Start Early is committed to advancing systems in which all children and their families have access to an uninterrupted continuum of equitable, comprehensive and responsive services from before birth through age five. Systems building is intense and challenging work because early childhood services and funding streams are fragmented, under-resourced, and historically inequitable. Start Early Consulting supports public sector leaders and advocates to ensure that early childhood systems are high-quality and aligned, resourced to be sustainable, and designed to serve children and families from historically marginalized communities.

Blue Meridian Partners recently invested in Start Early’s ability to build a sustainable consulting practice, and to provide consulting services pro bono to promote equity and quality in state and community systems. In summer 2023, we launched the Impact Initiative and put out a call for applications from public sector leaders and advocates in need of support with systems-level challenges focused on two key policy areas: home visiting and children with disabilities and developmental delays. Start Early brings deep policy and program experience and expertise in these areas and they represent services and families which are often under-served and isolated from broader early childhood systems work.

Systems leaders from across the country submitted 40 applications for support, leading to consulting engagements in a diverse set of eight states across the country: California, Colorado, Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas. Our Consulting team of former advocates, government leaders, program leaders, teachers and home visitors bring diverse lived and professional experiences to the initial cohort of state and local leaders to solve pressing policy and advocacy challenges.

For example, Start Early Consulting is supporting the Kentucky Early Intervention Providers Association (KEIPA), a new advocacy organization with a mission of supporting and advocating for the families they serve and the providers who serve them. KEIPA and Start Early will be partnering to create a 2024 policy agenda focused on increasing funding for critical Early Intervention services for young children and to build KEIPA’s capacity as a statewide early childhood advocacy leader in Kentucky.

Blue Meridian’s place-based, outcomes-focused approach to catalytic investments will improve the lives of children and families in these eight states and strengthen Start Early’s capacity to support additional systems leaders in the future. Learn more about Start Early Consulting on our website and please share widely with state and community leaders who could benefit from partnership with us.

Blue Meridian Partners is a pioneering philanthropic model for finding and funding scalable solutions to problems that limit economic and social mobility for America’s young people and families in poverty.

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We are excited to share our annual Start Early 2023 Year in Review, which showcases and celebrates accomplishments and growth from the last fiscal year (July 1, 2022 – June 30, 2023).

In 2023, we continued to promote equitable access to early learning programs and services that positively impact children and families.

2023 Year in Review: Promoting Equitable Access to Opportunity

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Start Early influences nearly every aspect of the early education system through our dedicated and holistic approach at local, state, and federal levels. Our emphasis on collaborating with parents and community leaders helps us provide young children with a strong, all-encompassing foundation to enable the most positive growth outcomes.

This work would not have been possible without the collaboration and efforts of our partners. With your help, Start Early will continue to work to create a sustainable early learning system that meets the needs of today’s youngest learners and the little ones of tomorrow.

With the close of Fiscal Year 2023, Start Early’s Illinois Policy team ended our inaugural, multi-year policy agenda. In launching that agenda, we wanted to try to capture the breadth of the work we do with our state and local elected officials and agencies to continuously strengthen and improve our early childhood programs, strengthen the early childhood workforce and to improve access to economic and health supports that we know are so critical for children and families to thrive. That agenda launched in the early months of not only a new governor’s term, but also a global pandemic.

Despite the strange mix of both hopefulness and uncertainty of that year, our team was focused on the kinds of change and progress we wanted to see for our state’s children and families – both now and in the years to come. Over those years, thanks to the leadership of Governor Pritzker and the members of the Illinois General Assembly, along with the tenacious advocacy of the early childhood community, we’ve seen:

  • Increased investments in early childhood programs* lifting our state commitment from just over $1 billion in FY21 to more than $1.5 billion in FY24.
  • A blueprint to re-imagine the early childhood system to ensure that families can find the services they want and need, and that those supports are available equitably across Illinois.
  • Use of federal COVID-relief funding to not only to respond to the unique needs of the pandemic, but also to lay the groundwork for changes toward the state’s long-term vision.
  • Increased attention towards better supporting the early childhood workforce for the critical work they do.
  • Efforts to ensure that our programs are able to enroll and serve families who too often face systemic barriers to participation – such as children with delays or disabilities, who are experiencing homelessness or who might come from a home where languages other than English are the primary.

