Cassandra Bankson: “Always be passionate, and be led by your core values”

I wanted to help women who were struggling with self-esteem feel valuable. When a woman is not seen as conventionally beautiful by the world, this hurts her self-worth and self-esteem, but those women at SAVE showed me that women’s existential value has nothing to do with being pretty or the capacity to please people. From […]

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I wanted to help women who were struggling with self-esteem feel valuable. When a woman is not seen as conventionally beautiful by the world, this hurts her self-worth and self-esteem, but those women at SAVE showed me that women’s existential value has nothing to do with being pretty or the capacity to please people. From those women, I learned that we are worthy and that other people have the right to stand up for themselves regardless of how their bodies look. With that being said, when I make content, I want to give skincare advice that is inclusive, affirming of feminine value, and something that provokes open conversations about the issues women face every day with self-image. It’s all about the angle, and I make the intention of posting my unfiltered photos next to my filtered photos on Instagram because I want to validate the reality of women.

As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cassandra Bankson.

Cassandra Bankson (28) is a medical esthetician and a skincare influencer (“skinfluencer”) with a following of over 2 million across social media. She is most popular for sharing her healing journey with severe, cystic acne and normalizing textured skin. Throughout the past 11 years, she has been inspired by her experiences in modeling and the skincare industry to challenge conventional beauty standards and to empower women through education about self-care. Cassandra is also known for her commitment to defending women’s rights and pushing for intersectional body positive movements.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

Growing up, I struggled to fit into the social circles, friend groups, and neighborhood I lived in. During those years, I lived in an area where people were absolutely obsessed with physical appearances and using wealth as a metric for success. We lived in a swanky neighborhood within the bay area, but as for my family, my father was an immigrant, and my mom was a motorcycle loving tomboy who had never had a manicure in her life. I spent my time climbing trees by myself and taking delight in being a girl scout. I loved camping, playing outside, and exploring, but was rejected from the “girls groups” downs the street and at school. So, being “beautiful” like the girls in my classes was a hard thing for me to understand, and when I developed acne, things got even more awkward. I asked strange questions, wore different clothes, and didn’t have a sense of community with the other students my age. I was labeled as different, and a lot of the time, I still feel that I am.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There is an organization called SAVE that provided me with a safe house when I was 16. I didn’t realize I was in a very abusive relationship, and didn’t know how to get out. I lived inside of this person’s house; they controlled my phone, and they controlled the access I had to my friends and family. Mentally, I had gotten to a place where I totally believed what they said, and I only did what they said. Unfortunately, I didn’t think leaving was an option because I grew up in a catholic family that provided rules and guidelines I didn’t understand, but tried to live by.

I grew up with a profound pressure around bodies, personal space, and not setting boundaries, so when people violated them, I never knew how to speak up or fight back. Due to what it happened I thought my abuser, 10 years my senior, knew best and was the person I was destined to be with for the rest of my life. Given that, I didn’t have the strength to speak up about the situation. It wasn’t until years later, getting help and support from others that realized my choices and personal boundaries matter.

There came a time where I realized the situation I was in was not OK, and even if it meant going against the ideas I was brought up by, I had to get help. That’s when I found SAVE, a charity to end violence against women that had a 24-hour hotline. When I saw that they had a location close enough to me, I was able to plan and escape. When I got there, they were able to help me get back in touch with my family and distance myself from that person. They helped me get back on my feet at a time that I had lost my own voice.

