Matchmaker For Volunteers and Nonprofits
Holly founded Indigo Volunteers to connect organizations needing help with those who wish to serve. A decade later she has an incredible story.
We live in an age where we're constantly being flooded with information.
The news cycle moves rapidly, and every new crisis seems to bury the last one.
But, a problem doesn't end just because it's stopped grabbing headlines.
And the people who are suffering continue to suffer for years or even decades afterward, perhaps long after the world's forgotten about it.
Our guest, Holly Penalver, knows this all too
She is the founder of Indigo Volunteers, an organization that places people who wish to help with humanitarian projects. Most of their placements are in refugee camps.
In fact, since the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016 flooded Southern and Eastern Europe with refugees, Indigo has placed thousands of volunteers in camps across Greece, Serbia, Bosnia, Poland, and more.
In this episode, Holly will share…
- Her firsthand experience learning how difficult - and expensive - volunteering can be.
- How helping refugees has changed since COVID and the war in Ukraine.
- What people don't understand about refugees.
- What it's really like inside of a refugee camp.
- Why so many charities today are struggling to find volunteers.
- How she's seen the best in people through her work - and the lasting impression that's left on her.
I admire how Holly just rose up and took on this
challenge. She felt the call to serve in her heart, and then discovered work
that needed to be done.
Although she didn't know anything about how to launch or run a nonprofit at first, she found a way to do it. She's dedicated more than the past 10 years of her life to it.
Hers is a great story of generosity seeing a need and filling it.
- How the idea for Indigo came from her own firsthand experience in discovering how difficult - and expensive - volunteering can be (9:15)
- How the work of helping refugees has changed with major global events like COVID and the war in Ukraine (26:13)
- What people don't understand about refugees and their lives in the camps (4:18)
- Why so many charities today are struggling (15:13)
- How she's seen the best in people through her work - and the lasting impression that's left on her (23:08)
FRANK BLAKE: So Holly, it is terrific. Thank you very much for joining us on Crazy Good Turns. Welcome.
Great to have you on the podcast.
HOLLY PENALVER: Yes, it's really a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
FRANK BLAKE: So I want to jump right in the middle of things because we'll get to Indigo and what you do, but you have seen so much of the world and the world in crisis, and particularly around refugee crises.
What is it that you think people either misunderstand or don't fully appreciate about these crises?
HOLLY PENALVER: I suppose one of the most common questions that comes up is why don't people stay in the first safe country? Why do they keep moving on?
That's such ... and it's a really interesting question and it's a valid question.
But then if you actually delve into any of the statistics, if you look at the bordering countries of the most common countries where people are fleeing from, they do, they take the vast majority of people.
In the UK, we get the smallest percentage.
And I think people don't realize that, and especially with the media, the newspapers here are really terrible with the language they use, like swarms of boats coming over and things.
And actually it's just the most inaccurate terminology you can
So I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that people don't go to the first safe country because as I say, that really the vast majority do.
But there's also so many reasons.
There might be family ties, language ties, there's lots of personal reasons why people want to go.
And I always say to people, well, okay, maybe our first safe country might be France, but what if the whole of the UK went to France?
But you don't know French, but Spanish, you'd go to Spain, you'd carry on.
So you know, you just have to think about it, if it were you, what would you do?
And also another fun one that comes up a lot is how do these people have mobile phones? How do they have money?
And it's another really interesting one that again, it's not that people don't have money, it's that they could just be a normal working person and their country's at war.
Well of course they're going to ... the first thing you're going
to take, if it were you, you'd grab your phone.
So of course people travel with their phones and so I think they're the two most common ones I come across.
But there's a lot of misconceptions and misunderstanding. One last one is that it's all men.
And again, I understand that from some of the images that the media publish.
But yeah, it's definitely not all men, it's women and children as well.
I've been in so many different locations across so many different refugee camps and it's vast majority families in a lot of them.
FRANK BLAKE: I'm curious as you look at the way volunteers and
people who want to do for others as they interact with these crises, do you see
a missed timing, so that you get a flood of people trying to help out early on,
but the problems actually are more six months to a year later?
Or does that not happen?
HOLLY PENALVER: Yeah, completely accurate.
I think one of the big problems we see is exactly that.
