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Building Community + Social Impact Through Soccer (Football) with Chris Roberts, co-founder of The North Wales Dragons

CMBB S1 12 | Building Community

If you are a soccer/football fan, then this episode is for you! You’ll meet Chris Roberts, founder and executive director of the North Wales Dragons, a not-for-profit soccer (ahem – football) team out of the UK that has raised funds for charities since they got their start in 2009. He tells the story of how a simple doodle forever changed his life, leading him “into Milan.”

Corinna Bellizzi & Chris Roberts connect more deeply as the episode progresses, as both open up about their struggles to stay positive in the face of COVID lockdown after COVID lockdown. They share personal experiences, and how important talking about mental health is — and even how podcasts might just help us all feel and stay more connected with one another. 

About Chris Roberts:

Chris Roberts is the co-founder of the award-winning North Wales Dragons Community Football Team, helping to raise awareness for the many challenges to the social issues we face in the modern world. He is a sustainability champion who has served many companies as he helps them build corporate social sustainability programs. As a proud heart attack survivor, he campaigns for healthy hearts through the North Wales Dragons, even securing the celebrity Davina McCall as a Dragons Heart Warrior. He reminds us all that any organisation has the ability to do good, and when employers and employees come together, they have the ability not to just make changes in the world but to make a world of difference. 

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Building Community + Social Impact Through Soccer (Football) with Chris Roberts, co-founder of The North Wales Dragons

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As we get started, I want to talk about struggling. Many of us already know that out of struggle comes growth. Many charities are built on that foundation alone, struggling to answer a specific call or need. In the face of uncertain economic times, the already leanly run charities you know and love can struggle to even exist. Smaller charities without large endowments from foundations are often the self-funded passion projects of inspired individuals who simply feel they must give back.

We’ve heard about a few like this, including Love Without Borders for Refugees In Need and The Corneal Dystrophy Foundation that we covered in episode six. The point is just because these charities are small doesn’t mean their work is unimportant. Thinking of these two examples helps you see how critical the work they do can be.

While some charities are singularly focused, others are a little more general, providing funds and resources to numerous other organizations that vitally need support. One such not-for-profit is the award-winning North Wales Dragons out of the UK. This not-for-profit football team has 75 members that have played 108 games to support a variety of charities.

To talk about the North Wales Dragons, a fundraising team that’s been running since 2009, I’m joined by Chris Roberts, their Cofounder and Executive Director. As a proud heart attack survivor, he campaigns for Healthy Hearts through the North Wales Dragons too, even securing the celebrity Davina McCall as a Dragon’s Heart Warrior. He has an amazing story of how a simple doodle by a dining room table changed his life forever. Chris, welcome.

Good afternoon. Should I say good morning?

You are across the pond from me. Here, it’s the morning, there, I’m sure it’s the evening. Why don’t we start there? Tell us this amazing story of how a doodle changed your life forever.

CMBB S1 12 | Building Community
Building Community: As we grew, we got educated as to how to support ourselves on social media. None of us had ever run a business before. We ended up having to run it like a business.

It was a strange episode where I was working with a football team. It happens to be the oldest football club in the world. They were working with a charity while I was working with them and preparing framed memento for football clubs. I came up with this one particular idea they love. They were having a 150th-anniversary game. They said to me, “Would you put one of these framed mementos together for this upcoming match that we are having?”

There was some hesitancy because it was something that I’d never ever been involved with before. I just happened to put this one thing together. They’d seen it and liked it. I was reluctant and said, “I’d much rather leave it alone. I don’t do this for a living.” They said, “Please, would you go ahead and do it?” They were presenting to Inter Milan. If you’re into soccer, Inter Milan is one of the biggest football clubs in the world. I thought, “If I don’t do anything in my life again, being a soccer fan, I love it. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to put this one thing together,” and I did.

I was invited to a football ground over here called Bramall Lane. It’s the home of Sheffield United, which is a premier football team. I was invited along. I went on to the pitch. I was with Mario Balotelli, he was in the players’ tunnel with me. There was Marco Materazzi. He was the Captain of Inter Milan at the time. Any football fans out there will remember that he was butted by Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup final.