Unconditional kindness from women saved my life. They were willing to help me when I needed it the most without expecting anything in return. At the time, that was a bizarre and difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. It made me scared, but it ended up being the thing that gave me confidence and purpose. The people at SAVE are hardworking women, and they helped me realize that appearance has nothing to do with the impact that you are capable of making; although, as a teenager, I was conditioned to believe the opposite.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

10 years ago, I filmed my first YouTube video showing my bare skin. I had severe cystic acne on my face and all the way down my neck, chest, and back. Back then, I didn’t have the strength that I do now when it comes to standing up against beauty standards. When I posted that video exposing my raw appearance, I was going against everything that I had been taught about clear skin, ideas of beauty, and worthiness. When I saw the responses to my video, my outlook on the world changed completely. I didn’t even look at the internet for four months because I was terrified of what people would say. In high school, my classmates used to call me pimple face, freak of nature, and the walking disease. Sometimes I would have stuff thrown at me like pizza because it was an ongoing joke that my face looked like a pizza. I would get kicked, pushed and have my items stolen or vandalized regularly. Due to growing up with this perception of my value, or lack there of, it was terrifying to take my makeup off on camera for strangers to see. Based on these experiences, I didn’t expect the rest of the world to be so different.

I checked the comments months later, and there was a woman who said, “Cassandra, this video has inspired me to go makeup-free.” She had been dating her fiance for eight years, and she had never shown him her face without makeup because she felt unlovable. When I posted the video that exposed my true skin, it gave her the opportunity to take off her makeup as well. She decided to discuss her insecurities with her fiance, and she decided to reveal her real skin to him. Her comment went on to say, “instead of him rejecting me, it actually made our relationship stronger.” She shared that this experience even gave her the confidence to open up more to her family and friends.

From that moment, I learned how powerful and life-changing vulnerability could be. From then onwards, I wanted my channel to create an open and inclusive space for people to share their thoughts, experiences, and emotions. I realized that my vulnerability had a positive influence. Because of this, I finally decided to share my skin’s journey publicly with others as a means of transforming ideas society has about beauty.

I had always used makeup as a crutch and as a cover-up. It was a shield from the negative comments and the stares, but it also became a wall that repressed me, and that affected my mental health. Painting an image of confidence on my face every morning became a chore. Wearing foundation to feel beautiful never felt quite right, but I saw that skincare was different from fashion or makeup. In the world of fashion, a certain purse, a logo, or even having a Chanel compact powder makes you look important and valuable to others. With skincare, however, nobody knows the brand of moisturizer that you’re putting on your face.

Nobody knows the brand of cleanser that you’re putting on. It’s the one ritual that you have that’s simply for you. If you want to splurge on a luxury product, you can, but it’s for you instead of making a statement to anyone else. Not only is skincare the one ritual that habituates hygiene and self-care, but it’s a ritual that isn’t used to compete with anyone. That’s why I find skincare so liberating, and I want to use skincare in order to help liberate others. I’m really determined about using my organization to help create a world where people can think freely and form their own opinions about themselves and how they look, not opinions that are conditioned by societal beauty standards.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

After getting back on my feet, I began a career modeling. As time went on, I realized that there were many disparaging things about the modeling industry as well. Once again, I was constantly striving towards the idea of what it meant to be a “beautiful woman” except for this time, it was my job. Simultaneously, I was hiding my severe acne and felt like I was living a double life. The model in the magazine looks nothing like the image that stared back at me in the mirror. I was portraying a perfect image, but when I went to bed at night, I had acne. My image was supposed to epitomize a “valuable woman,” but from an appearance perspective, I actually didn’t feel pretty or valuable. I just felt like a hypocrite. I needed an outlet, and the internet was a place for me to unload about this. I could talk about my acne freely on YouTube.

As I started posting about skincare more regularly, other women started to come out of the woodworks and began to express their feelings about being overwhelmed and depressed because of the pressures put forth by beauty standards. Women wrote comments about how they always felt the need to compare themselves to others, the need to diet like this celebrity, or the need to wear certain clothes in order to be respected. Basically, they felt that love was very conditional for women.

I didn’t realize how unspoken this was, and I wanted to help.