When it's in the news, we get a flood of applications.
If you think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, well we were inundated with people wanting to help.
And one of the big messages we tried to send out was, we have so much of support, could you please try and hold onto this feeling?
And if you can wait just a handful of months also come and help then because help will still be needed then.
But once it becomes normalized, people go back to their normal lives and there's a new thing in the news, and people redirect their mind elsewhere, which I fully understand, but that doesn't mean that four or five months later the problem's gone away.
Of course, it's still ongoing and we've seen this time and time and time again, when there's a flurry of activity somewhere, people flood there and then in a short while later it's gone.
And another one is the summer holidays.
It's great because people have a bit more time over the summer, we get a flood of applications, but my God, the winter months are so tough, as you can imagine in camps, the conditions are so much harder in the winter in many ways.
And we have far less volunteers then.
And so yeah, there's lots of mistiming.
FRANK BLAKE: There's only so much you can control.
So you founded Indigo Volunteers, which connects volunteers with organizations serving refugees and migrants.
And I'm always interested in what the founding story is, how did you come from what you were doing before to do something so dramatic and helpful to the world?
HOLLY PENALVER: I had this idea that I wanted to volunteer.
I studied psychology as a bachelor's, and afterwards I wanted to do my gap year and volunteer as part of it.
FRANK BLAKE: And the gap year is the year between what the U.S. we'd call high school and college?
HOLLY PENALVER: No, I think it's funny because don't, it's
definitely a European term, I think.
So a gap year, you can do it before university or after.
Generally. It's just a year before you kind of start your next big thing or your career.
And it can even be six months, but you just take a chunk of time.
FRANK BLAKE: Yeah, chunk gap. Yeah,
HOLLY PENALVER: There's a gap of education.
And I started researching for volunteer placements, and the only things I found were, yeah, you can come here for 3 or $4,000 to teach in a school.
And I just found it so layered and complicated with problems.
First of all, I'm not a teacher and I didn't have any teacher ... I knew I had some skills, but it wasn't teaching English, that's for sure.
And I also didn't understand where that money was going.
And from when I asked, I was really direct with these companies, they said, well, yeah, we're a profit organization.
Some of them kept all the money, some of them, few of them gave 10% to the communities.
But at the same time, it just didn't make any sense to me.
It just seemed very irresponsible.
And so that's when I had the idea, surely there needs to be a responsible volunteering organization out there.
And then I thought, okay, I'm just going to take some time and
think about this.
I was a personal assistant to a nurse that was the head of these six hospitals and I ended up training, I was inspired to train to become a pediatric nurse.
And the same thing happened where I wanted to use my nursing skills abroad.
And the only companies that I could find were charging me so much money, and the company-
FRANK BLAKE: Charging you money?
HOLLY PENALVER: Charging me so much money to volunteer.
And even the university that I was at, Kings College in London, the companies they got in to talk to us about volunteering with our nursing were all charging money.
And I thought, come on, this is just a recurring theme.
So I basically just took a gamble, did a ton of research myself, found a placement directly, a very small charity in Malawi in East Africa that would accept me and a couple of my nursing friends.
Obviously there was no middleman company involved. I went directly to the charity.
We worked there and I discovered that they really needed volunteers, they really needed help.
And I know a lot of people heard what I was doing was like, I want to do that.
And I just thought, all I need to do is set up a platform that connects the charities that need help and the people who wants to help, who want to help, and not charge any money.
And so that's where Indigo was born.
FRANK BLAKE: And what year is this?
HOLLY PENALVER: Oh God, we're going back.
I think 20, 2010, I went to Malawi, 2011.
And I came back and I did my nursing a bit more, got a bit more experience in nursing.
But it was really 2012 where I thought, no, I've really got to go
And I had to make a tough decision.
Around that time, I went part-time at nursing already, hadn't been nursing full-time for all too long, and I couldn't afford to live in London anymore, so I had to move back home with my mom.
And some point in this time I also got married and my then-husband had to come with me. And yeah, it was just setting up the charity, had to make a lot of big decisions like that, but to me it was ...
I didn't even think twice about it.
I was like, of course I just have to do this. I have to do this. This is so needed.
FRANK BLAKE: And so it was entirely supported by donations?
