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    This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

     

    Her posture collapses, from attentive to the slope of a frown. Her normally chipper tone shifts low. She’s remaining calm and professional, absorbing gale-force frustrations from a middle school administrator. It’s a subtle retreat. Giselle Danger-Mercaderes, the homeless-education coordinator for Jefferson County Public Schools, bundles the plight of the district’s 6,448 homeless students as her own. In about an hour, after this meeting, the 30-year-old will sit in her car and sigh: “I feel so bad for this child. So bad.”

    This child — a boy, a 15-year-old with wide brown eyes and marker doodles on his hands, repeating the seventh grade for the third time. He’s the reason this meeting is taking place. The administrator gives her synopsis: button-pusher, content with sleeping through school, inappropriate language, disrespectful. Since last spring he has spent a majority of his days isolated in a “transition” center — a white cement-block room with dim lighting and a storage closet’s charm. A teacher projects lessons on the wall and dedicates her time to only him. Still, he’s failing nearly everything but an arts class he loves. “We just don’t know what to do with him,” the administrator concludes. And is he really homeless? She wonders. The boy’s been talking about living in a new house. 

    Mercaderes knows the boy’s history — mental illness, unstable housing, victim of bullying. Under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act, he qualifies as homeless because he has bounced from shelter to friends’ houses to doubling up with relatives. With that status, he has the right to stay in the school he was enrolled in despite having recently moved yet again. But as Mercaderes listens to the administrator and tours the transition center, she’s conflicted. Maybe this isn’t the best place for him. She leaves, promising another meeting with Mom and Grandma. “I’m a little upset,” she says once in her car, placing her laptop in the backseat. “They don’t want him there. I’d want to make sure my kid is treated with respect. I didn’t see that there.”

    This moment inside her black SUV captures the heart she brings to her work. Her backbone, that’s another matter. In 2005, Mercaderes arrived in Louisville as a 19-year-old Cuban refugee with her father. Her mother and a sister, both of whom she is quite close to, stayed behind in Cuba for a few years. One of their first days in Kentucky, Mercaderes and her father walked up and down Broadway, an unfamiliar winter chill stinging their limbs, looking for the Social Security building. Neither spoke English. Strangers would pass but Mercaderes and her father couldn’t cobble together the words needed to ask for directions. On that day, without the simple comforts of a winter coat and common language, Mercaderes made a promise to herself: “Some day my life is going to be different.” Since then, she has conquered English and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Louisville. She took over the job as homeless-education coordinator about two years ago. And charged toward controversy. Perhaps this is a good point to mention that Mercaderes prefers to go by Giselle Danger. (Who wouldn’t?) It’s what she writes on nametags and is often how she introduces herself.

    Between the years of 2009 and 2013, JCPS’s homeless student population soared — from about 8,500 in 2009 to 10,555 in 2010. Perhaps the recession was to blame, but by 2013 the number ballooned to 12,730. It seemed staggering, hopeless. Local reporters dedicated a number of “special reports” to the matter. But Mercaderes looked closely at the numbers. Something wasn’t right. The Kentucky Department of Education clearly indicated that only students awaiting foster-care placement should be counted as homeless. JCPS had been counting all children in foster care as homeless. The number was inflated in other ways too, by including kids housed in mental-health facilities, for example. By Mercaderes’ count, the number of homeless students for the 2013-2014 school year totaled closer to 7,000 — still a large number but nearly half of previous years. She says she heard from a few nonprofits that relied on the larger figure for grants. Some district and state officials fretted this sudden drop would reflect poorly on them. One nonprofit leader described the reaction to Mercaderes’ recalculation as, “What the heck was going on?” Mercaderes held firm. Her count was right. Focusing on kids who really need assistance would lead to a stronger program. Never mind that her department’s funding has since dropped dramatically, in part due to the smaller count.

    None of that is top of mind right now. The 15-year-old, he has Mercaderes in knots. “How can someone look at this child and not want to help him?” she wonders. A mother of two small children herself, with a longtime love who’s often on the road as a truck driver, Mercaderes has plenty of obligations. But she opens herself to 6,448 more. “School might be the only stable place they have,” she says. The 15-year-old’s situation is messy. He needs to pass seventh grade. He needs a good mental-health evaluation. He has the right to stay at his current school, but a change may be best. Before Mercaderes leaves the school’s parking lot, she looks ahead. “We will have a plan for this baby,” she says. 

