“The decision to triumph is yours. Paint your future as you wish. Choose the colors, and don’t allow anyone else to choose them for you.”
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Though I had interacted with Maria del Pilar Garcia at language and culture education conferences and events over the years, the transformational day for me was when I was in her school in New York City, providing a staff training. Afterwards, we two sat in her classroom for a few more hours, talking about the challenge and satisfaction of teaching students language and culture so that they could find their own voices and learn to hear and appreciate those of others.
Maria’s energy and compassion struck me: she’s invested in her students’ lives and success, not just for their courses, but for their lives. Maria, I found, came to this focus and dedication from the perspective of her own dramatic challenges: beginning in her home country of Colombia, through her journey to the United States, to her decision to not become a nurse but rather an educator. As we note in our conversation, she decided to be a healer of hearts and futures, instead. She continued to share about her book she had written to encourage others and the Foundation she had established to take action on her commitments. I knew then that her stories were ones I wanted to share.
As those of you who have listened to my previous podcasts know, at the end I ask my guest to provide one last insight. The quote in blue, above, is Maria’s response. It is one of three favorite quotes, she tells us, from her books. I turn to you now: what will be your response, when I ask YOU to share the impact of your own history, your dreams, your journey and your goal? As you listen to Episode 20, reflect on how your personal story connects you to others.
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Norah Jones (00:00): It’s my great pleasure today to welcome my friend colleague and a wonderful educator. Maria del Pilar Garcia. Hi Maria.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (00:10): Hola. Hello. How are you, Norah?
Norah Jones (00:12): I’m well, thank you. Thank you so much for being my guest today. And I would like to make sure that all of our listeners know that you are a high school teacher of Spanish AP. That is to say Advanced Placement, and Languages Other Than English classes at the board of education for New York city. And you work in conjunction with St. John’s university, the College Advantage Program. You’ve been doing this for 22 years, my friend, and you have been promoting the language, promoting the culture, and promoting the passion for that time. And you’ve been awarded Spanish Teacher of the Year 2014 from the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, the AATSP. Congratulations, Maria, on all your excellence, but especially on all your passion. Where does that passion come from, my friend?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (01:07): First of all, thank you for inviting me to your podcast. It’s wonderful. That way I can spread my ideas and thoughts about this passion that I have for teaching, especially showing: what is culture, what is identity and what is this beautiful language of Spanish? It comes from my grandma, my childhood, where I grew up. I’m an older, I’m the oldest daughter of eight. So from there, you can tell that I was thinking to either be a teacher or a nurse. And I started to study nursing for over two years here in New York. And then I switched to education because I thought there was more need really in education for me to get more students successful and to help them more in their family problems, including my teaching, so I can work both ways.
Norah Jones (02:08): Tell me about…. Interesting that you would come in about their problems. What are some of the things that you saw that captured your heart and made you realize it was its own kind of nursing, if you will, this educational choice?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (02:22): Well, when you are the teacher, I think I have a special sense also that I see who needs help, like to communicate better. Who needs love, who needs more compassion, in a way of giving motivation. Students who have problems at home, not only I mean, like with themselves to find out who they really are problems that arise with a family. But to love, they, they need love, they need attention. And I found out that many parents didn’t have time for them for these students that I spoke [to] eventually few times. And I, since then when I was, you know doing my lessons, and I asked them to write, for example, how many times a week do you meet with your parents? You talk, you discuss any topic, anything that worries you. And they said… The majority said, very few times; some of them said none.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (03:33): So that really calls, you know, rang my bell. And I said, well, they need, they need something here. And they were like, no, I don’t want my parents near me. I don’t want this. They don’t understand me. They don’t… They don’t know how to talk. They don’t know how to really not even to have… Not a discussion, just a small talk about something about themselves. What do you like? I found out that many parents don’t know their own kid. I think we teachers, we learn how to know better the children. That’s, that’s one of the keys that I found out and I’m, I’m a mom. And I, I can tell that my experience as being the oldest sister and a mother helped me really a lot to sense this from my students.