I went out onto the pitch with both teams, Sheffield and Inter Milan. There were 20,000 people inside the stadium. Pelé was there as well. You’ve got your Lionel Messi and your Cristiano Ronaldo now, Pelé was the guy at the time. That happened in 2007. I’m telling the story now and I can still feel the goosebumps. It was such an amazing day. That was the day that changed my life. It was from there that we started working alongside Sheffield Football Club in a more community capacity.

That’s a lovely story. I would love for you to talk a little bit about that. Let’s see that first effort in 2009 when you formed the North Wales Dragons. What it was like and what you had to do within the community to get the football team off the ground? I know that that’s not a small effort. It’s the sport of choice in the UK. Everyone loves football. How did you go about that? What were the challenges you faced? Ultimately, how did that first season play out?

We struck up the relationship journey by providing this framed memento. They asked us if we had any ideas on how we could raise money for charity. This was the Boots for Africa charity that we first kicked off with. We hadn’t got any ideas then but I’d always been involved in community football. When I was ten years old, my dad was in a washing machine plant. They would have interdepartmental football matches.

When I left school, I always had that community idea based on me and my love for football. I went out into the big wide world and started organizing football matches with businesses. I would playback then because I was young and fit. That carried on all through the years. We had this opportunity where we decided that because of our background, we’d get a lot of contacts who would probably put a team together.

We arranged June 8th, 2009. My eldest son, he’d got contact up in Scotland. He said, “We’ll have a match with these guys. These guys will come down and we’ll play.” This particular afternoon, we kicked off. We played at our local football ground. Time is ticking away, 1, 2, 3 and 4-0. This wasn’t us being successful, by the way. This was us on the other end. It’s what we call over here. It was a bit of a scene too.

It was pouring down with rain. I can remember the rain washed down that afternoon. It added to the downslope of the afternoon. 8 and 9-0 came. We let out a sigh of relief when 10-0 came and the ref blew the whistle and said, “That’s it. We’re done for the day.” We were a bit deflated. We’d put this team together. We had our lessons. We went inside the clubhouse and we all had a drink. We had a raffle and an auction. We raised £2,500, which is like $3,000. We stepped back and we reflected the whole thing, the whole evening and the people that we’d got involved.

It’s the team that’s raising money for the cause. Not the individual.  

We couldn’t have asked for better. We couldn’t have asked for the staff of the Dragon’s campaign to go any better. Not that we knew that it would because we considered that it was a one-off game. By the time we’re 10-0 down, I surely thought, “Please, let this just be a one-off game.” At the end of the evening, we sat back and thought, “We would love to do this again because it’s worth the pain.”

That one particular match where you’re able to engage your community, lose horribly and still come out feeling like, “We did a good job. We raised $3,000, £2,500 for these charities that have been in need. We’re going to get up and do this again.” That’s sportsmanship too. You don’t win every day. There is no team on the planet that wins every day. When you get your touch handed to you, that hurts.

I asked you about this in our initial conversation. I’m like, “Is that a half-size field or a full field?” That’s a lot of losing. You’re working on a full field too. I can appreciate how much effort went into that. As you prepared for that third season, what changed in how you were running the Dragons? What helped you feel like, “This is something that could exist for the long haul?”

Once we’ve got that initial £2,500, $3,000 mark, we saw that we could probably do it for two different charities. We went back to Boots for Africa and Sheffield and said, “We’d like to do it again.” They were with us all the way and obviously quite happy with what we’d done the first time around. We also approached Help for Heroes and said, “This is an idea that we’ve got. This is what happened after the first game. Would you be quite happy for us to go out and raise some money for you?”

That was exactly the way it happened. we raised a similar amount by doing exactly the same thing. What we found then is that once we set aside walls or hurdles, I suppose and when you get beaten 10-0, you’ve got the biggest mountain to climb. It wasn’t about getting beat. It was about the taking part and the money that was made. The score was secondary.

Even though the score hurt, it was about how much money we could make for it and how many more charities we could involve. When we got to 2010, we did the two charities. When we got to 2011, we thought, “We can go for four charities.” Boots for Africa was one, Berkeley Town in the community was another one and also Clic Sargent, which was a children’s charity up in Scotland. The more we were playing, the more we wanted to get more charities involved.

