Tag Archives: volunteers

toils and triumphs of “los tres cafeteros”

15 May

Immigration processes have been a mess here since the nationalization issues between the Dominican Republic and Haiti came to a head over a year ago. Though we are guaranteed residency as Peace Corps Volunteers, we have not been able to renew our green cards since the beginning of 2015 (they expire after 6 months). Despite not having my Dominican residence card, immigration issues occupied the least of my thoughts as I passed through security and arrived at my airport gate. I was on my way to the States for one more brief visit before touching back on the homeland for good as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

It was May 5th and I was headed back to Annapolis, Maryland for my grandpa’s memorial service at the Naval Academy. My shoulders were light since my workload had lightened up immensely just days before, so nothing else was on my mind except the excitement of reuniting with family and the opportunity to finally try Maryland crab.

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Reunited with two of my former Clemson Lacrosse teammates

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Grandpa’s memorial

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Most of the workload that I refer to is the National Conference of Construye Tus Sueños, one of the largest projects we undertake annually as the Community Economic Development sector. Over 45 Dominican Youth and 20 Peace Corps Volunteers and Dominican facilitators participated in the three-day event that took place the 27th-29th of April and focused on entrepreneurship, micro-finance, and professional development. 15 contestants presented their respective business plans to a panel of judges in the hopes of winning one of the three prizes of RD$50,000 to start their businesses. This was the fourth CTS conference that I have attended, but it was the first one that I coordinated.

The conference consisted of two guest speakers, four professional development workshops, two rounds of presentations critiqued by 12 judges, a panel of previous contestants, and a micro-finance fair involving five financial institutions. Given all of the moving parts, the conference concluded without any regrettable hiccups and the youth left informed and motivated. The youth responded positively to the presented advice and activities and the three winners were well-deserving individuals who now have a greater opportunity to generate economic activity within their communities.

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What’s a conference without ice-breakers!?

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“El Artístico” Jose Ignacio Reyes Morales, one of our guest speakers, is internationally known for his ironwork and efforts to inspire artistry and entrepreneurship in youth.

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Day 2 of the conference consisted of two rounds of presentations during which youth explained their business plans to panels of judges

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Michael, Alejandra, and I with some of the judges from Round 1

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Participants and judges at the end of Round 1

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Prepping the judges for Round 2, where 7 participants competed for 3 RD$50,000 prizes

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Round 2

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Jonathan (teal shirt on right), was one of my students who won the competition last year.  He and three other previous contestants came to share their experiences and advice with the participants of this year’s conference.

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Alejandra, Michael, and I with Jonathan, Raylin, Rosa, and Damaso.  All competed in previous CTS competitions, have since started their own businesses, and are exemplary young leaders within their communities.

Experiencing the event as it unfolded from the perspective of coordinator rather than participant was stressful but enlightening. The participants portrayed such bravery, fighting for their dreams while representing their communities’ desires to progress and prosper; the resilience, creativity, and readiness of the people that I am able to collaborate with on a daily basis has always fueled the best feelings and moments of my service here. I thank the Community Economic Development team in particular for their support and guidance – without Michael or Alejandra, I could not be celebrating the event’s success. Having recently secured a new strategic partnership with a local bank, Construye Tus Sueños continues to strengthen its influence on young entrepreneurs who are looking to improve the economic wellbeing of their families through the creation of micro-businesses in marginalized communities throughout the Dominican Republic. I couldn’t be happier to have experienced the ins, outs, and impact of this initiative.

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Michael and Alejandra with the Peace Corps Volunteers who are involved with CTS. 

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Los tres cafeteros” – the best team I’ve had the chance to work with.