    Mercaderes, a woman of petite frame, round cheeks and stylish dress, starts most days at JCPS’s headquarters in the Newburg neighborhood. Her office building is the peculiar one behind the main brick box that resembles an overturned strawberry carton. Her windowless, artificially bright office squeezes in three desks and a meeting table. Two empty desks document the two vacant clerk positions Mercaderes desperately wants to fill. It’s late August, a few weeks into the school year. Mercaderes is the sole employee of the homeless-education department. 

    One woman in charge of 6,000-plus kids. “I would say it’s not doable,” she says in between phone calls. This morning it rings every three to five minutes. The start of the school year is reliably chaotic, with attendance clerks combing over paperwork to confirm enrolled students fall into proper geographic boundaries. On Mercaderes’ desk, a reminder in bold letters and a black frame: “THEY TOLD ME I COULDN’T, THAT’S WHY I DID.” 

    The phone rings. “Homeless education, this is Giselle. How can I help you?” she answers in a sing-song accent, a trademark of Cubans from her native Santiago. She wants to change the department’s name. Stigma drips from that word — homeless. Some parents are scared away. They may be in tough times, but homeless? She’s tossed out something along the lines of the McKinney-Vento Eligible Department. But what a mouthful. “OK, OK. Oh, wow. What hotel are you residing at now?” she asks. “One thing I will tell you, I understand living in transition.”

    Mercaderes’ fingers tap at her laptop as she listens, sending an email to the transportation department, requesting a bus for the student who’d like to stay in her current school despite moving. The phone call could take three or four minutes. Mercaderes doesn’t pry too much. But callers often spill out details — domestic violence, an eviction, lost job. “I feel like maybe they feel a little shame about the situation they are in...so they have to explain,” Mercaderes says. “But it can happen to anyone.”

    By the office door, a stack of about 100,000 sheets of paper stands as tall as a kindergartner — residency forms from each JCPS student for this school year. By late September, her department must read over each form to pick out kids who might qualify as homeless. A white board with thirteen names occupies a nearby wall. The 15-year-old boy’s name was added the day before when his mom came to her office in tears because the school wanted to transfer him. These “white board kids” in blue ink indicate unresolved cases, kids caught up in bureaucratic congestion. 

    JCPS slices Jefferson County into “resides” zones. Based on residency, students get assigned schools in their zone. When a child suddenly presents a new address, a temporary address, maybe no address at all, the orderly system can snarl. 
    The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, originally passed under a 

    different name in the late 1980s, was the first — and remains the only — major federal legislation addressing homelessness. It funds a range of services, from supportive housing to education. Under the law, a homeless student is defined as one who is sharing housing due to economic hardship, living in a motel, trailer, campground, shelter or other inappropriate place like a car or park, awaiting foster care, without a parent or guardian, or abandoned in a hospital. That’s a lot of commas for one definition. Many in the district don’t fully understand who qualifies. Nor do they grasp the realities of that world.

    Just this morning Mercaderes says she received an email from JCPS’s transportation department questioning a student’s homeless status. Someone caught wind of the family going through a home inspection. The email’s sentiment: How is a family that is having a home inspection to buy a house in any way homeless? She wrote back, explaining the family is trying to move out of a shelter into transitional housing. Due to evictions in the past, a housing inspection is required before approval for a transitional apartment. These misunderstandings occur almost daily.

    Mercaderes is pushing to make McKinney-Vento training mandatory for the entire district. Currently, it’s optional. It would make her job easier. Parents would benefit too. “So when they go to a school and tell the clerk they’re McKinney-Vento eligible, the clerk doesn’t look at them and say, ‘What?’” Mercaderes says. Homeless students earn a handful of rights, like getting to plant roots at a school despite a nomadic home life. A student who shows up new to the district must immediately enroll. No need to wait for vaccination records or other paperwork. 