Norah Jones (04:26): Now you, Maria relate to the folks that are feeling disassociated from their parents. Not because you yourself have experienced that per se, but because of your family stresses, strains and your coming to the United States. Can you express to the listeners what it is that you have done in your past that make you sensitive to these things?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (04:54): Yes, of course. I, I sense this very easily because when I was a child also I have to go through a hard time with my parents. They had also some, you know hard situations within themselves. Especially, you know, the Hispanic culture used to have this ego, the macho into the men and the women were supposed to be home and the men outside working, but not only working on doing, you know playing different roles of Don Juan, if you know, what is Don Juan? Yes, yes. So that’s something that unfortunately that’s how men used to be raised. And they grew up in this environment, the majority of men. So it’s not, it’s not their guilt that, you know, that it is their fault, but it’s the whole culture that used to be like that. So I grew up with some of this and I, I was always thinking of my brothers, I try to be there for them and I have a great supporter.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (06:08): It, that was my grandma and also my, my grandpa, but mostly my grandma, my grandma, my mom’s mom. She was always with us. She was always trying to pacify us, to tell us, don’t worry, let them have the argument, come, come with me. She used to distract us, to take away us aside from my parents’ arguments or I will say in, in a grosser word, like fights. So I see that and I, I sense it. And I said, I’m not going to do that. If I’m a mother one day and if I have a family that’s the last, the least thing that I’m going to do. I’m going to do the opposite. I was always thinking not to take the things that are not right, just to take the best from my parents and from the adults that surround me and bring that with me and use it with my own family.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (07:10): And if in my profession, in this case as an educator. So I felt that with my students too, and many times, and they, at the end, they told me their, their situation, how their, their guardians were fighting. The father was hitting their mom or the opposite, or the brother to sister or somebody else. And many other problems like drugs, you know, many situations, many problems that arise. And they don’t know how to find a solution. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t know how to really handle it. So they count on me. And also what you asked me before, about the way that I came and what moves me to come to this country. It is the needs that I had to really encounter when I was between 14 and 15 years old. I had to think and realize the reality of my position as oldest sister and take a decision that will change not only my path, but my family’s path.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (08:24): I was really desiring to come to the USA. To the North, that we all used to call it. El Norte. And just do whatever I have to do in a good way. Okay. Like to work hard, to get myself educated just continue ahead and support my family to, you know, put my family on my shoulders and change their life, the new path that they were going to really continue living. My dad went bankrupt, and he lost mostly everything when I was 15, almost 16 years old, and I had to find a job. Thank God I was studying in a school where you can graduate early. I graduated early and I was studying as a secretary… a lot of extracurricular activities that I did that helped me to work and study. And I continued studying at night.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (09:31): It was a tough schedule for me because I went from six to mostly 11, 12:00 PM every day, including Saturdays. But I needed to do something. I couldn’t leave my parents or my brothers and sisters alone, especially that we were a big family. And so we were really, really in a bad position here. So then my aunt who was here in New York, she wrote me and I said, I think I’m going to ask her if she will help me to go, and just lend me some money, and I can just go there. And I thought it was easier. I thought it was just to take an airplane and just go, you know, but then this whole trip was not that easy. It was full of obstacles. But I came through and I finally ended up in New York. So I don’t know if you want me to tell the whole story, but it’s pretty hard and it’s not easy.
Norah Jones (10:43): I can tell that it’s not easy. And yet you overcame, and this has got to have an impact on the way that you look at and work with the students in your class. And again, we’re talking about your being a Spanish teacher. You’re working with students that are learning a language or reinforcing their language. How does this…how do your experiences — and you’re welcome to tell more of them, of course — how do they work with the language and the culture that you are bringing in through your position as a teacher?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (11:21): Well at the beginning…I will tell you, from my point of view. I see the students and they say they don’t know who really I am, and they don’t know what I have to encounter in my, you know, in the past, just to stand right there in front of them. But I… That helped me. And that gave me the power, the skills to really show them that learning a language, a new language, is going to bring them more power, more opportunities for their future. And especially now that we see the changes not only because, you know, through this pandemic, but before we were already seeing the languages world is really becoming a great opportunity for everyone. So that’s the first thing I do. I show them the importance of learning a new language, the importance of knowing another culture to see what they have similar, what they can compare and see, Oh, I do this the same. Incredible.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (12:30): So, and also to have more opportunities, to be more places. Your learning never ends. That’s one point that I always emphasize in my students, you never stop learning. And if you learn through your career and also experience a new culture, a new way of different aspects of that you can learn from others, then you can use that as a power for your knowledge, for your future, for your career, for your even… It may be, you can start your own company and you can learn about your workers. And if they are from different cultures, then it’s much better for you to know this language. For you to know, not only one, not only two, as many languages that you can. But in this case, Spanish. I find that telling them that is what gives them the really the opportunity to move on.