Just three days after the conference finished, the CED team informed all of the new trainees where they would be living for the next two years – their site placements. To read about how I felt when I received mine, take a trip down memory lane by clicking here. Matching a Volunteer to a community is a tedious process that takes over 6 months of work. It was through this procedure that I have been able to travel this country, reconnect with my favorite aspects of this culture, solidify the working relationships I have with Michael and Alejandra, and analyze communities’ needs to develop problem-solving skills. Having a say in essentially two years of someone’s life is a powerful feeling; seeing the trainees become bright-eyed when we told them their assignment brought me both nostalgia and peace. All 16 trainees visited their sites and have now sworn-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers, prepared as they can be to begin two years of service in their respective communities.

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Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders with the United States Ambassador of the Dominican Republic, James “Wally” Brewster, before the Swear-In Ceremony.

With the two most trying elements of my extension finally completed, I was set to board the plane and enjoy a long weekend with my family celebrating my own accomplishments as well as the life and legacy of my grandfather. To my dismay, the flight from Santo Domingo to Ft. Lauderdale was inevitably delayed for over four hours. It finally dawned on the employees at the counter to pass out meal vouchers to the impatient passengers who immediately perked up at the offering and seemed to forget about the inconvenience. No longer than 5 minutes after half of the passengers had scattered around the airport to look for free lunch did the attendants decide to stop handing out vouchers and instead announce that they were ready to board the plane. I sat dumbfounded as a group of people protested that they had not yet received their vouchers and that the plane couldn’t leave yet because there were still people eating. Anxious to board and hoping that I wouldn’t miss my connecting flight to Baltimore, I stood in line behind the people that were in fact ready to fly while contemplating the curiousness of cultural priorities I had just witnessed.

Once in Ft. Lauderdale, I realized that my connecting flight was also delayed. Feeling both relieved that I had made my flight and impatient to see my family, I sat down at a bar to enjoy a State-side IPA.   I began chatting to a young man that had decided to celebrate his birthday by flying himself to Colombia for the weekend. Another man joined us, who happened to be from Colombia. Despite how long my day had become at this point, our conversation was effortless and a good reminder to continue accepting (and therefore creating) serendipitous experiences. In the end, the Colombian gentleman footed the bill and I made it to Baltimore with a barriga llena, corazón contenta.

This anecdote, while trivial compared to so many other experiences I’ve had here, encapsulates how much the Dominican Republic has taught me about faith, expectations, and human connection. I couldn’t be closer to the team that I work with – Michael, Alejandra, and I refer to ourselves as the “tres cafeteros” (the three coffee-drinking musketeers) – and it’s intimidating to think that we only have one month left to collaborate on these efforts that we’re all so dedicated to.  Certain aspects of this culture and vein of work continue to surprise, amuse, delight, and touch me; I wish there were a way to bottle it all up – the warmth, faith, camaraderie, and spunk Dominicans have taught me – and drink down when stressful moments overwhelm the peaceful ones. Here’s to satiating these last few weeks with everything this country has to offer those willing to accept, appreciate, and embody it.

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Michael and I with the winners of the CTS conference and their PCV facilitators

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Sometimes this is the easiest way to process change…

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(los) weschler perspective

10 Oct

As one door closes, another opens. Windows of opportunity continue to present themselves, and the ceiling limiting my options and interests to pursue after Peace Corps grows taller, further away. My blog posts seem infrequent, not because I’m uninspired, but because it’s difficult to transmit all of what I’ve been learning since moving to the capital. My day-to-day life, while its schedule is more ‘traditional’ than it was the campo, experiences a vast array of tasks, locations, and conversations. This third year in Peace Corps has been as invigorating and tumultuous as the last two, but how I’ve developed professionally is incomparable.  This has after all been my first ‘office job’ ever.