Despite all of that progress, there is much work to do. We need to continue toward this new vision of our system, but recognize how many serious challenges are being experienced daily in early childhood programs – particularly to attract and retain folks into the early childhood workforce. The child care business model was already fraught before the pandemic. There is a great need for stronger federal partnership and funding to help states advance their early learning goals.

Our team was proud to lead and significantly contribute to so many advances over the past few years – and in our new multi-year agenda will lay out some of the key priorities of work yet to be done. We have a short window in the first five years to help children launch into school and life with the strongest foundation possible – opportunities are in front of us and we owe it to our youngest learners to do what we know needs to be done.

* Early Childhood Block Grant, Home Visiting, Early Intervention and the Child Care Assistance Program and the Early Childhood Construction Grant

Earlier today, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced the creation of a new, unified state agency focused on early childhood. This major undertaking, which will take place over several years, aims to simplify and streamline how families access critical early learning and care services – by better aligning and coordinating programs, data and policies.

Across the country, families with young children and those who care for them continue to navigate a complex, fragmented and under-resourced early care and learning system, making it challenging to meet the diverse needs of communities.

Illinois leaders and stakeholders have called for an early childhood agency that can more efficiently and equitably manage the range of services that young children and families need to thrive, and we are prepared and ready to design and implement this new governance structure with success.

For decades, Illinois has been a leader in prioritizing policies and investments that put children and families first and has built a robust early childhood system through deep public and private engagement, helping to ensure services reflect what families and providers need and value. This long history gives the current administration lessons to build upon and partnerships to harness as this new agency is designed and launched.

Start Early is excited to offer its longstanding experiences directly providing early childhood services and informing policy in Illinois as state leaders embark on this historic transformation of the governance and design of our early learning and care system.

“Today, the governor presented a unique, historic pledge to redesign and transform how we serve Illinois families with young children,” Start Early Vice President of Illinois Policy Ireta Gasner shares. “Start Early is eager to be a collaborator in this work. We know that we will have greater success when we bring the voices of the early childhood community alongside our government partners in this effort.”

As the backbone organization of Raising Illinois, a statewide public-private coalition of more than 1,400 parents, providers, advocates and policymakers working to achieve a better future for Illinois’ infants and toddlers, we have seen the power of what Illinoisans can contribute in driving transformational change. It will take the experiences of those on-the-ground in communities across the state for such a notable, positive and sustainable change to be made to our state’s early childhood infrastructure.

While the transition team works to establish the new agency, it remains critical for us to stay committed to the multi-year investments and program improvements outlined in the governor’s Smart Start plan. We must approve and implement substantial annual investments in all early childhood program to address early childhood workforce shortages and waiting lists for services, and to expand services to where families face disparities in accessing programs they need to work and for their children to thrive.

“The first five years of a child’s life are the most important for positive health and development, and our youngest Illinoisans are growing and learning right now,” Start Early President Diana Rauner states. “So, as we look toward this brighter future for how we serve Illinois families, Start Early remains steadfast in its efforts to reach more families with quality early learning experiences through transformational policies, investments and research.”

Start Early is proud to introduce Dr. Barbara J. Cooper as the Senior Vice President of Professional Learning. Dr. Cooper brings a wealth of experience and expertise in the field of education, particularly in early childhood education, and we are honored to have her on board.

In her role, Dr. Cooper will lead Start Early’s strategy to support and advance the early childhood workforce and oversee scaling the organization’s professional learning enterprise for professionals working in prenatal through PreK.

Dr. Cooper has made a remarkable impact at every stop throughout her career. In July 2020, she was appointed by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey as the Secretary of Early Childhood Education and also served as the Governor’s Birth through Grade 12 policy advisor. Starting in 2018, she played a crucial role in the administration of Alabama’s esteemed First Class Pre-K program as a part of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. Her contributions have significantly impacted the quality of early education in Alabama, garnering national recognition and serving as a model for others.