Norah Jones (13:32): You keep using, with good reason, the word opportunity. In so many cases in world language classes, around the United States, even for Spanish, which is so widely used in the United States by many populations, that students don’t necessarily see the opportunities. And you have students with all sorts of backgrounds and needs in New York City. And your emphasizing opportunity comes with your own life story, your own journey, your own dream. That impact on students: How do you make sure that they understand that this can be their lives, too?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (14:16): I explain to them the opportunity that I had coming to this country, taking English as my second language, which I didn’t, I mean, I knew the grammar, how to write it. But to speak it, it’s totally different when you are in an overseas country, especially a Hispanic country. I have the opportunity to learn it. Yes. But when you come to the reality and you try to speak, it’s totally different. It’s not that easy. So I told them, if I didn’t know, if I didn’t have the desire to really begin my life here, with a new language, new culture, then I wouldn’t be who I am today. And I tell them, you need to have the decision, the desire to move on, to think: what is good for me, what I can do to improve my opportunities.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (15:12): What can I do to have a better future with everything that I can take that is around me? So that’s one of the things that I mentioned to my students. And I also tell them, look at the doctors, look at the engineers, architects, everyone. If you become a doctor and you need to travel to any country that the language unknown for you, and if you know it, then you will have an in advantage. But if you do not, then you have to find someone to talk, you know, to help you to translate. What is much better to have a translator there next to you, or to speak the language, to understand what the people feel is what the people is saying. So this is what the, you know, ideas or that I pursue my, my students, and I motivate them to really continue with the language. And also through music, music is so beautiful. Art. So we have, so we have so much of this. We have different kinds of richness in our culture that we can bring a lot.
Norah Jones (16:25): There’s so many pathways and it strikes me that you’d spoken now twice with great joy of your grandmother and her identity is in the midst of you, her life, her culture, your culture by background. How does that inform how you approach what you’re doing in your life?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (16:51): Well, my grandma was a very powerful woman. She used to be a writer. She used to be a very easily spoken person. She used to write to presidents. She used to create poems. She was a business woman. She was very, very desir[ing] to be somebody important in the country. Unfortunately, and I will say this because back then 60, 70 years ago, woman, it, it was totally nothing, I will say, in our culture, you know, it was not easy really to express your feelings and say, Oh, I am this. I want to do this. No, the woman was just born to be a mom, to be at home and not to do anything else. So she told me, she said, if I’m not able to accomplish what I want — she wanted to become a woman with power, with opportunities to be able to speak for others, an activist, or maybe a president. If she [would] be in at this time in, in here in this era, oh my God.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (18:02): I know she would have been somebody really, really important for the Hispanic culture. But she emphasized that into me. And I took that as a big message. And she said, the day that you—she used to tell me a lot—you’re not going to stay here. You’re going to go away. You’re going to grow as an important person. You’re going to make a difference for women. And you’re going to bring a big message to others. And that’s what I have been doing. And I’m writing my books on her name because this is her passion. This is what you wanted to do. She, she really, I had a lot from her into me. So I think I’m making her dream come true.