Pics from a recent stateside visitor

Pics from a recent stateside visitor

Las Terrenas, Samaná

Las Terrenas, Samaná

It has been six months since most of my friends from my March 2013 cohort left, meaning that yet another group is now wrapping up their service to move on to other travel, work, and study plans. A new batch of trainees arrived to country in August, one of whom is staying with the very same host family I lived with during the six unforgettable weeks we spent in Peralvillo, Monteplata for Community Based Training. Additionally, one of these same trainees will eventually come to serve for two years as a follow-up youth volunteer in Pescadería, my home and ‘office’ for the majority of my time here. The new business volunteers, who I helped guide through their Community-Based Training in April, are now settled into their site assignments, some beginning to move out of their host families’ houses to live independently. I recall this part of my service fondly. It is when I regained a bit of independence, delved deeper into cultural integration alongside my beloved neighbors, and began to take on work projects that would ultimately define themselves as the most challenging yet rewarding parts of my service.

Latest visit to Pescadería with my girls Reni and Juana

Latest visit to Pescadería with my girls Reni and Juana

Omailin and fellow-biker, Angely

Omailin and fellow-biker, Angely

Nothing beats star-gazing in the campo...neighbors watching the eclipse/Super Moon.

Nothing beats star-gazing in the campo…neighbors watching the eclipse/Super Moon.

So, why has this third year so far been the icing on the cake to an already incredible experience? In one word: perspective. Peace Corps service tests all aspects of one’s life. Culture, identity, skills, beliefs, and boundaries. Not to mention patience and willpower. A fellow volunteer mentioned that, as volunteers, there is a thin line between our personal and professional lives; it is our job to make it thicker. The perspective this third year extension has brought to my own service has helped to fill in the gaps where I often didn’t see a line existing – moments where relationships defined productivity; times where only retrospect could offer clearer resolution. Spending time with other volunteers at their sites, investigating sites for future volunteers, talking to locals in nearly every province of the country, staying in touch and visiting people back in Pescadería – it has all helped to wrap my head around the 24 months I spent among the goats and plantain trees.  A big ‘hats off’ to those still out in the field.

YES I still work with these fools.

YES I still work with these fools.

Latest edition at La Cabrita - a reservoir so they can save water and use to irrigate the plantains they are planting to eventually generate income

Latest addition to La Cabrita – a reservoir so they can save water and use to irrigate the plantains they are planting to eventually generate income

By working in more direct contact with the people that function “behind the scenes” of a Peace Corps volunteer’s service, my campo blinders have been removed. I’m seeing the bigger picture, and realizing how we’re often just cogs within a large, bureaucratic machine. Good things take time – both inside and outside of the office. There are no parts of my two years that I regret, but I’ve gained a certain perspective that could’ve helped me navigate my service a bit easier. PCV or not however, I think it’d be hard to find someone who has never had that feeling of nostalgia plus “what if” on their conscience.

Another trip, another roadside stand - this one features mangoes, coconuts, eggs, and avocados.

Another trip, another roadside stand – this one features mangoes, honey, coconuts, eggs, and avocados.

Fellow PCV and my boss, Michael, enjoying a breakfast with a view in Moca

Fellow PCV Matty J and my boss, Michael, enjoying a breakfast with a view in Moca

Avocados and sunsets

Avocados and sunsets

This bathing spot made a long, steep hike well worth it!

This bathing spot made a long, steep hike well worth it!

PCVs outside of Matty J's house

PCVs outside of Matty J’s house

Cacao nursery near Cotui

Cacao nursery near Cotui, visiting another PCV

Hiking with fellow PCV near San Francisco de Marcoris

Hiking with fellow PCV near San Francisco de Marcoris

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Peace Corps will never be the job where you can arrive home from work and forget about your day at the office. Until the move from campo to capitaleña, my home WAS my office. My house in Pescadería was where I learned to prepare lunch the Dominican way and where I taught my chicas sexual health; home was where I watched Omailin learn to walk, where we stored the supplies used to build our basketball court, and where I mentored young entrepreneurs on feasible business plans. Work colleagues are also neighbors, church leaders, and school principals – a complex but wholesome quilt of personal and professional networks that blankets a volunteer’s understanding of the additional threads that hold the culture and community together.

