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Archive for the ‘biodigestor’ Category

The University of Michigan’s Better Living Using Engineering Laboratory’s (BLUElab) Biogas Project focuses on the use of anaerobic biodigesters to recover energy from waste.  This group is advised by Dr. Steven Skerlos and is a team of undergraduates and graduates from different disciplines that do work on the project as an extracurricular commitment.  The group’s goal is to promote the implementation, acceptance, and use resource recovery systems in developing and developed nations in order to improve human and environmental health.  This summer, five members of the group traveled to Nicaragua as part of a service-learning trip in order to work with local communities in collaboration with Green Empowerment (NGO in Portland, OR) and AsoFénix (NGO in Nicaragua).  This entry was written by Lindsay Krall and Sherri Cook.

We traveled to Nicaragua at the end of August, 2009, to start building a relationship with the local communities, learn about current renewable energy projects, and help install two biodigesters for energy recovery from animal waste.

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The trip and associated design course is supported by the Multidisciplinary Design Minor (MDM) within the College of Engineering and taught by Dr. Skerlos.  This course focuses on the projects in Nicaragua with the goal of promoting sustainable energy in Latin American.  As an outcome of the class, we plan to develop a general methodology for a community or a family to decide on the best biodigester system for their use; the methodology and assessment will focus on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the system’s installation and use.  Also, we hope to improve the current designs by incorporating feedback about the use, our research, and updates from the field in order to promote sustainable waste management in developing nations.

Installing digesters in Nicaragua was a great experience for our team.  The year before the trip, group members read literature to learn more about the systems and ways to improve current designs.  During the trip, we saw several current biodigester projects as well as a micro-hydro project.

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After our arrival in Nicaragua, we discussed Green Empowerment’s and AsoFénix’s various projects in Bramadero and Potreritos with our trip leaders Jason, Sara, Seth, and Jaime.  We drove across the rolling Nicaraguan countryside to Bramadero, where we stayed for the first four days of our trip, and met our gracious hosts.  On our first day of work, we took measurements and began working on the Ferro cement style digester in Potreritos. We got down and dirty in the field breaking volcanic rocks and digging a two square meter hole, which, by the end of our trip was ready to become a working system.

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The next day, we built a composting latrine in the Bramadero schoolyard.  We worked with Tilo, (the head of a local community water committee) and Antonio (a trained mason) to take dimensions, mix cement, build iron support rods, lay the bricks, and develop a structure that will provide the school children a new latrine and a source of compost.   The children enjoyed learning about the project and construction as we did.

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Upon completing the latrine, we returned to Potreritos to complete the Ferro cement digester by laying the cement foundation and capping it with low density PVC that can be bought locally in Nicaragua in case repair is necessary.  We also aligned and built the piping to collect the biogas so the family can light their stove.  Our last project was to install a high density polypropylene digester.  We used a machete to chop wood and build a fence that will prevent animals from puncturing it.

At the end of our trip, the team went to San Jose to see the micro-hydro project and explore the tropical forests of the country.  During this part of the trip we hiked through the forest to see a micro-hydro project, swam near a waterfall, drank local coffee, and saw howler monkeys.

Our trip gave us insight to where we would like to take the project.  Our multidisciplinary minor students are now designing our own digester to study, experiment with, and explore various methods by which to optimize their output.

Pictures provided by:

Heather Dorer, Zijia Li, Jason Selwitz, and Lindsay Krall

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Jocelyn Maxine Kluger, a current intern with AsoFénix in Nicaragua, through the ESW Summer Engineering Experience in Development (SEED) Volunteer Program, writes about biodigestor installations & farming practices in Bramadero as well as cultural experiences she has encountered while in Nicaragua.