    Before Mercaderes gets off the phone, she registers the family for free lunch and fee waivers for school activities like field trips. The clock in her office reads 9:30 a.m. She’s running late. She agreed to meet the 15-year-old’s grandma and mom at their house at 9:30. She grabs her brown leather purse and laptop, passing by the 100,000 forms that weigh on her to-do list. She doesn’t have time for home visits. But she used to work as a social worker with Child Protective Services and Seven Counties Services, a provider of behavioral health support and treatment. She knows complex family struggles take effort to resolve. “If I don’t make those home visits and have those face-to-face interactions,” she says, “a family just will not trust us enough to tell us what is going on in their lives.”

    Mercaderes has scouted out some help. When she came on board at JCPS, she formed a partnership with U of L’s Kent School of Social Work. Graduate students need experience for class, so Mercaderes puts students to work as case managers for homeless students a few days a week. No cost to the department. A layer of support for vulnerable kids. John Marshall, JCPS’ chief equity officer and Mercaderes’ boss, loved it. “I wanted an advocate for homeless students rather than a compliance officer,” Marshall says. “I would like for parents who are in fragile housing to see our department as a support.”

    In talking with individuals who work with Louisville’s homeless community, it’s clear JCPS’ homeless-education department has always been a helpful resource, but Mercaderes came in full of forward momentum. “I think she took what we had and made it everything it could be,” says Beth White, the director of programs at St. Vincent de Paul. “And that’s what she’s done since day one. She’s just got drive.” 

    A brief list of accomplishments: adding school bus stops so homeless students could get to educational after-school programs, improving police presence near a family shelter where kids were getting bullied, securing funds for more tutors, providing TARC tickets to transportation-lacking parents wanting to attend sports games and parent-teacher conferences, translating residency forms into other languages to better assess need. (In 2013, when JCPS counted more than 12,000 homeless students, only 4.5 percent were Hispanic. After translating the forms into Spanish, Mercaderes identified 14.2 percent of last year’s 6,448 homeless students as Hispanic.)

    She parks outside the 15-year-old boy’s two-story white house in west Louisville that he and some relatives are temporarily staying in. Outside, cicadas buzz under late-summer heat. Mercaderes knocks on the door. A woman in animal-print pants opens it. A bun holds back her gray hair, exposing her tired face. The house is empty, not one piece of furniture except for a pink ExerSaucer that keeps a baby girl contained and bouncing. Upstairs, the boy’s brother, who is suspended from school, plays hip-hop at a house-party decibel. Without furniture, bass vibrations tumble about the openness. Floors and walls tremble.

    “Hello!” Mercaderes sings over the music. “Thank you for having me.” The boy’s mother just left for a court appointment. Mercaderes stands in the front hallway talking with his grandmother, who is his legal guardian. “Last year they acted like it was OK he was going to be there,” the grandma begins. “Then the first day of school this year, it was like they didn’t want him there.” The grandmother scoops up the baby girl, who has started whining. Mercaderes nods and listens. “He was in the office all day,” the grandmother says, referring to earlier this week when her grandson’s enrollment confusion left him sitting among administrators, no schoolwork to occupy the time.

    Working in a school system the size of JCPS seems to knead the plain truth out of people. When asked whether she thinks some principals question the homeless status of students due to behavioral or academic challenges, Mercaderes doesn’t hesitate. “Yes,” she says with refreshing honesty. “For the longest time, I thought, ‘No, that’s just me.’ But it’s pretty evident when it’s closer to KPREP testing. That is when I get all my calls from principals…and I can look (at the student records) and see — ah, I know why you’re calling. I do have some good principals though.” 

    That may not be what’s happening with the 15-year-old. But Mercarderes is quite concerned that he’s in the seventh grade for the third time. “Do you think he needs extra tutoring?” Mercaderes asks. “He might,” the grandmother replies. “He needs it, but he’s not gonna get it,” the boy’s brother chimes in, as he runs down the stairs, kisses his grandma on the cheek and heads out the front screen door on his way to a corner store.

    Homeless or not, all students are expected to learn and behave. School structure rarely bends for unfortunate circumstances, be it food insecurity, no electricity, or cramming into rooms with relatives where no quiet corner to study exists. “A lot of homeless students have had so much loss, as they’ve gone from place to place,” says Jayne Harbin-Pettit, the children’s-services coordinator at Volunteers of America’s family shelter. “They’ve lost toys, pets, different things…. A lot of children have missed school because of their homelessness.” Schools and shelters can offer some support. At Shelby Traditional Academy, an elementary school with more than 80 homeless children among its 700 students, the Family Resource Center has a shower, towels and clothes for students. VOA offers group and individual counseling. “We try to create a family atmosphere that’s very comfortable,” Harbin-Pettit says. “But they’re still in shelter.” 