Norah Jones (18:50): You definitely are. And I know you’re making her very, very proud, indeed. Talk about your books, the books you’ve been offering, what they’re doing, why you’ve been writing them
Maria del Pilar Garcia (19:02): Well, I’m writing them. First of all, the first one, Camino a un sueño in Spanish and Journey to a Dream in English, it is the expression of my own experience coming. Since, you know, I was in my early childhood up to now, actually 30 years of my life, more or less. It is a, my biography, but in a special way, it is a third person a story where, as in, I will say, a new immigrant in this country, I have to express until and give others hope that what you want, you can accomplish what you desire to do. If you put that dream ahead of you and keep dreaming and putting a lot of effort into your path daily, you will end up being successful with your dreams. So this is something that I always wanted that I, I, that I’m desiring to do in my life to all the goals that I set in my life I have been accomplishing them.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (20:25): I’m very positive that if someone has a lot of struggles, have a lot of obstacles because it’s not easy to move on. But if you, with your feet really standing and is strong and thinking that you’re going to be to do it, to move on, it’s the best vitamin, the best motivation that you can have. And never stop dreaming. I think when you stop dreaming, you stop your future. And I don’t think that’s right. So my grandma was really the one who pushed me to do this. I had this award that I received from the AATSP in Panama. That was where I received the award. And then I went to Colombia to Cartagena with my husband. And I was in a small town, very, very poor town near the indigenous groups. I went, I always, when I visit places, I go to schools where, you know, I want to see the school system.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (21:33): I want to see a schools in other cities. And I went to this tiny, it’s like a classroom, the size of a classroom. This is a school where like 10, 12 children. No shoes. Their clothes were really like, you know, dirty. And I mean, it was really sad to see them using books that were not even books. They were covered with newspaper, old newspaper. Their pencils were, their pencils that they were using were like half way to one of their fingers, more in the place, I will say in size, like really small. And I said, Oh my God, this is what my grandma wanted me to see. This is the message that she sent me. I’m here for something. And if I got this award is because I need to do something, something for them, something. I have been doing so many things for my own students in New York and all over in the USA. Why not to do something for these children that really need me. So that’s when I started thinking about my book coming back from in the airplane, I started writing my book. My first one, Camino a un sueño, Journey to a Dream.
Norah Jones (22:47): Wow. And you’re using the proceeds from that book for an organization that you founded or co-founded. Tell me about that.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (22:59): Yes, sure. I co-founded in organization, Pillar of Dreams or Pilar de sueños, with my son. I started alone at the beginning, just I was going to use the proceeds from the books, just for me to bring support. And then my son came to me and said, mom, why we don’t start a beginning of an organization where we can bring more support. And we had to think on names. And then I started thinking my name, Maria del Pilar. Pilar. I’m the oldest of a family, it’s a pillar. My grandma and my mom and my dad decided my name because the pillar of the family is the oldest, suppose to be the oldest child, the oldest sibling thing. And then I was a girl in all this. And I think the pillar of everyone. And the strongest pillar to be successful is education, education at home and education in school.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (23:57): So those pillars are the ones that I need always to put ahead in anyone’s ideas. So when my son said, we can call it Pillar of Dreams. Pilar de sueños. So this is how we started. I met someone… after my second trip to Columbia, after I wrote my book, I went and I met a few people and I went to a place where they needed…they need so much. They don’t even have a school. So this is why we work in towers now to help them build a good school, we develop a good computer lab for the students, for the children. And we brought educational supplies for over a year. So now we expanded, we are in Bogotá, in the capital, helping a small school, up to the hill, where the community is very poor and… Instituto Cerro del Sur is the name. And then in Ciudad Bolívar.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (24:59): And then we were in Cartagena. We help in Tierra Bomba, which is very important. They don’t even have water. So we’re trying to get support for that. And also in Cali, we help children with cancer. So it’s a lot of work. It’s been really hard, but I’m not going to stop. This is what I’m going to do in my next page, what I say, I’m moving on, my new era. So this is it.