Since begining its involvment with the Bramadero community three years ago, AsoFénix has installed biodigestors behind three different houses. The biodigestor at the Gonzalez family´s house is a thick green plastic bag commercially produced in Mexico. AsoFénix installed this biodigestor in March of 2009, and the family has built a fence around it that prevents the community´s many free-roaming farm animals from puncturing the plastic. During my first week in Bramadero, AsoFénix spent a couple days doubling the capacity of the concrete cylindrical biodigestor behind Pedro´s house. Working alongside community members Tilo and Pedrito, Pedro´s son, we constructed a second concrete cylinder beside the first one. Later, the two cylinders were turned on their sides and sealed together. Additionally, a new biodigestor was constructed by Chica´s house. This new biodigestor is a concrete rectangular prism with a plastic top. The new biodigestors must receive the cow-manure-and-water mixture for two weeks before they will begin producing fuel for cooking.

During the next week, Karina and I introduced ourselves to the three families with biodigestors and began to learn about the community´s farming practices. One day, I accompanied my host father, Feliciano, to a corn field to remove weeds with machetes. Then, we began testing soil samples from land used to grow beans and corn. Many of the farmers in the community exhaust their land by growing the same crops year after year. Now, they have become very reliant on comercial chemical fertilizers. Working with Feliciano during my second week in Bramadero, I planted several hundred corn and bean plants. Once they grew to be about six inches tall, I applied chemical fertilizer to one-third of the plants, organic fertilizer from the biodigestors to another third, and left the remaining plants untreated. AsoFénix hopes that the results of this experiment will prove that the biodigestor fertilizer works well and encourage the local farmers to use it.

When not working on the projects, I spend a lot of time with my host family. Often, I chat with the adults on the porch and help the kids learn to solve a Rubik´s Cube I gave them. On some mornings, I help one of the daughters pound out dough into a circle and cook it over the open fire to make a tortilla. Once, I accompanied several women on the mile-long trek through the fields and up the steep hills to collect firewood for cooking. Last week, I went with a few family members on a two hour horse ride through the hills to a birthday party. It has been an excellent experience getting to know them.

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Junzi Shi is a Chemistry and Global Health student at Northwestern University.  As a team member of her school’s Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) chapter, she traveled to Nicaragua in March of 2009 to install household sized biogas digesters with Green Empowerment, AsoFénix, and families in two rural communities.  In May 2009, Junzi traveled to Peru with Green Empowerment to participate in a Design Exchange on Small-scale Biogas Digesters in Latin America.  In June 2010, Junzi will lead her own ESW team on a ram pump project in the Philippines with Green Empowerment and the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation.

Design Exchange Conference Attendents Showing Off Part of a Completed Biogas Digester

Design Exchange Conference Attendees Showing Off Part of a Completed Biogas Digester

As we descended in the small plane towards Cajamarca, Peru, the thick white clouds seemed to cling to the earth, hugging its surface and nestling in the ridges of the mountainous terrain. The passengers saw lush green pastures and hillsides crowded with crops, and they felt the frugality of the farmers as well as their close relationship with the land.  It was my first time in South America and as we stepped off the plane, the northern highlands of Peru gave me a beautiful impression of the country. Peru, a nation with 7.5 million people living in rural provinces and 72.1% of those living in poverty (source: Rural Poverty Portal, Peru), has been on the forefront of environmental sustainability in order to improve the way of life and also hold responsible practices.

The Biogas Design Exchange was held at the Center for Demonstration and Training of Appropriate Technologies (CEDECAP) located in the outer periphery of Cajamarca. It was the first conference of its kind, a wonderful chance to share knowledge and experiences with 33 individuals from 10 different countries. The first two days were filled with presentations that revealed how practices involving the same technology could differ in many ways. For example, the source of fecal matter for biodigesters can come from pigs, cattle, humans, or unusual livestock such as guinea pigs. The design of the digester also varies in shape, size, and building material depending on the use of the final products.  Many farmers in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru – such as Juan Morocho – use methane for cooking and the liquid/solid products as fertilizer. During my stay in Bramadero, Nicaragua, the families reported an increase in crop growth after applying the fertilizer, having recently introduced more vegetables and protein in their diet. This is a great way to use all the products of the biodigester system. However, in highly commercial enterprises, I found it surprising that methane gas is simply burned when it could be put into electricity, heat and other domestic or commercial uses.