    Last year, 29.5 percent of homeless students scored proficient in reading, well below the district average of 48 percent of elementary students and 45 percent of middle-schoolers. In math, only 26.6 percent of homeless students scored proficient, also significantly lower than the district average. Homeless kids also have a lower graduation rate.

    Mercaderes leaves the boy’s home, pledging her support. “I am an advocate for him,” she tells his grandmother. “At the same time, we need to be working toward proficiency because he needs to be ready for real life.” Back in her car, on to her next meeting, she pauses for reflection while braking at a stop sign. “One thing I’ve learned, you can’t take away an education. In Cuba, you don’t have freedom of speech, none of that. But if you’re an educated person, you can know that there will be a better future for you. When you don’t have that, it’s very tough. I want to give people the ability to have a good, quality education.” 

    Mercaderes’ family instilled the importance of schooling early on. Her mother worked as an ear, nose and throat doctor in Cuba. Her father was a high school teacher. She grew up the youngest of three girls and describes herself as a “hyper” child. Her older sister, Yitza Danger-Mercaderes, remembers her “Gisellita” as a “risktaker.” Yitza recalls a boy once telling her sister in high school that “girls can’t get a career in math or computer science.” Mercaderes scoffed, jumping into computer science classes, even pursuing the field at the collegiate level in Cuba before her family came to the United States as political refugees. They had applied for visas in 1997 and waited almost 10 years for approval.

    Mercaderes’ face stiffens when talking about her transition to Louisville, not in an angry way, but the way one braces for unpleasant memories. The resettlement agency located the family in a neighborhood where Mercaderes didn’t feel safe. So she stayed inside a lot. She found work at a day care and enrolled in English classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College. She didn’t grasp the language easily. When kids quieted for naptime, Mercaderes studied furiously. She knew she wanted to attend college at U of L, but felt pressure to earn a paycheck. “As a refugee and as a daughter of two refugee parents, I felt like I needed to support my family,” she says. “So (by going to) school, I thought I was being selfish.”

    Yitza says her little sister’s first few years in the U.S. molded the baby of the family into a leader. Yitza was still in Cuba. Another older sister had moved to London. Their parents decided to retire in Louisville. Mercaderes set out to make a life of her own, caring for her aging parents, having two children with a Cuban man she met here. 

    With her history, it’s no wonder she’s drawn to JCPS’s ESL Newcomer Academy, a favorite place to visit. The school is for roughly 500 sixth- to 10th-graders who are new to America and know little or no English. Many have survived difficult journeys. Like the 16-year-old raped and impregnated by the man (“coyote”) who smuggled her through the desert into the United States. Or the boy from Iraq who was forbidden from attending school in his country because of a disability. “I see myself in every single student here. I understand where they’re coming from. And I understand why they would feel anxious,” Mercaderes says. “They want to be able to go to a regular school, but at the same time they know that they are protected here. I understand that feeling.”

    When she makes the rounds at Newcomer, teachers slip out of class to hug her and students greet her in Spanish. Last year, out of the school’s 540 students, about 200 were McKinney-Vento eligible. “It’s difficult for me to tell a family coming from another country that they are McKinney-Vento eligible,” she says. “They feel like so many people are already judging them. And then you’re asking them all these questions (about housing and employment). And if you’re not legally here, you don’t want anybody asking those questions.”

    Last year, Mercaderes hosted a Hispanic Achievers club at Newcomer, regularly gathering with teens in the library. But it’s been hard to find time to keep it going. Her job demands a lot of meetings. “Not fun,” she moans. This fall she’s busied herself with including more homeless students into JCPS’ advance program. She has identified 70 homeless students who qualified for the advance program but for some reason were not participating. (District-wide, about 18 percent of students take part in the advance program. Only 4.6 percent of homeless students are enrolled). Meetings with schools and the advance program administrators tie up several hours.