Dr. Cooper’s perspective will also be instrumental in advancing racial equity throughout all areas of our work as we continue our journey of being an anti-racist organization. That work will begin using the Educare Network’s recently published research agenda on advancing racial equity as a foundation. The agenda will serve as a guide and platform to bring about systemic change in early care and education — for children, families, and the workforce — so that equitable access and experiences become a reality for all. We are excited for Dr. Cooper’s leadership in spearheading Start Early’s efforts with early childhood professionals, culminating at the intersection of practice, policy, and research.

Additionally, Dr. Cooper was already familiar with Start Early’s work before joining, engaging with the Essential 0-5 Survey measurement system during her tenure in Alabama. This system functions as an assessment tool to better understand early education organizations and aid in improving their processes.

Originally from Chicago, she now resides in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband, Walter. Together, they have three adult children and two precious grandchildren.

We are so pleased to have Barbara join the Start Early family!

Buffett Early Childhood Fund logoThe Buffett Early Childhood Fund (BECF) invests in early childhood practice, policy and science to improve systems and create structural change so all young children and families thrive. BECF has partnered with Start Early for 20 years. BECF has invested a total of more than $90 million in Start Early, collaborating with our organization to launch and expand both the Educare Learning Network and the First Five Years Fund (FFYF) over time.

All of those opportunities that we have in those first five years to enrich a child's educational and intellectual development, to enrich their social and emotional development – that can have a really big impact on how children do in school, work and life.

Susan A. Buffett, Founder and Chair, Buffett Early Childhood Fund
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History and Impact of the Educare Learning Network

Exterior photograph of Educare Chicago, early learning program on Chicago's South SideIn 2000, Start Early, the Irving Harris Foundation and other partners created the first stand-alone Educare school, Educare Chicago, on the city’s South Side.

Shortly after opening its doors, Educare Chicago attracted the attention of Susie Buffett, founder of BECF and a philanthropist, at that time, new to early childhood. Susie Buffett was seeking to improve educational outcomes and bring an effective early education initiative to Omaha, Nebraska. Following consultations with Start Early and a site visit to our Educare school, she decided to invest in establishing an Educare school in Omaha, which opened in 2003.

Through BECF and Start Early’s leadership and partnerships with other Head Start providers, school superintendents and philanthropists around the country, the Educare Network has since grown to 25 birth-to-five schools in 15 states, Washington DC and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. In Nebraska alone, BECF has supported the development of four Educare schools and three infant-toddler centers while fueling state policy and systems change to improve early care and education across the state. They have also inspired and engaged a cadre of philanthropic leaders to invest in early education across the country. As the Educare Network’s founding and longest-standing philanthropic partner, BECF works with Start Early and Educare schools to leverage the Network’s national footprint, invest in and scale innovative approaches and build capacity for policy and systems impact.

BECF’s Role in Accelerating Innovations in the Educare Network

Educare schools are learning hubs that innovate and share best practices to transform the lives of young children and positively impact the broader early childhood field. Through its Acceleration Grant initiative, BECF sparked and invested in innovation across the Educare Network, expanding the impact and reach of effective program and policy strategies developed by Network members to additional Educare schools and other early childhood providers nationwide.

Outcomes of BECF’s Acceleration Grant initiative include the expansion of the Educare Parent Ambassadors program, which develops and empowers parents and family members to use their voices and lived experiences in the advocacy arena. Building on the success of Educare Seattle and Educare Central Maine’s programs, Parent Ambassadors now includes six Educare schools and additional non-Educare programs in states across the country, with plans to further expand. The Acceleration Grant program also supported the scaling of Educare Miami’s Early Science Initiative to other Educare schools, a workforce mindfulness and wellness program from Educare Denver/Clayton Early Learning and an effective educator coaching initiative led by Educare Arizona/Southwest Human Development, among others.