Constructing a Sausage-Style Model of a Digesters at the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation

Constructing a Sausage-Style Model of a Digesters at the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation

The next two days were spent installing two different sausage-style models of digesters at the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation. The long and narrow PVC model was placed parallel and adjacent to a high density polypropylene model in order to test several factors. Although the former may generate gas faster because it has greater overall volume and above-ground surface area, the latter is expected to have a longer lifetime due to the more resilient material. In Nicaragua, we installed four Indian-style digesters made of ferro-cement and one sausage-style model made of polypropylene. Although cement can crack over time, ferro-cement was advantageous because it was internally reinforced with chicken wire, and the locals had had previous experience with the material. Polypropylene digesters are advantageous due to their long lifetimes of up to 20 years, but the material is not readily available in many countries.

The last day of the conference was spent in round table discussions regarding management, technology, selection of families, and future research. Although it is important to consider a family’s living conditions and the farm layout, it is also essential to consider the community at large. In Nicaragua, our team worked with GE in villages where previous water, wind, and solar technology had been established. Also, the biodigester could be supported by a committee of community members who were invested and worked to maintain the installations. My experiences in Nicaragua and Peru have taught me that biogas digesters involve a great deal of “the human factor” in addition to engineering calculations, sometimes more so. For instance, after the installations were completed and started generating gas, some Nicaraguan families would not use the improved gas stove because they preferred the wood-smoke flavor that comes from traditional cooking with wood-burning stoves. Cultural factors such as this can really prove to be a challenge to the successful adaptation of technology.

The Design Exchange established a precedent that, I hope, will be the start of many conversations amongst leaders of biogas around the world. As my friend Juan says, there are many good people in the world, but sometimes they don’t know about each other. It is essential to make these connections and share our knowledge with others so that we can achieve our common goals all the better. Each man can build his own house, but many men can build a city. After my experiences in Nicaragua and Peru, I have gained more respect for the work of fearless individuals and NGOs who rise over countless obstacles to achieve their vision.

Finished Sausage-Style Biogas Digester

Finished Sausage-Style Biogas Digester

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If we had a nickel for every technical question Green Empowerment was asked via blog, website, email and phone related to renewable energy and sustainable water systems for the developing world, boy, we’d have a lot of nickels.  Whenever possible, Michel Maupoux and the rest of our team have answered as quickly and completely as possible.  After all, with 1.6 billion of the world’s people living without access to energy and 2.6 billion without adequate access to clean water, there are more than enough problems waiting for solutions, and Green Empowerment works diligently to provide those solutions.

Now, thanks to our Peruvian partner, Practical Action, a special service called Practical Answers awaits your questions with eager anticipation and answers at the ready.

“I’m a shop-owner in Sudan and want to put solar power on my shop–how can I figure out how many solar panels I need?” Or, “I’m a farmer in Bolivia and want to build a biogas digester. Do you have designs?”  Need a little help designing a hydraulic ram pump system in Afghanistan?  Allow me to invite you to begin your fact-finding journey here:

Practical Answers Enquiry

Thanks again to our partner, Practical Action, and to DFID for making this possible.

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Calvin Helfenstine, a recent graduate from the University of Michigan in Mechanical Engineering, was an Intern with AsoFenix in Nicaragua in 2008 through the Engineers for a Sustainable World’s Summer Engineering Experience in Development (SEED) program. Calvin built on the work of SEED Intern, Samuel Schlesinger, who contributed an earlier blog posting.

Calvin Helfenstine

Calvin Helfenstine

SOLAR WATER PUMPING STATION

Surveying for Solar Water Pumping Station

Surveying for Solar Water Pumping Station

The solar water pumping station in Sonzapote was the most important and largest budgeted project from the position of Asofenix. Initially, a topographical study was performed to determine the elevation of various elements of the community. Working with Nicaraguan surveyors, we spent a day in the village collecting data. Upon review of the topographic study, we were able to accurately size the pump and solar panel system for the community’s needs. A community census and survey was also conducted to accurately determine the water usage needs of the village throughout the year, and attempt to document the state of the village to determine what changes occur with this project. While administering this survey, we explained the necessity of having a latrine before receiving water to the house. In addition we documented the level of education of each community member. The results showed that less than half of the community was able to read.  With the winter harvest underway, we were unable to begin installation of the system before the end of our program. The equipment was ordered and the project is scheduled to be completed by the end of November of this year. [*ed note – the community water delivery system was installed in December 2008 and the distribution network was completed by the community and AsoFenix in Feb. 2009.]