Latest work trip: headed down south to the Barahona region to visit some of the winners of the Construye Tus Sueños competition. This is Raylin's San Rafael Surf School and Eco-Tours business

Latest work trip: headed down south to the Barahona region to visit some of the winners of the Construye Tus Sueños competition. This is Raylin’s San Rafael Surf School and Eco-Tours business

Michael, Raylin's mom, and Raylin's facilitator Jim (fellow PCV and Vermonter!) at his business

Michael, Raylin’s mom, and Raylin’s facilitator Jim (fellow PCV and Vermonter!) at his business

Lunch view.

Lunch view.

Lunch! Jim, Michael, and I

Conch for lunch! Jim, Michael, and I at Raylin’s business – food side of the business ran and cooked by his mom!

What better way to start the day than to watch the sun rise over an endless, ocean seascape

What better way to start the day than to watch the sun rise over an endless, ocean seascape?

Ready to start the mountain tour - note the Clemson Lacrosse shirt and view of San Rafael :)

Ready to start the Raylin’s mountain tour – note the Clemson Lacrosse shirt and view of San Rafael 🙂

CENTIPEDE

CENTIPEDE

views from the tour

views from the tour

Raylin - winner of Construye Tus Sueños and owner of San Rafael Surf School and Eco-Tours

Raylin – winner of Construye Tus Sueños and owner of San Rafael Surf School and Eco-Tours

San Rafael

San Rafael

Michael and I stopping for breakfast on our way to a community meeting.

Michael and I stopping for breakfast on our way to a community meeting.

Visiting a potential site for a future volunteer - an association that makes fruit marmalades !

Visiting a potential site for a future volunteer – an association that makes fruit marmalades !

Ladies in action - preparing orange jam

Ladies in action – preparing orange jam

Another stop to check out the 'gem' of the southern region - larimar

Another stop to check out the ‘gem’ of the southern region – larimar

Larimar - mined ONLY in Barahona

Larimar – mined ONLY in Barahona

I appreciate the opportunity to continue collaborating with Pescadería while not living there. This past weekend I watched one of my chicas graduate from high school – the 3rd graduation I’ve been a part of here. Though still soft-spoken and naive, she’s blossomed into a young leader, capable of commanding a classroom of adolescents while educating them on their anatomy and self-esteem. I also visited with Jonathan, one of my Construye Tus Sueños students, who has seen more than a 150% sales increase since taking the course and winning RD$50,000 to enhance his agro-veterinary business in May. Lastly, my friends who I became close to during the basketball court chronicles, informed me that they had not only bought new jerseys, but that they also had a new team name: The Pescadería Weschlers. Young people that I’ve had the pleasure to work with are becoming catalysts for change, and theirs are the stories that make me feel like I’m still fighting the good fight.

Colorful, festive high school graduation

Colorful, festive high school graduation

Graduation parade

Graduation parade

Odalina (graduate), Grissel, and I at the high school graduation. These two girls were my super-star multipliers for Chicas Brillantes.

Odalina (graduate), Grissel, and I at the high school graduation. These two girls were my super-star multipliers for Chicas Brillantes.

Photo of the Pescadería Weschlers. They captioned the photo:

Photo of the Pescadería Weschlers. They captioned the photo: “this has been done with great motivation for our friend, who helped us achieve what we’ve been waiting for. today with a truly united team, we dedicate it all to you kate weschler. we love and will always remember you.”

Close of Service?

12 Mar

My two-year mark has come and gone as quickly as mosquitoes flock to a gringo at dusk. Last week we had our Close of Service (COS) conference in the capital, where 517-13-01 (the name of our group who swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers together) celebrated and reflected on the experience we’ve had here on this island.