Driving Federal Policy Change Through the First Five Years Fund

Educare Chicago students participating in musical activityIn 2007, BECF joined Start Early in launching the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan advocacy organization that galvanizes support for greater investment in and access to high-quality learning and care.

For fifteen-plus years, FFYF, with support from BECF and other visionary philanthropic partners, has played a crucial role in strengthening and expanding federal early learning programs and building unprecedented federal bipartisan support. This ever-growing momentum, demonstrated by a roughly 60% increase in funding and near-unanimous reauthorization of federal early childhood programs since 2008, represents significant progress and years of dedicated work.

FFYF’s efforts have been integral to maximizing the impact of federal investments supporting the expansion of early childhood opportunities. Additionally, as COVID-19 illuminated long-standing inequities in our country’s systems and policies, FFYF has amplified the role of early learning and care in advancing racial equity, plus the changes needed to create opportunities for all children to thrive. This emphasis on addressing inequities through the promise of quality early childhood education is at the core of BECF and Start Early’s missions, and we are grateful to have a like-minded partner in BECF for this critical work.

One of BECF’s greatest contributions has been inspiring the support of new philanthropic partners to join the movement for quality early learning and care, focusing on closing the opportunity gap.

Start Early is grateful for BECF’s long-term leadership, investment and partnership that continues to drive progress in early childhood education to benefit young children, families and communities nationwide.

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The Buffett Early Childhood Fund (BECF) was established in 2005 by Susan A. Buffett. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, the Fund invests in practice, policy and research to close the opportunity gap for the youngest and most vulnerable children and their families in Nebraska and across the country.

The Buffett Early Childhood Fund’s practice investments include the Educare Learning Network; policy investments include the First Five Years Fund and the Alliance for Early Success; and research investments include the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute as the national evaluation partner of the Educare Network, the research of Nobel Laureate Dr. James Heckman, and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child.

In Nebraska, BECF supports a wide range of organizations and agencies that are working to close the opportunity gap, address early childhood workforce challenges and improve program quality and increase public funding streams across the state. BECF Nebraska partners include First Five Nebraska, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and the Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative, among others.

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Last month, we hosted our 21st Annual Luncheon at the Hilton Chicago, where we welcomed hundreds of supporters to discuss advancing maternal health equity. Through powerful conversations and presentations with experts in the field, we discussed the maternal health crisis and the inequities in the system impacting Black women, alongside the innovative solutions that can save and transform lives.

If you were unable to join us, you can watch the highlights of an incredibly impactful afternoon below.

Quality maternal health can change a child’s future, and when we support the wellbeing of mothers and birthing parents, we set our children up to make an impact for future generations. Ensuring equitable access to quality health care – before, during and after birth – can help prevent maternal and infant mortality and strengthen the developmental systems that enable children to reach their full potential.

As Luncheon Co-Chair Sam Yagan shared, “…we have no choice but to address the issue of inequality at birth. Not just for the sake of the kids and the moms whose lives we improve, but for all of us, and for our own lives to improve.”

I am so thankful for the opportunity to bring parents, educators and early learning professionals together with business and community leaders to discuss the opportunity in front of us to reshape maternal health. And I want to share a special thank you to our Luncheon Co-Chairs, Suk Shah and Sam Yagan, who did an incredible job setting the stage for maternal health experts, mothers, and doulas, who provided the critical perspectives needed to understand the full picture when it comes to maternal health.

We are grateful for the incredible support and generosity of our donors and event sponsors who helped us raise $1.15 million. Every dollar raised helps our young families and sets the stage for them to thrive. You can still show your support by making a donation today. When we come together and invest in early childhood education, we can transform the lives of our future generation.

Luncheon Co-Chair Suk Shah said it best: “Children with quality early learning experiences, who are healthy and prepared, do better when they enter kindergarten. Parents do better, and they’re more prepared to contribute to the strength of their family and their community.”

Thank you for being part of our 2023 Annual Luncheon, and we hope to see you again soon.

2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsors

A special thank you to our generous individual and corporate sponsors who have joined us in a shared mission to close the opportunity gap and ensure every child has a chance to reach their full potential.