Examining Data for Solar Water Pumping Station

Examining Data for Solar Water Pumping Station

MICRO WIND GENERATOR
Collaborating with students from the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria (UNI), we worked on a project to construct a wind generator made of recycled materials to be used for charging batteries in the village of Bromadero. Based on a variety of existing generator designs found via the internet and a site visit to an existing wind turbine in Matagalpa, an overall design was developed.

One week was spent with the students at the UNI workshop to fabricate the design. Although well equipped for working with metal, there were insufficient resources to fabricate the wooden blades. Having trouble locating the necessary materials, we were only able to fabricate a tail and make preliminary cuts for the blades. The project was put on hold until we could locate a new location with proper machines for woodworking.

Calvin Holds Up the Wind Generator

Calvin Holds Up the Wind Generator

When we convened on the project, we again encountered more problems. Without prior notice, the school had closed for a week and all the previous supplies were locked in the workshop. With limited time to complete the project, we decided to take on a new design using blades made of PVC tubing. The design would allow us to complete most of the work in the office of Asofenix with minimal equipment required.

The blade design was modified from existing designs on the internet using 6 inch diameter tubing with a blade length of three feet. The tubing was cut to length and quartered lengthwise. A small taper was cut into the blade to serve as the leading edge. Once cut, the blades were sanded to form rounded corners and leading and trailing edges.  The components of the design were made of recycled and cheap materials. A used saw blade was purchased to serve as the central hub to mount the blades to the generator. The tail was fabricated from sheet metal and scrap tubing purchased from a junkyard. The wood for the main body was donated from a local construction site. A motor was purchased from the Mercado Oriental, Central America’s largest market, with the help of “runners” and a fellow Nicaraguan Asofenix worker. We were unable to successfully describe the type of motor needed and the motor purchased was unsuitable for use as a generator.

Further research showed that the types of motors best suited for wind generators (permanent magnet DC motors) could be easily found used in the U.S. from items such as old tape drives, treadmills, or washing machines. None of these items, however, are prevalent in Nicaragua. In addition, due to the culture of re-use until broken, it is difficult to locate a used motor for sale that is still serviceable.

We met with a professor of wind energy at another UNI campus who had tried to make wind generators for years without success. Many student-made models were scattered around his trailer-based office but the only wind generator in service was a purchased unit from the U.S., which was spinning above his office. Reassured that it was indeed difficult to produce such wind generators in a country with the necessary resources, we decided to find a suitable motor to serve as a proof-of-concept. A 12-volt fan from a bus was located and used for preliminary testing.

Testing the Wind Generator

Testing the Wind Generator

The “testing” involved holding the assembled unit above our heads in the back of a pickup truck while driving down the road. The voltage was read with a multimeter while driving at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. With the small motor we were only able to achieve just over one volt but the blades did prove to spin rapidly and serve well. When a proper motor can be located (it will possibly be imported with a future volunteer) the design can be implemented to serve to charge batteries as desired.

BIODIGESTOR

We also installed a biodigestor in Candelaria to provide biogas for cooking for one household. The current cooking practices involve carrying large limbs miles to the home and cutting them into smaller pieces to be used as firewood. This system results in additional physical labor, deforestation, and indoor air pollution.

With a biogas digester, animal manure is processed through anaerobic digestion by bacteria into biogas composed of 70% methane. This gas is then piped into the home for use with a gas stove. The waste matter from the system is a sterile liquid, which can be used as an organic fertilizer.  The particular design we used is called the “salchicha,” or sausage, in Central America as it involves a large sausage-like plastic bag open on both ends.

Working with the family, we first laid out the footprint for the biodigester basin. We then excavated the hole and shaped the walls as desired. A reservoir was created to serve as the entrance for the slurry as well as an exit reservoir to contain the fertilizer. The walls were then lined with rocks and cement to form a barrier with the soil.