    She’s also buried in number crunching. Mercaderes’ budget just shrunk. A lot. The homeless education department functions off two pots of money. One, McKinney-Vento federal funds administered through grants awarded by the Kentucky Department of Education. Two, Title I, a federal program to assist disadvantaged youth. (Hers is one of the only JCPS departments that receives no money from JCPS’ general fund.) Title I pays for Mercaderes’ $62,000 salary as well as the salary of a teacher she hired in September who will increase outreach efforts to homeless students. This fall the McKinney-Vento money awarded to JCPS went from $230,000 to $90,000, due in part to the smaller reported population of homeless students. 

    On an October morning, Mercaderes opens her laptop to show a budget she’s been working on. She recently filled those two vacant clerk positions. That’s great news for her. But when you subtract their salaries and benefits from that $90,000, Mercaderes is left with $7,000. She says when she did the math, she had to take a break from budgeting. “I was so mad,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m going to stop.’”

    That $7,000 will have to cover backpacks for children, clothes, emergency needs and some programming. That’s just a hair more than one dollar per homeless student. (Mercaderes does have some Title I money as well, but those dollars are strictly earmarked for educational expenses.) She’s got zero dollars for what she really wants — a team of full-time social workers and case managers (not just student volunteers), people who can check in on students and their families regularly, assessing emotional and material needs. “My philosophy is the whole child,” Mercaderes says. It’s a stressful time. She tries to infuse joy during commutes, singing at the top of her lungs from home to work. But that’s a brief reprieve. Sometimes, her native Santiago calls, with its free-spirited culture. “Here they live to work,” she says. “And I’m turning into that.” 

    It still looks like a hotel room. Beige curtains as sturdy as orange peels block the sun’s evening descent. Lamps with tattered shades extend from the wall on metal elbows. The room’s maroon carpet that once relied on an intricate pattern for character lies smudged and worn. The hotel features stick out, even though sandwiched into the room there is a large round table with three JCPS students. Heads bend over pink packets of paper. Eraser bits orbit each packet. In the last two years, Mercaderes has helped transform this fourth-floor room at Wayside Christian Mission’s Hotel Louisville on East Broadway into a classroom, complete with number charts, bookshelves lined with dictionaries and texts, crates of markers, a cup of sharpened pencils, and obligatory motivational banners: “Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?”

    Area shelters have always offered tutoring. Under Mercaderes, the program has swelled. “There was a point where there were four teachers and, maybe, three kids (participating),” says Natalie Harris, director of the Coalition for the Homeless. “Shelters, over time, had forgotten about the program.” Now dozens of kids take part at area family shelters.

    Barry Finley, a teacher from Eisenhower Elementary, spends weekday evenings at Hotel Louisville. The soft-spoken 37-year-old with a clean-shaven head and goatee addresses a small group of middle-schoolers, some frozen over their pink packets. “This is not for a grade. This is for us to see where you are,” Finley says. “So no pressure.” A girl in a gray hoodie looks up. “If we get too many wrong, will we get kicked out of this room?” she asks.

    “No. I would never kick you out of this room,” he says. “My job is to help you do better in school.”

    The program used to recruit retired teachers, “militant” types, one longtime Hotel Louisville staffer known as Ms. Maureen says. Tutors now lean young and energetic. Ms. Maureen is quick to applaud the work of the previous homeless-education coordinator, a woman who filled the role for 20 years. She deeply cared for students too. But Ms. Maureen has noticed kids at Hotel Louisville asking, “When’s Mr. Barry coming? When’s Mr. Barry coming?” 

    Finley’s wife, Nicole, took over the tutoring program for the homeless-education department about a year and a half ago. Tall and outgoing, she’s usually standing in the hallway of Hotel Louisville, greeting parents, chatting them up. “When I first started this program people at the front desk had no idea there was a tutor here,” she says. “(Mercaderes) works incredibly hard. It makes us want to work incredibly hard.”

    The Finleys’ evening tutoring sessions build in more than homework help. They assess skills and create lessons to push kids ahead. “If someone comes in with two-digit multiplication and they finish their homework? Great. Let’s do three-digit multiplication,” Nicole says. Homeless students tend to miss more school. The Finleys can make up for that in this hotel room. 