If you're not charging the volunteers for the charities, this is entirely ... and was that, I mean, did it start off, did you have supporters at the start?
How do you raise money if you don't mind my asking?
HOLLY PENALVER: I think, well a lot of it was volunteer hours to
start, that's for sure.
That's why I had to move home because I was doing minimal shifts as a nurse and kind of living off that money.
But then, yeah, we just did some fundraising events.
We had some really great friends that did a couple of events for us, and one night we raised 8,000 pounds and I was so surprised, that's a lot of money for a brand new charity, and just these kinds of things happened.
And then we got a little grant from elsewhere and it came in dribs and drabs, but we kept surviving.
But never too far ahead, never more than six months of money ahead.
And on the honeymoon, when I was married, we made our honeymoon a field visit around East Africa to visit more potential partners.
So we kind of tried to combine things as much as possible. We made our holidays always a working trip actually.
With the refugee crisis in 2015 and in 2016 I went to Greece very
frequently to help and volunteer there. And then it was just a disaster.
It was just so overwhelming and so many people in volunteering in misusing their time in the wrong places.
You'd have teachers that were doing warehouse work and carpenters teaching and it was just so disorganized and chaotic and people just literally turning up without planning anything in advance, they would just turn up.
And so in the end, I ended up being a coordinator for volunteers in the northern Greece area, and just trying to match the grassroots partners that we knew, and with the volunteers that were turning up.
So Indigo was working kind of in many countries around the world, but I was on the ground in northern Greece.
And what we ended up having to do is because we didn't have enough resource, we had to pause and I still call it pause, we have stopped it.
I'm still thinking hopefully one day we can help them again, our support with finding volunteers elsewhere around the world and just focus purely on the European refugee route because the need was just so great.
And so that's how we ended up going from nursing in Malawi to refugee work.
FRANK BLAKE: And obviously been doing this for more than 10 years.
Is it starting… Do you feel like this is now getting pretty established and you're set?
Or is it still, gee, I can't see more than a few months ahead.
HOLLY PENALVER: Always like that.
Yeah, I think charities all over are struggling.
From what I understand, it's really hard for charities and I feel like we're very established in terms of people, well in the field, they know of us and we're quite a well respected organization, and people know of our work in the field.
But at the same time, financially we are not well established.
And I think when you are a relatively small charity, it is really hard, especially because we aren't the ones saying, hey, can we have this grant?
We are giving food to refugees directly. We're giving sleeping bags.
What we are doing is giving people to enable those things to happen.
And also we're helping our partners develop organizationally, with capacity building and also creating lots of really important connections.
And that's really hard to put a value on, and we know it's value, but it's very hard to apply for grants with this setup.
So we have an extra challenge as well. And we're surviving, but it is sometimes quite hairy.
FRANK BLAKE: Is there anyone else who does what you do?
Because when you describe what you do, it sounds so powerful and obvious.
Just a way to direct volunteers to where the need is, and create effectively a marketplace for people who want to do good.
Is there anybody else who does something like this?
HOLLY PENALVER: I'm not aware of any other organization, and that
actually really saddens me because I never would see them as a competitor.
I would see them as a collaborator. And there is so much need.
We have a waiting list of 30 charities, and we can't get to them because we don't have the resources to support them right now.
And we have to focus on our current partners, which is about 48.
And I find that really sad because there's so much we could do, and we have really big ideas, but without the funding you can't implement them.
So yeah, as far as I'm aware, there's no other charity that is a responsible volunteering platform that's a matchmaking service exactly like that we offer.
FRANK BLAKE: So you have no problem getting the applicants from
the volunteers, and no problem finding people who need the volunteers.
It's basically the platform itself.
HOLLY PENALVER: But also volunteers are definitely, we don't have
enough, like I said to you, because of the news cycles, we definitely need more
volunteers in the field.
That's also a bit of a struggle.
And when people often say they want to help, they just don't know how and they don't know about us.
And once they find us, one of the biggest pieces of feedback we get is, "oh my God, I'm so glad I found you."
I really didn't know how to do this otherwise.
And so that's so nice to hear.
But it's about getting the word out and then inspiring people to take that step because of course people have jobs, people have commitments, they just need to have that kind of helping hand to make that step happen.