I’m curious about your charity selection process. What made you choose particular charities? Were they things that your team members were passionate about or charities that worked in your local communities?

With the four teams that played, we let them choose their own charity. The team up in Scotland, Clic Sargent, they have a local children’s charity that one of the team members was involved with. For Berkeley Town in the community, there was a football club and they wanted to provide better facilities for their funds. Sheffield with Boots for Africa, they chose their own.

We supported Breast Cancer UK. The reason why was because we had a couple of members in our family at the time who were going through breast cancer. I won’t say that it was a family choice that it happened that we chose breast cancer. It was something that we put out to the team and said, “These are a few of the charities that we would like to sponsor. Which one would you go for?” It was a vote. They said, “We’ll go for Breast Cancer UK.”

That gets more engagement from your team members too. They’re excited to support a particular charity. I’m familiar with team and training here in the United States. I ran marathons to raise funds for leukemia and lymphoma, another for cancers. They’re probably one of the largest disease-related charities that you’ll find in the States, maybe even globally.

CMBB S1 12 | Building Community
Building Community: We found the identity and the recognition. Going forward, there will always be a dragon on the shirt now because that’s what we are. We are dragons.

I, personally, was involved in raising funds through five marathoning seasons. I worked as a training captain in addition to some community engagement with the team. Each season, I had to raise a particular amount to cover my race fees, my travel expenses and what would benefit the charity. I looked at it as each person who comes in contributes and pays it forward.

Over the course of that time, as a competitive individual, I wanted to keep raising more. Individually, I was responsible for raising something like $20,000, which felt good. It felt good to be acknowledged. I wonder what you’re doing on your side, if you’re implementing anything of the same or if it is, “You’re a team member. We want you to be involved. We’re not going to hold you to a particular number but let’s do our best.” I’d love you to talk about that.

We are in a position where what we have is 75 players who are on our books altogether. I ask them to go out week in, week out, month in, month out to raise money for charity. We can’t do it. We feel that for them to turn out and play, which they do at a weekend, we think that is donation enough. They volunteer their time and effort. What we always say is, “If you come and play us to raise money, go to their friends, family or work colleagues and say we’re playing in such and such a game, would you sponsor me for playing?” That is how the money is generated.

You might have Tommy. Tommy is a member of a small family. He’s not got many friends. He works in the local shop on his own. The expectancy of Tommy raising that much money is quite limited. Conversely, you’ve got Terry. He’s from a large family, he’s got a large circle of friends and he works in a factory. His chances of raising a substantial amount of money are much more increased.

What we always say is that we ask you to bring seventeen players to come and play. Out of those seventeen players, all the money goes in one pot. We say, “Don’t share how much each of you has raised. Keep that to yourself and put the money into one pot.” We don’t want anyone to feel that they’re not contributing enough or that they’re contributing too much neither.

The essence of the North Wales Dragons is we are a team. We want everyone else to feel the same way. We don’t want any conflict between the other team. We want them to come down with the sole purpose that they’re raising money for a particular cause. The thing is it’s the team that’s raising money for the cause. Not the individual.

The one thing that brings up for me is you might have particularly shy individuals who are great soccer players that want to get involved but they may be more socially awkward or less comfortable asking for money. The process you’ve laid out is very inclusive and helps people to be involved in something that is community-oriented. The costs of putting something like this on being a little different than running a marathon in Honolulu and traveling there, there’s a difference in the costs that you have to cover to put on something that can benefit charities.

That makes perfect sense. My question for you, as you started talking through some of that, you mentioned corporate social responsibility programs. I know you’ve done quite a bit of work in that arena, too. I wondered if some of the funds that you’re raising are being funneled directly through corporate sponsorships, be it like, “We’re going to sponsor your jerseys this year. We’re going to sponsor getting the word out so more people will donate,” or something along those lines.

We’re lucky that present sponsor, we’ve got Wales & West Housing. They are a large housing group here in Wales. We’re fortunate to partner with them. They’ve been very good to us in providing all our shares. This is something that we struggled with from day one. We were at a point where we didn’t get any recognition because what we were doing was quite new. It was unique. It was quite awkward to get off the ground.

Even the average human being is getting knocked sideways. We need some pick-me-up.

