bedroom at night.
"We stuck together, you know," Carmen explains.
"Solid," Jeny adds.
The two bang fists.
Although Jeny is friendly with everyone, she keeps quiet about the challenges she's faced at home. "I think Central and most schools have some kids who have to deal with things outside of the school day that unfortunately they probably shouldn't have to," says Tyler Smith, who taught Jeny geography last year and is now her social studies teacher. "She's a great kid and does well in class. I don't know all that's happened in her life, but whatever it is, it hasn't affected her school performance at all. She's a great student."
Sam and Rosy are thankful that their kids have turned out so well, despite their own bad behavior. They're thankful that their kids somehow took care of themselves when they weren't there for them. But they swear those days are behind them. "There's no turning back this time," Sam says. "You have to make the right choices. If you make bad decisions, you're going to go down that path for sure. Learn the easy way or learn the hard way — it's up to each individual person."
Jeny made up her mind a long time ago.
"I do not want to end up like my parents," she says. "I am not going to have four kids, one in California, and be on drugs. I'm not going to end up like my parents. I'm telling you, I'm going to have a good job and a nice house." She hopes to be a journalist one day, and has already started writing some of her own story.
"I think God actually came through for us this time," she says.
In my future, I have a lot planned. I really love my dance team and I enjoy it. But really, I want to be a writer. I'm trying hard in high school to make it through, and I'm making it. I want to graduate and go to a good college. I want to make it in life. My parents are my example that I should try harder in life and really think of the decisions that I make. I really would like to visit schools and talk to students and share my experience with people so that they know that they are not the only ones. The end.
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