So yeah, there's lots of people that want to help and we just need to get the word out there a bit more
FRANK BLAKE: And who are your volunteers? Are your volunteers, I
assume mostly young?
Are they mostly European? Or are they all over the map?
HOLLY PENALVER: Mostly European, although we do get a bunch from
the U.S., which is lovely.
And again, the age category, mostly young, twenties and thirties.
However, we are trying to make an effort of targeting older audiences, because they are so great, they have so much knowledge and wisdom, and they often have a lot more time because maybe their kids are grown up and they don't have those constraints anymore.
So they're actually one of my favorite categories when I meet them in the field. I love older volunteers.
I just think it's amazing that because it is adventurous, I suppose when you get a bit older, you get a bit more comfortable and set in your ways, don't you?
I find that with myself. So it's really inspiring when I meet those people.
FRANK BLAKE: And what sort of work typically do your volunteers
If there is a way to describe typical work?
HOLLY PENALVER: Our partners do anything from food, shelter, legal
aid support, health, education, integration, language, absolutely anything.
So people often say to us as well, "I don't think I've got any skills to help. I don't think I can do this. I'm just a project coordinator in a company."
I'm like, "great. Because we desperately need project coordinators!"
Because of course if you're work ... a charity is just fundamentally an organization that does a kind of good output.
So you still have to run it.
And so we need project coordinators, we need administrative support.
So there's always things that people can do, but my goodness me, yeah, healthcare professionals, legal advisors, teachers, admin support, warehouse workers, even sometimes drivers, they just need drivers for things.
Transport aid, it's honestly, it's anything.
FRANK BLAKE: So if you look out both now and thinking six months
to a year from now, where are the greatest needs?
I mean, if somebody's listening to this and say, gee, I wonder where the need is and what kind of need might it be?
HOLLY PENALVER: That's a really good question.
I mean, obviously there could be an event that happens that I-
FRANK BLAKE: Unforeseen.
HOLLY PENALVER: ... right now.
But I would just say the situation for many refugees in Europe is they are stuck.
They're stuck in camps and they're stuck for years and-
FRANK BLAKE: For years in camps?
HOLLY PENALVER: Years.
Yeah, I mean I know people that have arrived in 2019 and they've had a letter saying your first interview is going to be 2023.
It can be that ridiculous for their first interview.
So they're stuck and they are unfortunately forgotten.
So I would actually say the biggest need is with people who are just often overseen and forgotten.
And in these Greek refugee camps, in Bosnia, in Serbia, in France, in Lebanon, in Turkey, just I can't see that going anywhere.
I can't see this situation being resolved in the next 12 months.
So I would honestly say that it's just still going to be needed there.
FRANK BLAKE: What kind of response do you get from the volunteers
Do they go, this is what I expected, this opened my eyes to things I never expected, or anything in between?
HOLLY PENALVER: Mostly people, I would say the vast majority, it's
more emotionally overwhelming than they could imagine and life changing than
they could imagine.
And we hear a lot of stories of people that have changed their careers, gone into humanitarian sector.
Because I think the nice thing about Indigo is that instead of quitting your job and going to work for the Red Cross and not knowing anything, what that could look like, you can do two months as a volunteer placement with us through us.
FRANK BLAKE: Is that a typical duration, two months or is it
sometimes two weeks?
What is a typical duration?
HOLLY PENALVER: It really depends on our partners.
We try and ... obviously the longer the better because then you have less turnover.
But there are some partners that do a couple of weeks, especially if it's food projects where that's quite a straight thing to induct on.
But yeah, the average time, oh I don't know our latest average time, but probably six weeks or something like that is the average.
And they come back and then they can do this taster, and then go off and maybe explore that bigger leap into the humanitarian career.
So that's a nice thing. They can get a little taste with us.
FRANK BLAKE: So you're quoted as saying that one of the things
about what you do is you get to see the best in people. Yeah.
I mean what's behind that comment? What are you seeing?
HOLLY PENALVER: Oh wow.
I see people giving a lot of their… lives dedicated for however long, weeks or months and sometimes years to complete strangers they don't know, but they want to help them.
They have no idea about these people, but they do know that the situation they're in isn't right. And they do know they deserve more.
And so they give up so much, and fly to Greece or whatever and they dedicate their time, money, and energy to pour love into this situation.