If you look around, particularly in the UK, there are lots of grassroots football teams that have popped up. When we first started, it was a struggle trying to find like-minded. We were playing funds teams and veteran football teams. There were very few who had the like-mindedness of what we were doing. I would like to think that we were probably a breakthrough in putting a charity football team together.

It was in those early years that we struggled to get recognition. People didn’t understand what it was that we did. As we grew, we got educated as to how to support ourselves on social media. None of us had ever run a business before. We ended up having to run it like a business. We ended up following people on Twitter who work philanthropy or who were doing great things in the community. We were following them. We were asking questions of them about what can we do to get better. They were giving us this information. There are big entrepreneurs out there who we were following and asking questions and they were quite giving of their time.

Even now when I go around, we always look back on them. We call them the board that we couldn’t afford. If you would have gone out to them and say, “I could do with some advice for you,” they would charge thousands for this kind of advice. As a result of what they told us, we managed to get ourselves out there a bit more. Wales & West approached and said, “We love what you’re doing. You are right alongside us and our social policies. We would love to have you on board as a partner.” That was a few years ago. We’ve been offered the partnership to continue as well.

That all sounds lovely. I look at this picture of you, all of these lovely jerseys from seasons past. I’d love for you to talk for a moment about why they might be different colors and ultimately, what you’re doing to remain scrappy so that most of the funds are getting to the charities that you’re supporting.

When we put our first football kits together, you call them uniforms over there, we had no funding whatsoever. We had nothing from anywhere. What we did was we saw the best way to try and get our kits together. It was eBay. We went out onto eBay and we managed to grab a set of shirts. It hardly cost anything at all. We all want to look the same but we all want the money to go to charity. That was the first kit that we bought. The second kit was the same. We thought we’d grown out of that one. We want some buy another kit. The lack of identity was there because there was no plan of what it is that we’re doing now. It was like, “We’ll get another set of jerseys.”

You didn’t necessarily have some branding firm come in and say, “These are your colors. We’re going to stick to this and this will improve your brand visibility. This is your logo. This is how we should be seen.” Are you doing that work now?

This is exactly the way that it’s working now. We found the identity and the recognition. Going forward, there will always be a dragon on the shirt now because that’s what we are. We are dragons. The dragon will always be there because that is our identity.

I was tempted to bring my bearded dragon down to show you. I have a lizard myself. It’s not exactly the same. She looks quite content in her enclosure so I left her then. I wonder too if you could talk a little bit about the charities that you’re working to affect in your next season and how COVID may have impacted what you’re doing. I imagine that since we’re living with a lot of restrictions, 2020 likely went a little dark. How do you see the team coming out of that? What charities do you see in your scopes as we move through 2021?

The pandemic thing took the world by surprise. I could probably be a little guilty of thinking this will pass. I thought it would pass quickly and how wrong I was. We played our last tournament in February 2020. That was for a men’s mental health charity. It was a bunch of teams that came together. It was for a men’s club that is involved with suicide prevention. That was the last time that we’ve kicked a ball in anger. There was no way in the world that I thought this is going to last twelve months or maybe a bit longer.

When it came to the middle of the pandemic, when it was at its height over here, we wondered what we could do as a community group. Rather than playing to raise money for charity, what we were doing was we were doing bits of community work. We clipped together and bore essential items for patients who had special needs. They couldn’t have any visitors so we would provide stuff like toiletries and that kind of thing.

CMBB S1 12 | Building Community
Building Community: You always should connect to a group that’s close to your heart. You have to have a lived experience to go with a group that goes with your heart.

We were buying takeaway meals for our accident and emergency unit because they were strapped. It was about enough deal in the COVID on its own, never mind having accidents. They need these specialist hand creams because they were working with COVID. Not only do they wash once but they wash twice, you name it. Their hands were becoming quite sore. We provided specialist hand creams for them as well.

We were donating money and food to our local food bank because a lot of families suffered due to unemployment. We donated to children’s charities as well. There was a lot of on-field stuff that we had to come away from but we can feel proud that we dived into our local community and tried to help out as much as we could.

As we opened the show, I mentioned some charities run lean. As you and I first connected, we talked about the fact that you run pretty lean. I’d love to hear what it is that you plan to do from 2021 forward and when you anticipate being able to run a match again. Do you foresee running a match summer of 2021?