However, at the same time, I understood that usually we women aren’t searching for ‘how to overcome our deepest insecurities.’ We’re searching for how to look prettier. We’re searching for how to perfect winged eyeliner. We’re searching for how to attain flawless skin because we want to be deemed more valuable. That’s when I figured out how to take action towards this and navigate skincare content creation. I decided to create content that sparked people’s initial interest with information about beauty. However, once I had their attention, I could deliver empowering messages about self-love and inclusivity at the same time. I also remember the feeling of being insecure and the desire for self-improvement, and I just want to meet my audience where they are. That’s how I found the purpose of Cassandra Bankson, LLC. I encourage, educate, and empower through the idea of self-care. My platform promotes skincare not as a means to perfection and victory, but as a means to self-affirmation and self-discovery.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One time, I had a runway casting for a really prestigious client. The casting was supposed to be diverse and inclusive, but when the lineup was chosen, there was one token African-American girl, one girl with acne (me), but everyone else looked the same. Earlier they had commented on my weight, but they literally made sure that I promoted the casting on social media as diverse and body inclusive. The client wanted me to publicly rave about how body positive they were, but the things that went on during that day were really damaging to the women who were auditioning. Although they did ask me to walk, I said no. When I went home to the hotel that night, even though I had been chosen, I cried because the entire experience was still really crushing, not celebratory. I kept thinking about that comment made about my body, and I even thought “wow” is my size really that big? And is that really a problem?” I sat there crying, and realized how I was working for a terrible industry that objectified women. I often share the modeling experiences that I’ve had with my community because I want to convey how deeply detrimental beauty standards are even for the models who are considered “good enough” to perpetuate them.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When I was at that safe house with SAVE, I saw beauty and power within feminine bodies that wouldn’t be found in a magazine. I saw real women who had scars on their bodies from domestic abuse but didn’t mind wearing tank tops. These women really set me on my journey of encouraging women with knowledge about self-care and body positivity. They taught me about shamelessness.

For that reason, a large part of my cause is speaking out about domestic and sexual violence, and I plan to support and collaborate with organizations that do the same. The majority of domestic and sexual violence crimes are not brought to justice. When you’re a victim who is struggling with self-esteem, you don’t realize how twisted that is, and perfection-driven beauty standards don’t help. They objectify women, and when a person is objectified, they have less agency because they are seen as less valuable. When physical appearance is intertwined with your worth as a human being, this can lead to some pretty bad situations, especially if you’re a person who is not considered conventionally beautiful. It’s really risky and dangerous when young girls make their choices based on what will make them more desirable. It’s even more dangerous when a society thinks that this is okay. When I was a teenager dealing with acne, I was in an abusive relationship, and I had such low self-esteem that I literally could not stand up for myself to the point that I was in harms way.

That’s why when I first started my work, I wanted to help women who were struggling with self-esteem feel valuable. When a woman is not seen as conventionally beautiful by the world, this hurts her self-worth and self-esteem, but those women at SAVE showed me that women’s existential value has nothing to do with being pretty or the capacity to please people. From those women, I learned that we are worthy and that other people have the right to stand up for themselves regardless of how their bodies look. With that being said, when I make content, I want to give skincare advice that is inclusive, affirming of feminine value, and something that provokes open conversations about the issues women face every day with self-image. It’s all about the angle, and I make the intention of posting my unfiltered photos next to my filtered photos on Instagram because I want to validate the reality of women.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference starts with changing the mindset of yourself, to inspire change in the mindsets of others. When you change the way people think, their thoughts become actions, and their actions become a perpetual way of life. Making a difference also means speaking up when you see injustice, and it signifies taking the time to be vulnerable when it comes to calling your past self out for the wrong beliefs that you’ve had. When you do this for yourself, it encourages others to do the same. Vulnerability not only connects us to others, but it also pushes us to be better people, and that’s how making a difference begins. When we are publicly honest about our mistakes, you make others more comfortable to do the same. Nobody is perfect, and everyone deserves to improve upon their past selves. There’s a quote that I love that says “learn to teach, earn to give.” I try to live my life by this. When you can incite a mindset shift, it changes the trajectory of your community’s future.