And that's what I mean when I say you see the best in people because the majority of news is quite harrowing.
And my experience of humans is actually they are beautiful and very kind.
FRANK BLAKE: Brilliant.
And I can imagine on the flip side of seeing the best in people, that it must also be incredibly draining, and a little and maybe depressing because you're seeing human beings in really horrible situations that just as you were saying, don't look like they're going to get any better, faster.
How do you deal with that part of the work? The draining, depressing part?
HOLLY PENALVER: Yeah, it's definitely become a lot harder since
I've had a child.
Everyone says you can become really more emotional. And I definitely have.
So before I had a child, he's two now, and I was working in the field for a number of years.
It's kind of like with my nursing, you are there to do a service and you kind of slightly ... not very successfully and not very much.
But you can slightly detach yourself because you are there, that's your role, your job is to do this and help these people in this way.
And I could do that to some extent.
And although it still sometimes got me and every now and again, I would just have a little breakdown and cry about something.
But on the whole, I feel I was quite resilient. And then post-child, it is a lot harder.
I definitely find things a lot harder and I cry a bit more than I did.
But I still feel okay, especially in my role.
Because I'm the CEO, I'm overseeing, I'm running an organization overseeing it, not as in the field anymore.
And I'm now based in the Netherlands.
That really, really helps with my wellbeing, because I do think it's healthy to only be exposed to secondary trauma and things so much, and you do need to have your own wellbeing, these breaks and things.
So yeah, I don't know how I cope with it really.
It's just speaking a lot to people, especially my partner who's also works in the same field.
We just speak a lot about it.
FRANK BLAKE: And I'm imagining, and this underscored by the age of
your child, COVID must have had an enormous impact.
I mean, I served on the board of an airline, and I know what happened to travel and I've got to believe that if that happened to regular travel, traveling to help out refugee crisis, crises must have just disappeared.
HOLLY PENALVER: Was really hard.
So I think we did two main things because there's always events, external events obviously out of your control and you have to evolve and adapt.
This was probably one of the hardest or the hardest ones we had to deal with.
So we tried to do a lot of support online.
So if for example, someone's going to go out and teach English or teach a certain skill, IT, anything, then we try to do this remotely and arrange these things.
Lots of training online.
And the second thing was encouraging people to stay longer because for a bunch of the time you could travel, you just have to quarantine a lot.
So instead of going for let's say four weeks, we would try and say to people, go for eight and then you can quarantine.
And so we actually tried to encourage it a longer duration for people and get around things that way as well.
But it was tough and we definitely had a big drop of volunteers purely for the fact that people couldn't travel easily.
FRANK BLAKE: And has it come back significantly since, do you see?
HOLLY PENALVER: Yeah, I would say it's definitely a lot better.
Of course people can now just jump on a flight again.
And so that's not a major barrier and there's no quarantining and that really helps.
FRANK BLAKE: So are you from a volunteer perspective about where you were in 2018 or 2019, or still low below that?
HOLLY PENALVER: I think a little below.
Just like I said from the news reasons, just not in people's minds.
And people don't know that boats are still arriving.
People don't know, people are stuck in camps. People don't know this.
So I think it's a really important thing. And actually people just don't know the stories and the humans behind these numbers.
And there's so many scaremongering stories.
I mean I heard one this morning from a family friend, they started saying a ridiculous story, racist story about refugees in the UK and I just walked away silently, people just don't know.
And that's hard.
FRANK BLAKE: So five years from now, where is Indigo? Where are you?
HOLLY PENALVER: That's a great question.
Well, actually we're speaking at a really interesting time because I've been running the charity for over a decade.
And I… when I went on maternity leave, funnily enough, my partner covered my maternity leave and he was saying, because he's worked exactly in this field with small grassroots charities working across Europe with refugees.
And he said to me, why do you do this and why do you do that?
And I said to him, maybe, I don't know.
And it's so funny because when you have fresh eyes on something, it is amazing.
And I'm very flexible and love to hear ideas and things.
So it was really good to hear all this feedback and for things to be kind of changed and improved.
And I'm at this stage now where I'm also looking to change from being the CEO and running things on a daily basis, to becoming more of an advisor.