    On a recent Wednesday night, Nicole stops Roslyn Jacobs in the hall. Jacobs, a thin woman with a rounded pregnant belly and nervous eyes, shares her story. Two toddlers have leukemia. Her mother, with whom she was living, is quite ill. Their electricity got shut off. Last Thursday she packed the whole family on a TARC bus and rode for over an hour to try to get her two middle school girls back into Knight Middle School. But because they had enrolled in a different school after moving to Hotel Louisville, they were turned away. By Monday, Mercaderes had solved the problem. 

    The middle school girls are happier back at Knight. But drama defines adolescence. Without a home, without something stable, amnesty disappears. “My anger was bad today,” one of the middle-schoolers, a girl with short hair and black glasses, admits to Nicole as she twirls a blue pen in her hand. She faced taunts over a pair of heels worn at school. “You’re in control of that, honey. Tomorrow’s gonna be a fabulous day,” Nicole says. “If someone tries to ruin your fabulous day? Say, ‘Uh-uh. I’m in control of my fabulous day.’”

    The girl excels academically, testing high enough to enroll in eighth grade. “All she does is read books,” Jacobs says. But she refuses to skip ahead, from seventh to eighth.

    “As much school as I miss, it’s gonna get me nowhere in life because I’m not caught up with everybody,” the girl argues. 

    “Well, that’s not true,” Nicole says. “If you’re able to get an opportunity, you should take advantage of that. You want to be challenged. That’s something you might want to think about, OK?” The girl frowns, but nods.

    It’s a safe bet that children don’t squeal when admin types swoop in from the district fort in Newburg. On a sunny October afternoon at the St. Vincent de Paul Family Success Center, Mercaderes walks in and a trio of girls light up like birthday candles. They trail her as she walks from a game room with foosball tables and puffy red and blue chairs onto a basketball court. “Don’t you have long hair?” a girl asks, head cocked to the side, dimples out-dazzling the white glittery bow resting atop her head. “Yes, I do,” Mercaderes replies. “But today I have a bun. It’s not a good hair day.”

    Mercaderes pulls out her iPhone, bends at the waist to little-girl eye-level and scrolls through pictures. “Oh, that’s when you guys did yoga!” she exclaims. Mercaderes’ phone holds dozens, maybe 100, photos of programs she’s organized for homeless students. She might have more homeless students stored in her phone than photos of her own kids. “You remember my daughter?” she asks the girls. “Yes!” the trio chime. 

    This past summer Mercaderes and her children attended every day of a three-week “literacy and chess” program organized through the homeless-education department. Each morning, dozens of youth would tackle literacy activities. In the afternoon, kids learned chess. Mercaderes wants to organize a “literacy and cooking” class for the fall. She settles on a photo of her six-year-old daughter with the three girls, all in pink outfits playing outside. Her children have been to so many of their mother’s events, her daughter once asked, “Are we homeless?” Mercaderes chuckles when telling the story. “I want her to know it’s OK. I say, ‘Well, it depends.’” She explains that they are not, but: “We are a paycheck away. I try to keep it simple.” 

    Mercaderes tucks her phone away. “OK, you guys want to go play for a bit?” she asks. 

    “Why don’t you play with us?” the dimpled girl replies. 

    Mercaderes doesn’t need to be a familiar face. She could certainly fulfill her duties through paperwork, emails and phone calls. Now that she has clerks and a teacher on staff, her boss wants her to assume more of a coordinating, behind-the-scenes role. But Danger is her middle name. She’s got to be a bit headstrong to live up to it. Her mission is to create normalcy for those at the fringes. How could she gauge progress from that windowless office in the overturned strawberry carton? Witnessing a smile, that’s one sure measure.

    On this afternoon at St.Vincent de Paul, she mentions the 15-year-old boy. He’s doing better, enrolled in another school but still taking arts classes at his former one, an agreement hammered out by administrators and the boy’s relatives. He has bonded with the Kent School social worker volunteering with her department. In fact, the couple of times Mercaderes has seen him, he asks, “Is Julie coming?” Mercaderes smirks. What she’s about to say is meant as a joke: “I’m like, ‘Hey, what about me?’”

    Article by Anne Marshall
    Photos by Mickie Winters

    This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

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