Norah Jones (25:35): That’s fantastic. You have a new book coming out, correct?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (25:38): Yes, yes. It is called Educándonos educamos, which is… Why educándonos because I, we come back to the same part, what I was telling you, the problems of the students. We have new… the new generation getting themselves educated better, right into how to form a family. But just to start a family, it’s not like that. You need first to find out who you are.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (26:10): If you’re ready to have a family, if you’re ready to give to your family the best of you, what the family deserves. It’s not just, oh I found it, my, my, my partner, my couple, my husband, my wife, whatever the unit you want to call it, and I’m going to get married. I’m going to do this. And do you really notice the person that you’re…that you’re going to be happy, that you’re going to create or begin the family that you have been dreaming? So my book is in ten chapters. Talks about all of this, how to get ready, how to just not to give up in the first argument that you have. That’s what I noticed. Also, the young people is getting married and they’re just, oh, no, I don’t understand you. You don’t understand me because I have this, we have this argument.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (27:01): No, you need to talk. You need to learn how to really manage to every, every one, give your point and then get into a middle and just move on. You don’t need to really break up. What if, what you really breaking up is a good relation in the future? And also their relations — when you fight a lot, when you have a lot of disappointments that you don’t get each other. I don’t think it will also give you an idea, okay, you’re not for me, I’m not for you, so let’s leave it here. It’s better to leave it before the children come than after. Because when you… when many parents have children and they bring all these situations into the family, into these children’s shoulder, they don’t know how to take it. They don’t know how to really handle it.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (27:57): And they learn this. And they get, oh, the normal life is to be always fighting, is to be always against the other person. And it’s the opposite. So I think it was necessary to have a book like this. I have already five colleagues of mine who read it and they love it. I think it’s going to be a good, good … I will say instrument for not only Hispanics, but everyone in general to follow these steps and just to put their own ideas, feelings in what is a family, and how we need to really take that family ahead in the best way.
Norah Jones (28:40): Absolutely phenomenal. And it is related to the idea of the journey and keeping your eye on the prize and assuming that there are various pathways, correct?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (28:51): Yes, correct? Yes. You are right.
Norah Jones (28:53): You’re writing these materials in, well, at least the first book, the Journey to a Dream was in both English and Spanish and they’re both for sale in those versions. How was it, how does the experience potentially of these materials vary in the two languages? Or does it… do you feel that there are certain flavors in the two languages that vary?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (29:24): You know, Spanish. And you know English. Spanish, you can say one thing in so many ways. For example, if you want to say in the room, the bedroom, la habitación, el cuarto, la pieza, los aposentos, you know, so I will find that I express, and that was the first one that I wrote, originally, the one that has a flavor of what a Spanish is. But the English, the editor who did the English book, who translated, she’s a lady who is married to a Colombian person. She’s a lawyer. And I talked to her a lot and she said, I’m going to try to keep the same sense of the first book, the Spanish, the original through the English. And she did a great, great job with this. She really… reads it in Spanish or English finds all the details in a good way that they sense… and they feel that they are seeing Genesis, which is their main character, really in front of them.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (30:40): Because the book is, is developed, is written in a special way where the character interacts with the third person that is there. And also she comes also sometimes talking in the book. So it goes on and off and all the other characters they can, they talk, too. So it has that magic realism that Gabriel Garcia Marquez taught us. So I included something like that because I thought I have to call the attention from people to see that writing is not only just to write, it’s to call their attention and keep the people inside of the writing, to feel the words, to feel this experience that the writer and the characters had. And also something that I want to point out is that this point is more power: People that are, Oh, you are a newcomer. You are a… you are an immigrant or undocumented. However you want to call it.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (31:50): You are an outsider. This book is a proof for those that don’t have hope, that think, oh, no, I’m not going to be able to make it. I’m not going to be able to accomplish what I want because in this country, blah, blah, blah, I can’t, people don’t know. It’s not what people want— it’s what you want. And I can say that all the experiences, all these obstacles gave me the strength to really write a book and show my story. And I was one day undocumented. I was one day… I came, I will say it freely now because I feel very proud of what I did, even though it was not easy. I came through the border and I suffered lot. I went through a lot. You will find it in the book. But you know what? Nowadays, I think, and I said, I’ve been standing in front of so many students throughout almost 25 years, almost 27 years. And how many I have been the teacher, their language teacher? And how many are motivated to continue with their profession? How many are doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers? Mention it, anything. And I was that person, when I was 19 years old, that I came to this country. I never thought I was really going to really be in front of so many youngsters and be a motivator and be there, the best for them in that moment to talk to them.