The plastic bag measured 4 meters long with a width of 2.5 meters (doubled over). A small hole was cut in the top of the bag to serve as the outlet for the biogas. A hollow plastic male fitting on the outside of the bag was screwed into a female connection on the inside with a set of washers and rubber squares between to serve as a sandwich connection to the bag. The bag was connected to the inlet and outlet tubes, which were four inch diameter PVC tubing. Semi-truck inner tubes were cut into strips and wrapped around the bag, which was pleated to fit snugly around the tubing. The completed setup was placed in the hole and outlet tube covered with dirt.

Building the Biodigestor

Building the Biodigestor

Before leaving the village upon completion, instructions were given to fill the bag with manure and water with a ratio of two to one. Approximately two cubic meters of slurry were needed to fill the bag. Upon returning to the village we discovered that one of the valves had been left open and all gas that had been produced had escaped the chamber leaving a deflated bag. Upon reassuring the villagers that the design did work, they continued to fill the bag daily. Although we did see much activity such as bubbles seeping through the mixture, the bag did not fill in my two days that I had left in the village. The design takes approximately one week to produce enough gas to fill the bag but provides enough gas to cook daily once it is operating.

PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT

My experience was some of the most interesting and personally gratifying time I have ever spent. During my eleven weeks in Nicaragua, I got a glimpse of what it is like to live in a third-world country, a life that closely resembles most of the world. Although the lives of the people of Nicaragua may not be glamorous by U.S. standards, I believe they live a satisfying life on a personal level. The pace of life is less stressful, family ties are stronger, and the people are generally grateful for what they do have.

During my first three or so visits to the village I did experience a bit of culture shock. Each time I went back to the village, I would be more used to the lifestyle but new things would keep coming up that were extremely different than the life we are used to. With time however, bucket showers, latrines, animals in the house, wood-fire kitchens, and beds made of plastic fabric seemed normal and somewhat comforting with each visit.

My Spanish skills were poor at best when I arrived in Nicaragua. Over my time in the country I was forced to improve my skills just to communicate with my host family. Although somewhat frustrating at times, like a game of charades, my Spanish skills developed extremely. Although not always perfect, I was able to successfully participate in meetings, conduct surveys, and work alongside native Nicaraguans with little or no problems communicating whatever desired. As these skills developed, I was also able to form a relationship with my host-family and fellow workers.

I developed a strong understanding of the Nicaraguan way of life, values, and culture. I became deeply immersed in their lifestyle, sometimes shedding my American idea of things. At one point, a fellow volunteer and I refused to rent bicycles for U.S. $2.50 because they were charging us too much. In hindsight, $2.50 is nothing with U.S. spending habits, but for the lifestyle we were used to it seemed ridiculous. When we did happen to see tourists from other parts of the world, they seemed to stick out much more than us.

Seeing the excitement of the villagers with our projects was very encouraging and rewarding. During our survey of Sunzapote we discovered that only women and girls carried the water to the homes by buckets weighing forty pounds. When asked why they wanted this project in their village, we got a variety of responses but nearly all were with a smile. Women were excited to be able to spend more time with the children, taking care of the house, or taking a minute to relax from their hard-working days. I am positive that this project will improve the lives of everyone in the village and is one large step towards improving their living conditions.

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David Hauth, an intern for Green Empowerment, is working in Nicaragua with AsoFenix on a number of renewable energy projects. He reflects on his time in Nicaragua as well as some exciting new projects he has seen installed, including a biodigestor.

Community Members from Sonzapote

Community Members from Sonzapote

It’s almost been 6 months since I left my comfortable Midwestern home for a year long internship/volunteer placement in Nicaragua. And as I sit here in the nearly roadless, lightless heart of Boaco, without electricity, running water (much less hot) or many of the comforts I did, and most likely will again in the future, take for granted I can’t help but reflect on my time here and the experiences I’ve had. I arrived as a very excited and, for the most part, clueless gringo from the US, who had dreams and fantasies about the grandeur and importance and rewards of volunteer work. Time has stoked those dreams with the stark need I’ve seen, shaped them with a education only achievable by experience and tempered them with a cold dose of patience and reality, of what can be accomplished, what doesn’t work and what just needs time. In the end a more resourceful person writes this blog. A person more prepared for the ambiguity and difficulty of work in the developing world. A difficulty that stems from general inaccessibility of resources, illiteracy of communities and, at times, indifference of leaders. Yet also I’m more prepared for the difficulties because I know, I’ve seen first hand, that communities do come together, the uneducated can and want to learn, and when, not if, this happens great things are accomplished.