517-13-01

517-13-01

To say the least, COS was bittersweet. Like almost any other unit that trains, lives, and endures hardship together, 517-13-01 has become a tight-knit group. Although we live far apart in distance, a phone call with a fellow volunteer always seems to elicit sympathy, resolve frustration, and inspire endurance, creativity, and the motivation to continue with what we as a group set out to do. Our COS conference provided us with both closure and opportunities. We listened to the experience and advice of three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who continue to work in the development world, and learned how to translate two years of service into convincing bullets points on a resume. Our Country Director explained how Peace Corps Volunteers can take advantage of non-competitive eligibility status, useful for those of us who wish to continue our careers working for the federal government. I shed tears during several visualization activities, stumped at the thought of how on earth I can say goodbye to two incredible networks I’ve created here in the Dominican Republic – my cohorts and my community. My family.

517-13-01 Trip to Bahía de las Águilas

517-13-01 Trip to Bahía de las Águilas

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517-13-01 Trip to Bahía de las Águilas

517-13-01 Trip to Bahía de las Águilas

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After two years, I’ve become aplatana’a. Essentially, native, as the Dominicans say. Though I still don’t understand or agree with certain parts of the culture, the uncertainty or uncomfortableness with other aspects has long since disappeared. No longer having to deal with uncertainty avoidance (a concept I was taught in Intercultural Communication classes and now can apply to real life experience), it’s easier and more comfortable to work and interact in a foreign environment. Loud noises during conversations, cramped guagua rides, non-formal education techniques, machismo tígueres, lethargic concepts of time, and superstitious doña myths have become normal, expected parts in the equation of sustainable development here in the Dominican Republic. Though they still present a challenge, setting out to work in this environment no longer seems as daunting because I’ve got two years of experience under my belt.  Or better yet, bathing suit?  Apron?  Fingernails?

Having just co-coordinated a sub-regional conference for about 30 Chicas Brillantes, I am as busy as ever. Plans for the annual Construye Tus Sueños business competition are due at the end of the month, and I’m working with two young entrepreneurs to complete their plans – one who aims to start a clothing store and another who hopes to improve his already existing operations as a veterinarian. To top it all off, my mom and aunt came to visit! We painted a mural in the local high school with students of the junior class, and crafted artistic expressions of individual beauty with my Chicas Brillantes, who continue to impress and inspire me every day.

Workshop with the junior class - choosing values to put on our Tree of Values mural.

Workshop with the junior class – choosing values to put on our Tree of Values mural.

Learning about values and deciding which ones to put on our mural.

Learning about values and deciding which ones to put on our mural.

Choosing values to put on our mural

Choosing values to put on our mural

Visit from my auntie and mommy!

Visit from my auntie and mommy!

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Tree of Values

Tree of Values

Additionally, I’d like to share that I’ve secured the help from a new project partner. Project partners, or key community contacts, are members from the local community that work in conjunction with volunteers to meet both local needs and Peace Corps’ goals.  Essential to both community integration and the longevity of projects, they are the true volunteers. They are the people who, once the volunteer leaves, ensure the sustainability of a project, and continue to multiply education and opportunities throughout the community. Monica is a young woman from my community, who not only teaches Construye Tus Sueños and Chicas Brillantes with me, but has also become one of my closest friends on the island. A natural-born educator, Monica presents what we’ve planned together with grace and conviction. She imparts the same tools and knowledge that I could as a volunteer, but because she is native to the island, our audience receives it more instinctively. Seeing her impart tools and knowledge that I’ve introduced to her, and the positive effect she’s having on our students, has been one of the most rewarding parts of my service.

Michelle and I - Co-coordinators of the Sub-Regional Chicas Brillantes conference

Michelle and I – Co-coordinators of the Sub-Regional Chicas Brillantes conference

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Professional Panel of women from our Regional .  Rosiris (President of La Cabrita) and Mónica (my new project partner) both participated and represented Pescadería with fuerza!

Professional Panel of women from our Regional . Rosiris (President of La Cabrita) and Mónica (my new project partner) both participated and represented Pescadería with fuerza!