Yes. To be honest, that’s what’s keeping us going. We have a tournament and we have a match that we do need to play. Every year, we have an eight-team tournament, which we call Dragon Invitational. We invite our friends’ teams along. They play to raise money for a charity. That is our signature game, which is pretty much based on that first Boots for Africa match.

The other one is we have a friend of the family who committed suicide years ago on the day after Christmas day. That’s called the David Jones Trophy. In 2009, we set it up. This is something that we wanted to hold every year in his memory. He was a guy who supported us from day one. He believed in everything that we were doing and everything that we were going to do. He came to our events and even did stuff in the background admin-wise. It was sad that we had to cancel in 2020. We’d normally play it in September. This is one game that we do want to play purely because it’s in our heart to play this game.

You had, in February 2020, benefited a charity that specifically was oriented towards mental health. Was that inspired by this individual?

It’s inspired by him and a lot of other individuals. My brother-in-law was in his mid-30s when he took his own life. We’re finding a lot. It’s a cruel world. We find that mental health does take a group of people. It’s more prevalent now. There are certain aspects that do make us think we need to play more and raise more awareness about mental health. In some certain circumstances, it’s getting quite cliché of saying it’s good to talk and what have you but we must talk. It’s something that even the hardest of males and females, we have to talk to each other. It’s a long, old subject that we can talk about.

That is one of the things that I didn’t expect in starting this show. I’m having conversations with people all over the globe that are leading fairly inspiring lives like your own. You’re very committed to a particular cause. You’re working with a community to build more community. Over the course of 2020, especially when we’ve been more isolated, when we haven’t had as many chances to connect and look one another in the eye, give a hug, shake a hand and all the things that we were so accustomed to as a social species. It poses unique challenges.

In starting this show, the thing that I didn’t expect as a benefit to me was that I, again, felt more connected to the world. I didn’t realize that I was starting to feel disconnected because the symptom crept up slowly. You don’t necessarily have the ability to put your finger on it because we’re all experiencing it. We are all forced into the situation. The mental challenges that that raises are not like an on-off switch.

If you ever have the opportunity to get involved in some community work at all, go for it. There are so many community groups and charities that need help.

It’s not like you suddenly wake up one day and realize, “Today’s a little bit worse than yesterday because I haven’t had as many connections.” The next day is a little bit worse. It’s like slow attrition, a death by a thousand cuts. You have a whole community of people that are all experiencing the same thing. Nobody’s talking about it because they don’t want to rock the boat or feel like, “I don’t have it as bad as somebody else. I’m going to keep it closed in.”

By the time a week, a month, two months or a year goes by, we’re all living less than we were living before. It’s time for us to acknowledge that this is the reason why mental health is rising as a community concern. More people are getting willing to talk about it and willing to talk about the ways in which we can support one another. I am a firm believer that through community, we all create a better future for ourselves.

What you’re doing in North Wales through the Dragons, you’re creating a community. You’re inspiring people. You’re giving them a connection and reason. By doing that, regardless of whether or not you’re raising money specifically for a mental health charity, you are helping them escape the potential of entering a depression, which nobody wants to experience. Everybody is capable of getting depressed. I don’t care who you are. It’s the lot of life of being human.

The whole mental thing is a strange beast. I’ve been working in this room for months. Everything in this house is my work. I go to the bathroom, it’s the toilet. I go to the living room, it’s the breakout room. I go to the kitchen, it’s the canteen. Everything is everything. Twenty-four hours, this house is my life. We can’t travel anywhere. We’re supposed to stay locally. We can only walk for exercise around. We’re totally shackled purely by something that we’ve never experienced before.

When we first got into the pandemic, everything was new. Everything was, “We’re being tested here. Let’s see how we can go with this task and how resilient we are.” For the first time around, that was okay. We managed the resilience quite well. We’re on our third lockdown. There is already so much that the average human being can say. Even the average human being is getting knocked sideways. We need some pick-me-up. It’s weird, me chatting with you. It’s a new face that I’m having a conversation with. It’s a window to the outside world. It’s a window that I’m appreciative of.