For example, because I want viewers to change their mindset around beauty ideals, I make sure that I put the harmful effects of feminine beauty ideals in perspective. When I was open enough to discuss my past relationship and how it was also tied to a low self-image, it made a difference because it ensured those harmful effects were real and relatable to the perspective of the general public, my viewers.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

1.) Realize your capability to overcome adversity. You have to change your own mindset about hardship before you change the world around you. The path from failure to success is a journey. Every failure is a stepping stone to success. If you’ve gotten through hard days in the past, you can get through the one in front of you now. If you feel like you’re not good enough, remember what you’ve endured in the past and how you are still standing. You were enough then and you’re enough now.

This very lesson comes up time and time again for me in the world of social media. Unavoidably, when you expose your emotions, insecurities, and life online, you open yourself up to criticism. While I love constructive criticism, there are definitely people who channel anger, insecurity, or other emotions onto public figures online. Some of my hardest days are lived out publicly, such as a recent experience dealing with a diagnosis of atypical epilepsy and struggling to create content that is entertaining enough to be virally shared, while still holding onto core values of educating and empowering others. Considering the global pandemic that happened this year, 2020 has been rough for everyone. Trying to balance my emotions and work both on and off screen, as well as my physical shortcomings and mental health has been a challenge. Add in a few comments about your un-photoshopped-body in a swimsuit and it’s a recipe to bring up the past insecurities. I’ve had to remind myself that I have gotten through so much in the past and that I am strong enough, resilient enough, and kind enough to myself to get through this, too.

2.) Have a vision and a plan so you know where you’re headed. When you envision the change you want to make in the world, you can better achieve it. Think about what you have struggled with personally in life, or what has caused you pain. Let this experience empower you to discover the thing you want to change about the world. Feelings like hurt and pain can also motivate us to prevent our experiences from happening to others. Instead of channeling that hurt into anger, channel it into positivity.

For example, when I was younger, I had severe acne and battled with low self-esteem. However, this experience has pushed me down the path of learning to accept my appearance, and it has led me to help other people understand, love, and accept their skin. When you let your own narrative inspire you, you have more motivation to connect with others and more motivation to change things in the world.

3.) Always ask yourself “what are the possibilities?” Use your imagination and brainstorm ways to achieve your dream of changing something in the world, Look to other people who have done it. Rather than feeling intimidated, use them as a source of knowledge.

This often happens in the influencer space. It’s human nature to compare ourselves, but especially online, we have more than just the high school jock or the prom queen to judge ourselves against. Social media is a highlight reel, and it’s not fair for us to compare our behind-the-scenes view of our lives to someone else’s ideal day, portrayed through a picture. There can also be competition or hostility in the social media space, where people feel the need to compete with each other for followers, subscribers, or social recognition. Truthfully, I look up to and celebrate others who are succeeding. It shows me that it’s possible. The more I celebrate the work the others are doing, the more that I celebrate my role in the community as well. The way I see it is that other influencers, science communicators, and educators are not my competition, but my coworkers. We all have different life experiences and important messages; instead of wasting time comparing ourselves, we should work to co- collaborate and lift eachother up.

4.) Believe that the people who are doing great things in the world are your coworkers, not your competition. Remember that ideas should be shared and exchanged, not trumped. Great ideas belong to an ecosystem, not a hierarchy, so know that your ideas are capable of contributing. We live in one world so change has to be a concerted effort.

As humans, we all strive for growth, but are terrified of change without realizing that these are one in the same. I remember distinctly a few years ago, wanting to speak more openly about beauty standards and ideals that society tells us women to accept, but not wanting to discourage brands or modeling contacts in the process. It was through these moments I realized I couldn’t be afraid to upset others for the sake of sharing what I believed to be the truth, validated by my own lived experience and the shared concerns of others in my audience. Calling out brands who behave badly, speaking up publicly about the injustices that happen in society, and tying these back to the societal narrative that controls women’s bodies and appearances was one of the hardest, but the best things that I’ve decided to do. But that change does not come from me, but from the community that I represent and help support. Similar to the way that education around skincare ingredients should be freely available and understood to spark passion for chemistry and science, our life experiences and education should be shared to help society grow as a collective. Even if it means having to accept the fact that change comes with difficult decisions and sacrifices for the betterment of others and the overall greater good.