Chicas y Mujeres Brillantes

Chicas y Mujeres Brillantes

Professional Panel

Professional Panel: Yessenia (Educator for World Water Relief), Rosiris (President, La Cabrita), Mónica (Math Teacher, studied abroad in Cuba), Yasmiris (Presidente of Women’s Association and local Tilapia Business), Indhira (Doctor) —- all from the region of Barahona and huge inspirations for our Chicas Brillantes

Mónica and our girls from Pescadería celebrating International Women's day at the conference

Mónica and our girls from Pescadería celebrating International Women’s day at the conference

Rosiris, Mónica, and I - two inspirational women from my community who have contributed to the motivation I have to continue working here in the Dominican Republic.

Rosiris, Mónica, and I – two inspirational women from my community who have contributed to my decision to continue working here in the Dominican Republic.

So for now, I’m staying. Yup!! I’ve signed up to stay another whole year on this island. Starting mid- to late-May, I will be living in the capital and working as the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the Community Economic Development sector. I will describe more of my plans and responsibilities as PCVL in a later post, but I figured I owed an announcement now that I’ve been officially cleared to stay on board ☺ 

517-13-01

16 May

WE DID IT!  33 individuals of group 517-13-01 are officially Peace Corps Volunteers 🙂

Group 517-13-01; official PCVs!

Group 517-13-01; official PCVs!

We’ve all been waiting a long time for Swear-In (application, interviews, nomination, medical stuff, invitation, LOTS more medical stuff, travel arrangements, get in country – for someone in my group, this process took them two years!).  Training was not easy, but having 32 awesome new friends did make it more enjoyable.  Thinking about it, yesterday was probably the most important day of my life thus far.

Lauren, Andy, me, John, and Kaley

Lauren, Andy, me, John, and Kaley

As one of my friends put it, “receiving my invitation to the Peace Corps was like getting a key to my future.”  Already, in just the few months we’ve been here, we’ve met so many incredible, knowledgeable, experienced, different, and fun individuals, all of whom I look forward to working with in the future; we’ve been introduced to various NGOs, business ideas and practices, and personal and professional resources; we’re learning how to live and work in a culture very different than what we’re used to; we’re growing…and today’s just the first day of our service!  There will be plenty of ups and downs along the way, but in reality, I’m looking forward to it all.  Can’t even imagine where (or who!) I’ll be two years from now.

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Lauren, Ivette, Kaley, Maegan, me, and Caitlin

The ceremony was short but sweet.  We took lots of pictures before and after, and gorged ourselves on cake.  I’m proud of myself for this huge accomplishment, but a whole two years of work still awaits.  More importantly, I want to thank all of my friends and family, in all parts of the world, for your support.  When taking the oath, I couldn’t help but think of all of the love, advice, and well-wishes I’ve received; I dedicate my oath to you!  I would most certainly not be here if it weren’t for my family and friends.

non-edible, beautiful, and patriotic display cake

non-edible, beautiful, and patriotic display cake

Tonight, we’re celebrating our accomplishments 🙂  Tomorrow, we all head off to our individual sites to begin on the 3-month diagnostic phase of service.  Wish us luck!  Hope you keep reading my blog to learn more about the adventures that await…

Neighbors!  Kaley and I will be living 15 minutes away from each other.

Neighbors! Kaley and I will be living 15 minutes away from each other.

P.S. They’ve given us a mailbox key at the Peace Corps Office located in the Capital.  If you’re interested, feel free to send me a letter!  They recommend NOT sending items through FedEx or DHL, as those packages are more likely to get searched/charged when going through customs, so just use regular mail.  If you’re going to send a package, use a padded envelope as opposed to a box.  It might take weeks to get here, but it’ll be that more fun to open 🙂

Katherine Weschler, PCV
Cuerpo de Paz
APDO 1412
Santo Domingo
Dominican Republic

so official!