I don't know whether that looks like a board position or a
consultancy, I don't know right now.
But to change my role, because I feel it's the right time for me just personally having done this particular role for so long.
But also the right time for Indigo because I know I have strengths, but I also know I have weaknesses.
And I feel that it's so healthy for the charity to see what someone else, like hand the baton over and still be there and guide and support because I'm not going far.
I still want to stay on, as I say, in an advisory capacity, but to just hand it on and let someone else take the reins and see how they flourish.
FRANK BLAKE: So an unfair question, but because I'm sure all of your organizations that you work with are great, is there one that you just say, this is so amazing every time I interact with them?
HOLLY PENALVER: I will tell you one, there's One Happy Family in
Lesbos, and well, that's one of the islands where boats arrive and they do
phenomenal work and they had a garden project and I didn't realize how
significant gardening would be, because of course it's not my thing.
So I don't think of it anyway as, oh, I set up a garden project.
Because if it's not your personal passion, sometimes it's hard to think others might really enjoy this.
But of course many people do.
But when I spoke to the lady running it, she said, you know how significant it can be, when people plant something, it needs time to grow.
And it's almost like an acceptance that they're going to be there for a little while.
And I found that it gives me goosebumps even now and makes me a bit emotional because gardening, that's so true.
You plant something and you grow it, and you have to see it every day and you have to water it every day.
And that is crossing a psychological line that, okay, I'm not leaving tomorrow from here, I'm going to be here a while and I'm going to be stuck here.
So that was a surprise for me actually.
FRANK BLAKE: That's a wonderful example.
So we always ask our guests on the podcast for an example of someone who's done a crazy good term for you, something extraordinarily kind for you.
HOLLY PENALVER: Oh my God, where do I start?
My whole life revolves around people doing extraordinary things to support me so I can help others.
Honestly, it is very difficult to choose.
This is probably a bit cheesy, but I probably have to say that it's years and years of support from my partner collated, collected.
And he has had his own roles, which are 70, 80 hour weeks in the field.
And still I have started a charity with zero experience of starting a charity. I needed a lot of help.
And he has been up with me at 12 at midnight, at one in the morning, helping me figure out a big problem, helping me work out why, how do I mend this relationship?
How do I word this particular thing for this very important email I need to send out?
How do I just ... and when you collect all these things together, I don't know how I would've survived without him really.
I would have been an absolute mess.
FRANK BLAKE: And then one other question just, is there a response
from one of your volunteers that stands out in your mind of ... because the
you're in an interesting world where you both are making a difference for the
refugees, but also making a difference for your volunteers.
Where a volunteer has come to you and said, you have no idea the impact you've made on my life.
HOLLY PENALVER: Yeah. Yeah.
I actually got it a couple of days ago.
I probably get on average, like a message a week like this, and they're very, very moving and I always have to take a moment to really soak it in.
And it's very motivating for me because a lot of the time I'm behind my computer and it is difficult not being in the field anymore.
So this, they're so nice and so thoughtful and I got one literally on LinkedIn a couple of days ago just saying, hey, I am ...
I helped this lady volunteer in Bosnia when I was working there at a refugee family shelter.
I helped place her there and she said, I'm now with the Red Cross in Lithuania because of Indigo, because of you, because you placed me in Bosnia, and this inspired me and now I'm doing it as my career, as my life, and I'm so happy.
10 out of 10 happy with my job.
And I thought, wow that's incredible. Yeah, and they're very lucky to have her.
FRANK BLAKE: That's terrific.
Where should our listeners go to learn more about Indigo, to learn more about you?
HOLLY PENALVER: Yeah.
Well I'm now a LinkedIn-er, I wasn't until recently, so yeah, you can find me on LinkedIn. My name's Holly Penalver, and I would also say to go on our website, Indigovolunteers.org.
On our Instagram if you're an Instagrammer. Then I'm also on Instagram.
So just I'm sure we can leave some details, just all over the place. Indigo's I think on every platform and I'm on most platforms, so.
FRANK BLAKE: Great.
Well this has been a great privilege talking to you and thank you so much for what you're doing, and the difference you're making it's really extraordinary.
So thank you.
HOLLY PENALVER: Thank you. It's been so wonderful speaking and
sharing all this.
From Frank Blake
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