Norah Jones (33:34): Your passion is motivating and your work is motivating. And I have to point out that the message that you give of immigration, of coming in, of taking a chance, of being undocumented to get started, to any number of layers that are going to be found in that book are for lots of different lots of different people in their different lives. Not just obviously for kids of Hispanic background.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (34:09): Yeah. It’s not only for Hispanics, it’s everyone. I mean, the history says it, this country was made from zero to what it is today. I mean, it was only the indigenous groups that were here. So when I talk about USA, los Estados Unidos, I said, this is the country of all… This is the country, we’re the second one in the world that is where Spanish is spoken, after Mexico. USA is the second country that we speak the most of Spanish. So if they want to have all the people from there that speak Spanish out, they can make a new country of over 50, 60 something, 65 million. So, you know, and, and it’s not only that, Hispanics. Everyone from everywhere. How many cultures we have in this country, how many people from different backgrounds? New York is an example. We have 135 different languages. We have 165 different, more or less, different backgrounds. So USA is the country of all. So I always said, if I can make it here, if I can really succeed here, if I can do it, everyone can do it.
Norah Jones (35:38): That ferocity that you just brought was the same that brought my father as an immigrant from Croatia, in this case, to this country. And that is a very strong message that I just wanted to make sure everybody hears. And indeed, make sure that people realize that I have on my website information about your writings, places to find where they can buy your writings and get in contact with you, right?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (36:02): Yes, yes, yes. Amazon is there the best place to get my books. And of course, you’re going to put in your podcast information what I have of the Pillar of Dreams store, where if people want to donate, people want to be a volunteer, if people want to come with me to Colombia and see, and really be a volunteer. We need to become… Also that’s another part. I’m sorry to expand a little bit here, that people need to be, to realize that their children need to sense and see the needs of others and become global citizens to support. Nowadays, you’re not only helping. You can help your community. But if you move a little bit out, too, you can learn more about others, as I said before, but learn how much need others have. It’s not only us here.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (37:00): The USA, I say, it’s a rich country. It’s a country where you can…you have everything. I mean, you use the tools that you are given, but these other places, they don’t have those tools. They need support. And if we bring this attention and we teach our children, “appreciate what you have,” it’s not only by telling them, it’s to show them. So, this is a great way to really come and see what we do in Pillar of Dreams or Pilar de sueños, and how you can give one little piece of your time. A small time or a small portion or what you can donate, and we can make a difference in a child that didn’t even think that he was going to change his path. Right now, I have three students that are in college. We are supporting these three students. They never thought they were going to be able to go to college.
Norah Jones (38:00): That’s great. That’s phenomenal. Yes. In fact, indeed, on the website and here vocally in the podcast to take a look and how folks can understand more about the Foundation and to support the Pillar of Dreams foundation. And Pilar, I’m… speaking Pilar. Maria. I just feel like it’s, it’s definitely a part of your identity. No question.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (38:26): That’s all right. Yes, of course, the pillar! That’s it exactly.
Norah Jones (38:28): Right. Take one more moment. You have provided many wonderful invitations and exhortations, as well as information here today on this podcast. What’s the last word that you’d like to make sure that listeners hear from you today?
Maria del Pilar Garcia (38:46): Okay. I’m going to say one of my phrases that I have in my book that I created. I have three wonderful phrases, but I’m going to tell you one. “The decision to triumph is yours. Paint your future as you wish. Choose the colors, and don’t allow anyone else to choose them for you.”
Norah Jones (39:11): Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for sharing everything today of your passion, of your experience, of your history, and of, especially, that what you’ve been able to open up in the lives of young people and their families around the world. Appreciate you being here today, Maria.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (39:31): Thank you for your invitation and time, and thank you for all your support.
Norah Jones (39:36): It’s a great pleasure. And I do encourage all, again, to take a look at your books and the foundation and best wishes to you and your continuing journey and writing for the success.
Maria del Pilar Garcia (39:50): Thank you.Become a Sponsor