5.) Always be passionate, and be led by your core values. Changing the world goes deeper than just your vision. Being a changemaker challenges you to be open about your experiences in order to help others. You have to have the courage to be honest with others in order to connect with them. The more willing you are to open yourself up, the more people are willing to open their minds and listen to your message. (Needs Short blurb, story, or example from your life.)

I realized this firsthand when I started to share my insecurities and expose them openly online. I still get sweaty palms and a clenched jaw when I post an unfiltered bikini photo next to my photoshopped one. I still look at my skin texture and scars and feel the urge to edit my blemishes with a smoothing “blur” filter. But speaking up about the insecurities, about the bad days, and about the humanness of these emotions helps others realize that they too are worthy and valuable regardless of their appearance. In a way, it gives people permission to see their flaws as features, and be empowered by the stories that their scars and stretchmarks tell. Three of my core values are helping others, solving problems, and authenticity. Sometimes, those are expressed through body shapes, skin textures, and unfiltered experiences you won’t find in a magazine.

What are the values that drive your work?

My personal core values are resilience, authenticity, helping others, and solving problems inclusively. I try to incorporate those principles into all that I do. I say resilience drives my work because producing body positive content takes a high level of introspection. It takes strength and endurance to reflect on yourself and to overcome the things you don’t like about yourself in order to get things done. I would also say authenticity drives my content. To me, authenticity means being honest and outspoken about how you really feel. For example, in my videos, I am constantly calling out racially prejudiced cosmetic lines and public figures within the beauty industry. In honor of Black Lives Matter, I made a video that tied beauty standards and colorism to harm against people of color. I lost 7,000 followers within 6 days after I posted this video, and received harsh criticism, but I wanted to be clear that I support intersectionality for skin positive movements.

Moreover, I love solving problems, and my resilience gives me the go-ahead to pursue new challenges. When I make content, I make sure it promotes growth and education because education is what empowers people to pursue their own challenges.

Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?

It all comes back to core values. If you know what your core values are, you have a basis for decision making, and it then becomes easier to make choices. Every day, I take the time to reflect on how my actions align with what I believe. I think about whether my choices were self-empowered or socially conditioned. With social media, we are literally able to document our lives, and it’s really easy for a person to see what they stand for. On social media, you can literally view people’s lives and their stories. I actively seek out content, people, and information on social media that challenges me to be a better person and portrays perspectives that I should learn more about. It’s so easy nowadays to connect and communicate with people that live in different circumstances than I do. I make that effort because it takes me away from a self-centered world perspective, and it puts me back in touch with my vision of an inclusive world.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

I imagine a world where our decisions are not guided by fear and insecurity, I imagine a world where the idea of perfection has been invalidated, and I imagine a world where people see self-compassion as a part of integrity. When we have compassion for ourselves and for our mistakes, we become more accepting of others, and we are better equipped to treat others with dignity because it comes from within. A world like this feels empowering, it feels nonthreatening, and it feels understanding because no one has to fight very hard for acceptance. It’s a world where kindness is not a scarcity or a limited good. In this world, kindness is not transactional. Everyone would know that humans are born deserving of it.

People always seem to want money and fame, but more often than not, the core motive for desiring these things is acceptance and happiness. If we could realize that being ambitious has the potential to help us attain more than financial gain and corporate power, I think people would channel their energy into more positive purposes because the definition of “powerful” would become more inclusive of different people and different journeys. It could mean anything from being a teacher to a marine biologist.

A world like this also feels more adventurous and creative because we would have expanded definitions of “powerful,” not just one of money and fame that everyone seeks to attain.

We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?