Cleaning Newly Installed Solar Panels

Cleaning Solar Panels

Like a solar water pumping system in a community called Sonzapote. A community of over 300 people where the women and girls of over half the families had to carry water from the public well up a 60 meter (200 ft) “hill” in 5 gallon buckets 5 or more times a day. I saw the leaders of this community, men from fiercely rival political parties, Feliciano a Sandinista and Juan Pablo a Liberale, work together at a time when the country is cursed by broken elections, an untrusted government and very uncertain political future. But instead of letting this environment break them apart they came together, for their family, for their community and for their friendship. They came together to organize their community to take ownership of their project by digging the ditches, carrying the 100 bags of cement up the “hill,” building their water tank and installing their solar panels . They continue to show ownership by offering community technicians who want to be trained in how to maintenance and care for their systems. And finally we know they will always have ownership because, with the help of Asofenix, they have formed a committee to oversee the operation of the system, collect monthly fees for future maintenance needs that are sure to come and address community conflicts or problems as they arise.

Other great things are happening too.  Like the development of Asofenix’s own biodigestor projects.

Biodigestor Installation

Biodigestor Installation

These projects, of which two are now installed and operating, capture animal waste (cow, pig, human, goat, etc) and through an anerobic process can produce enough cooking gas to completely offset the cooking traditionally done by using firewood harvested from already deforested areas.  This saves hundreds of trees a year as well as the lungs of the women cooking the meals.  In addition the waste product happens to be enriched organic fertilizer.  All this for an average cost of $300. Many times the problem is getting families to believe it’s possible.  For example, talking with La Chica in Bramadero after the installation of her system:

Cooking with the newly installed biodigestor

Cooking with the newly installed biodigestor

“They all thought I was crazy for doing it.  ‘You can’t cook with shit’ they told me.  But I didn’t listen.  I believed Jaime.” Luckily for her neighbors they’ll have a chance to change their minds, as a group of engineers from Northwestern College’s branch of “Engineers for a Sustainable World,” led by Green Empowerment will be coming down in March to help install 10 more systems.

And there are also solar irrigation projects, like the one in the house of Jose Felix, which allows farmers to grow crops in the hot, dry summers when the land rarely sees rain.  Jose was born in Boaco, a poor agricultural department of Nicaragua.  He never went to school, being that there were only 3 in the entire department.  Instead he started working at the age of 12, leaving for a textile job in Managua.  His hard work allowed him to buy his first “manzana” of land (100 ft x 100 ft) at the age of 14. It wasn’t to last though as the war forced him to flee back to his home, hiding from Sandinistas and Somozas both.  After the war he settled down on his land and began his life as a farmer.  But still he made time for his education, teaching himself how to read through adult literacy classes located over an hour from his community and the help of an US volunteer.  Now his son is the local elementary teacher and attending classes at the university.  Jose never asked for help from Asofenix but saw a solar irrigation project as a great opportunity, to make money yes, but also as an opportunity to bring his family together. Now many of his children depart during the summer to cut coffee in Costa Rica.  This could change if they had their own crops to harvest.

Installing a Wind Turbine

Installing a Wind Turbine

These are just a few examples of the work being done and the progress I’ve seen.  There are many others that Asofenix is currently working on, including small wind energy, improved efficiency cooking stoves and 2 micro-hydro projects which will provide over 75 kW of renewable electricity to the communities of La Laguna  and El Roblar.  These projects are to start in February and I hope to provide ongoing coverage as the work progresses and the results become clear.  Work that is usually challenging but with results that are always inspiring.

An Excited Young Boy

An Excited Young Boy

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