Yagan Family Foundation



BMO Harris Bank, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor LaSalle Network, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor

Nancy & Steve Crown | The Crown Family
The Hasten Foundation
Diana & Bruce Rauner
Zell Family Foundation



GCM Grosvenor, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor Oberhelman Foundation & Cullinan Properties, , 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor BMO Harris Bank, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor Related Midwest, 2023 Annual Luncheon Sponsor

Marilyn & Larry Fields
Cari & Michael J. Sacks
Diana & Michael Sands



Susan & Stephen Baird
Meredith Bluhm-Wolf & Bill Wolf
The Boeing Company
Noelle C. Brock, Brock Family Foundation
Jacolyn & John Bucksbaum
The Buffett Early Childhood Fund
Dave & Jane Casper
CME Group Foundation
The Duchossois Family Foundation
Cabray Haines & David Kiley
Harris Family Foundation
Ron & Fifi Levin, John & Elizabeth Burke, John & Danielle Didrickson | Goldman Sachs
Make It Better Foundation
The Malkin Family
Charles & Brunetta Matthews
Robert R. McCormick Foundation
Catherine Siegel
Michael & Linda Simon
Steans Family Foundation
Sterling Bay
Sunshine Charitable Foundation
Wilson Garling Foundation



Ellen Alberding & Kelly Welsh
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago
Boston Consulting Group | Vicki Escarra
Jimmy & Eleni Bousis
Sarah Bradley & Paul Metzger
The Brodsky Family Foundation
Mark & Shari Coe | Intrinsic Edge
Erikson Institute
The Joseph & Bessie Feinberg Foundation
Fiducient Advisors | Terri & Bob DiMeo
Keith & Rodney Goldstein
Rachel & Devin Gross
Maxwell Gunnill
JP Morgan Chase
David & Gerri Kahnweiler
The Dolores Kohl Education Foundation
Klaff Family Foundation
Learning Resources
Elizabeth & Eric Lefkovsky
Barbara & Dan O’Keefe
Sharon Oberlander
Cathy and Bill Osborn
Plante Moran
Port Capital LLC
Jeanne Rogers & Perry Sainati
Rothkopf Family Charitable Foundation
The Shah Family
Cheryl & Craig Simon
Ken & Kathy Tallering
Robin Loewenberg Tebbe & Mark Tebbe
Laura Thonn
Anne & John Tuohy
Ulta Beauty
Mike & Robin Zafirovski

CHICAGO – APRIL 25, 2023 – On Tuesday, April 25, Start Early hosted its Annual Luncheon and celebrated 40 years of working to close the opportunity gap through quality early childhood learning and care programs and services. The gathering of business, civic and philanthropic leaders called attention to the critical role of maternal health and investing in services that support the earliest years of a child’s life – before, during and after birth. It was also announced that the organization received a $10 million donation from MacKenzie Scott through her foundation Yield Giving, which provides Start Early a transformative opportunity to broaden its reach and serve more families with critical programs in communities nationwide.

“These funds will allow us to make deliberate investments to broaden Start Early’s impact and help ensure sustainability decades to come, further advancing our commitment to children, families and future generations,” said Start Early President Diana Rauner. “This unsolicited gift also serves as tremendous validation of the hard work and investments of our staff, our board and our philanthropic partners. We hope our guests’ knowledge from this event will trickle out into the community and supplement the work that Start Early is already doing to create a more equitable and respectful level of care for all women, birthing parents and their babies.”

Despite the continued advancements in medical care and technology, the country’s maternal and infant mortality rates are far higher than those in similarly large and industrialized countries. Women of color, especially Black women, experience disproportionate access to maternal health care, putting them at increased risk for poor maternal and infant health outcomes compared to their white peers. As lasting effects of the pandemic set in and new research demonstrates worsening realities for birthing parents, Start Early felt it critical to devote its annual event to address and offer solutions to the maternal health crisis. The program educated attendees about the systemic inequities impacting women of color and elevated innovative solutions for saving lives and improving those first experiences of new parents and their babies.