I would make sure that the basic needs of all humans are met. There are people that don’t have basic food, water, or shelter. While I don’t agree with stealing from others, I can simultaneously understand why someone would do this if they are simply trying to survive. This cycle of survival just leads to having even more of their basic rights taken away. In this world, people are most often given rights and respect based on how much they contribute to society. If disadvantaged people had more of their basic needs met, they could contribute more, and they would then be treated with more respect by the world. And when more people can contribute, that elevates us all.

Moreover, when people are just focusing on survival, they don’t have time to challenge the status quo. Just imagine the amount of creativity and innovation that could prosper if everyone’s basic needs were met! If someone is worried about feeding their children, they cannot operate at their highest potential. I would make sure people could support themselves so they too could have the chance to co-create with everybody else. If we’re all equal, we should all have a say.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

Within the educational system, there should be more lessons on how to problem solve using compassion as a solution. When children learn about history and social studies in grade school, they should be encouraged to think critically about the wrongdoings of leaders and how things could have been done differently. We need to start teaching children more often about how kindness, compassion, and equality are essential to the world’s survival. We need to teach them about the economic incentives of social good.

Also, there needs to be more lessons on emotional intelligence. We are taught from a very young age that you can pass or fail. That emotions are volatile things that need to be pushed down. That deviating from tradition isn’t creative, but reprehensible. It’s true that emotions can be volatile, but so can repression. Repressed feelings will find an outlet, and it’s not always a positive one.

Children must understand that fear and anger are natural human emotions that can be expressed in a healthy way. Instead of allowing anger to manifest as violence or hate, we can teach students to express these feelings by communicating with each other. How to communicate honestly about one’s thoughts and feelings with kindness should naturally be a part of what children learn at school. Right now, honest communication is not seen as optimal because it makes people feel vulnerable and maybe even weak. That’s why children must understand that communicating honestly is a part of communicating effectively. Instead of working through problems, we are taught to bury them, and then they come out in unhealthy ways. However, when people possess more emotional intelligence, they can tackle issues more successfully.

When we have more emotional intelligence, we’re more capable of sharing, and when we’re more capable of sharing, we’re more capable of collaborating. When there’s more collaboration, there’s more diversity in perspective. Diversity fosters innovation, creativity, and human advancement. We need to educate children about the fundamentals of emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, communication, and cooperation in order to better our world.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Young people should consider making a positive impact because that is how you truly attain success. Society has conditioned us to believe that, based on specific criteria, people are either successes or failures. We’re taught that the world is binary. From a young age, we are made to believe that when you score an “A” on your test, you’re good. If you don’t get the grade, you’re not good enough. That is not true, and life is not that simple. Throughout my life, what I have actually experienced is that all of my worst failures were stepping stones to success. We are taught that failure and success are on two opposite sides of the spectrum when in reality, they are interwoven. Life is a journey, and victories come in different forms every day. This is why I tell young people to get involved because choosing the difference you want to make is such an important part of narrating your own story. We’re all searching for ourselves, and when you experience life and you dare to hope for a better world, you get to know yourself better. Futhermore, you liberate others to wonder about the possibilities for their own life too. This alone makes an impact, and that’s when you truly succeed.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

One of the people that has helped me through my hardships and has made me a better person is Lilly Singh. Her comedy content online and on late night television has gotten a fair deal of criticism, but she’s dedicated to growth and sharing her real experiences with her audience. I grew up struggling to navigate the world as the daughter of an immigrant, as the girl with acne, and as the girl who was secretly queer. A few years ago, Lilly Singh came out as a bisexual woman and openly discussed how she risked facing backlash from friends and family. Needless to say, I was inspired. From teaching others about being a radical feminist and insisting on her rights as a bisexual woman of color, she is truly admirable. I also love how she openly addresses adversity and deals with harsh criticism so gracefully through the comedy and uplifting content she produces online.

If I could sit down and have breakfast with her, it would probably be chipotle with no tomatoes, and that would be great.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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