That’s the purpose. We have to connect more. I call this show Care More Be Better for a reason. The whole purpose of it is an invitation to get people to care a little bit more so we can be a little bit better. I care a lot and I often care more than I take the time to say. How many times can you be the person that’s sitting there on a soapbox talking about a particular issue and bore the heck out of your family?

I’m like, “I can do this on a global scale with a show.” Maybe there’ll be enough people who would want to get on a soapbox with me and get, “We need to be here. We need to care a little bit more about issues like mental health, communities that are struggling financially that need more support or the goal of bringing awareness to a particular issue that needs more attention.”

I do applaud what you’re doing, especially during a time like this. It is so hard when your world’s shrunk into the walls of your home. If I was going to offer you the platform, what message would you like to leave our audience with? What thing would you like them to take out of this conversation and to their daily lives?

If you ever have the opportunity to get involved in some community work at all, go for it. There are so many community groups and charities that need help. If you choose wisely about the charity or communities that you work with, you always should connect to a group that’s close to your heart. You have to have a lived experience to go with a group that goes with your heart.

Before I mentioned breast cancer, mental health, there’s heart awareness as well. These are stuff that, pardon the pun, are very close to my heart. If I’m going to do anything, I’m going to do something that’s affected me in my life. Because it’s affected me, it’s going to make me more invested in doing what I’m doing. I would say to anyone, don’t choose such and such a charity or a community because it’s local or something because you won’t be that invested in it. What you need to do is go with someone where you feel that this is going to matter.

CMBB S1 12 | Building Community
Building Community: “Expect nothing and appreciate everything.”

One saying that we always live by is, “Expect nothing and appreciate everything.” When we first started, we started with no one around us. As we grew, we expected nothing. As we developed on the journey, more people were helping and joining in. That’s when we realized that we do appreciate everything. We’ve come from nothing to be here with something. Everything that we’ve done, everyone who’s supported, played, joined in, been in the admin in the back and everyone like you, you’ve given us a platform to be out there. It’s not expected but it’s appreciated.

Thank you for everything you’re doing. Being a pillar in your community and getting so many people to act as volunteers for the greater good is something that is commendable. Here’s a little round of applause from me. Playing football is certainly a fun way to raise money. I am looking forward to you to the day when you can get out there and do what you do, raising money for charities in need, selecting those that are going to be important to your team members and making it happen. If our readers wanted to get involved with North Wales Dragons, how would they go about doing that?

If you type in North Wales Dragons on Google, you’ll track us down. We got better at social media so we’re quite easy to find. You can drop me an email at Chris@NorthWalesDragons.co.uk. You can ask me anything, or even if you want to share your own stories. I would love to hear them. We’re doing something that at the moment. We’re putting a book together about how soccer has affected lives. If you find that you’ve been involved in soccer and it’s helped you in your life, in the community or someone in the family, if it’s made a difference to your life, write to me and tell me about it. The book will come together and it will be sold to raise money for four different charities.

That’s lovely. Nice work. For all of those soccer fans or football fans out there, I invite all of you to visit the site and see what they’re doing. If you can afford to, I encourage you to make a donation to support their efforts. You can also visit CareMoreBeBetter.com and click on the Action Page. There, as always, you’ll find details about charities and conscious companies that we have featured. I will put together a feature also for the North Wales Dragons.

I invite all of you to join this conversation and be a part of the community we are building together. You can follow us on social spaces at Care More Be Better or send an email to me at Hello@CareMoreBeBetter.com. You can support the show by sharing it with friends or by donating directly to our site. Visit CareMoreBeBetter.com and click the Donate button. Thank you, readers, now and always, for being a part of this show and this community. Together, we can do so much more.

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Guest

  • Co-Founder & Executive Director, North Wales Dragons Football Club Chris Roberts is the co-founder of the award winning North Wales Dragons Community Football Team, helping to raise awareness for the many challenges to the social issues we face in the modern world. He is a sustainability champion who has served many companies as he helps them build corporate social sustainability programs. As a proud heart attack survivor, he campaigns for healthy hearts through the North Wales Dragons, even securing the celebrity Davina McCall as a Dragons Heart Warrior. He reminds us all that any organisation has the ability to do good, and when employers and employees come together, they have the ability not to just make changes in the world, but to make the world of difference.

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