The program, which took place at Hilton Chicago on 720 S. Michigan Ave., featured an inspiring lineup of stories from educators, parents, corporate leaders and champions for early learning, including strategic advisor for children and youth in King County, Washington, Sheila Capestany. Capestany discussed the maternal health crisis and its root causes, highlighted its devastating data and proposed policy changes necessary for reproductive and health care equity.

Celebrating 40 years of impact, Start Early is a champion for quality early learning and care and has made tremendous strides toward closing the opportunity gap for our youngest learners. From its roots directly serving families and children on Chicago’s South Side and in rural Illinois to its work today impacting early childhood programs and policies nationwide, Start Early’s focus is grounded in the fact that starting early to nurture attachments between children and adults is essential to a child’s present and future well-being.

Contact for more information and media opportunities.

Comic Relief USRed Nose Day logo (CRUS) is committed to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Through the power of entertainment, CRUS drives awareness and amplifies the voices of children and families living in under-resourced communities.

You might know them best from Red Nose Day, their annual fundraising campaign that brings people together to laugh and have fun, while raising money and awareness to ensure all children are safe, healthy, educated and empowered in the U.S. and abroad. Through Red Nose Day, Comic Relief US engages the public and nonprofit and corporate partners to raise funds and invests them back in nonprofit organizations, many of which are community-led with programs focused on tackling the root causes and consequences of poverty and social injustice.

The Educare Learning Network has been a proud partner of CRUS and Red Nose Day since 2018. Since 2000, when Start Early developed the first Educare school in Chicago, the Educare Learning Network has grown into a national network of 25 birth-through-age-five schools in 15 states, Washington DC and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. We are a network of learning hubs that innovate, evaluate and share best practices to transform the lives of young children in disinvested communities and positively impact the broader early childhood field.

Start Early, the Educare Learning Network and CRUS partner to improve the lives of children and families by investing in Educare schools to create training opportunities and enriching early learning programming that benefits Educare staff, children and families. For the past five years, funds awarded to Start Early have supported professional development, consultation and other learning opportunities for 2,000+ staff members across the Educare Network. Red Nose Day funds have also allowed the 25 Educare schools to develop new and innovative programs in the areas of science, tech, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM); social-emotional learning; family engagement; and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) and have impacted 5,000+ children and their families.

The staff now look at STEAM in a different light. What was once before avoided is now implemented without prompting. Messy play, experiments, recipes, engineering and more are now implemented with ease.

Educare school leader on Red Nose Day-funded programming
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Start Early and the Educare Learning Network feel fortunate for the many opportunities we have as a grantee partner of CRUS to enhance our programming and connect with new audiences. Being part of Red Nose Day has offered Educare opportunities for national media exposure, helping us share the importance of early learning. A great example of this was in May 2022, when an Educare Chicago Mentor Teacher was featured in a segment on the Kelly Clarkson show. This was an opportunity for TV viewers around the country to be introduced to the Educare name and mission, helping the public understand the value of our work and high-quality early childhood education programs. Additionally, the Educare Network’s promotion of Red Nose Day in 2022 was particularly successful as we shared nearly 100 social media posts and other communications during the campaign and reached an audience upwards of 35,000 across multiple platforms and channels.

We continue to be grateful for our partnership, and deeply appreciative of the important role the Educare Learning Network plays at multiple levels of the early childhood education sector, and the much-needed support the Educare Learning Network provides to children, early childhood education providers, and caregivers.

Comic Relief US
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Since its launch in the U.S. in 2015, Comic Relief US (CRUS) has fundraised over $380 million, with over $324 million raised through its signature Red Nose Day campaign to end child poverty.

Comic Relief US invests in nonprofit organizations, many of which are community-led, with programs focused on tackling the root causes and consequences of poverty and social injustice. CRUS supports initiatives that advance the health, safety, education and empowerment of children and caregivers in communities impacted by intergenerational poverty.

Funds raised through Red Nose Day in the U.S. support programs across all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico and around the world, ensuring all children are safe, healthy, educated and empowered.

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