As a professional organizer I see a lot of degrees of clutter and chaos, but it is always the back stories of how people have gotten to where they are that can be the most challenging part to actually get a particular client to the point of a much more organized and calm existence.
Such was the case with a large project that #TeamIJS worked on this past week. I was contacted by the sister of a woman who has Down's Syndrome looking to get the home she is living in with a caregiver back to it's pre-pandemic state. The caregiver is a lovely, compassionate woman who honestly I just wanted to hug so tightly from the very first time we met.
Truth be told, my heart went out to her even before we met in person. We did a Zoom call, like I do with all potential clients these days and will no doubt continue because, quite frankly, it is a huge time saver for me. It's Just Stuff clients are all up and down the Colorado Front Range and if I went to every initial consult in person I would have no time to actually work on the variety of jobs that we get. Even with an excellent team in place and COVID restrictions coming to an end, it just doesn't make sense anymore. It's one of the many ways I am trying to be as productive and efficient as possible with each and every day as my business continues to grow in leaps and bounds.
I try to give every potential client, like the one this blog is about, 30 minutes of my undivided attention to virtually walk me through the various areas of their home and their organizing pain points, but the reality is, I never cut anyone off unless I have another call scheduled or somewhere I need to be. I realized a long time ago that some people simply just need to be able to "spill the beans" and get a lot of the emotions and frustrations they have been feeling out. Many times I am the first person they have shared the state of disarray in their home with because they are too ashamed or embarrassed to let anyone else see what is going on.
I wasn't sure this particular woman was even going to show me any of the rooms in her home while on the Zoom call. She had already expressed so much fear and anxiety to the person that had originally contacted me about the situation. So I told her it was ok if we just talked for awhile and she could decide if and when she would allow me to see the degree of clutter.
I think it took about 15 minutes before she turned the camera on the piles of STUFF in each room.
I shared some of the stories of past clients as well as reassured her that I do not judge anyone. I also told her, as I have said repeatedly, that feeling guilty about how she let everything get out of control is not going to solve the problem. And just because she may have been able to keep a tidy home in the past doesn't matter. The circumstances of the past year were what they were and now it is time to move on. Saying you are overwhelmed and doing nothing about it is like me saying I cannot possibly do my own taxes, it's just too much to process, and then not filing them at all. I hire an accountant and she needed to hire an organizer. Period...end of story.
Well, not THE END, but you know what I mean.
It was so apparent to me that she was just one more victim of pandemic life. Fear of the unknown led to a lot of panic shopping. In addition, with nothing much to do for entertainment, she started to go to estate sales and buying A...LOT...OF...STUFF! She didn't necessarily need any of it but it seemed to satisfy a desire to feel like she had something to do every day. We all had to find our ways to cope with what happened...hers just came with a much higher cost than the actual purchases she made.
We actually scheduled an appointment for me to come alone to the house a few weeks ago and at least tackle the kitchen so they could start cooking meals again on a much more regular basis rather than primarily ordering in or going out. But we needed to do some significant amount of cleaning and editing before we could even begin to organize the cabinets and drawers.
I have seen kitchens like this before but I generally don't do deep cleaning. Wiping down some counters, sure, no problem. But that morning, I found myself literally on my hands and knees scraping a year's worth of all kinds of sticky stuff off the floor. There simply was no other way to get to the real task at hand. I needed the floor as well as the counters for staging as we made our way around the space.
As I was creating the necessary clearing, it became very obvious that she really was physically and emotionally not able to help with doing some dishes let alone even sit in the kitchen with me and giving me some direction regarding what to keep vs. donate or toss. I advised her to go into another room and just rest. My exact words were "I've got this...go take care of yourself."
As the day went on, though, I became more worried about her general health. She had shared with me earlier in the day that she didn't want the sister of the woman she was taking care of to know she hadn't been feeling well for weeks, but that was not something I was willing to put aside or discount. Her son came by late in the afternoon and I told him that I really felt like she needed to get a complete physical and agreed without hesitation. He also agreed that the entire house needed to be decluttered as soon as possible but it would be almost impossible to do if she was around.
When I left, I called the sister and told her what I witnessed throughout the day and what I thought the plan should be for moving forward. She really appreciated my candor and was going to speak with the woman's son. She called me the next morning as I was driving to a client and thinking about Mother's Day which had me getting rather emotional, something I revealed in my blog last week. Yes, it is long, but I think still worth reading if you haven't already. It will also give you some context for why I left a bag of cookies on the kitchen table for them when they returned from their vacation this past week.
She told me they had decided to let me and my team come back and work our magic as somewhat of a surprise while both women were away so they could come home to a completely clean, decluttered and organized home, I couldn't help but get teary-eyed.
So this past Tuesday myself and four members of my team arrived at the house at 7:30 am and spent the entire day sorting all of the stuff in every room.
We each "attacked" a particular room and while we worked somewhat independently in each space we still were communicating with one another throughout the day to be sure we weren't duplicating any efforts.
I spent the entire day, more or less, in the kitchen yet again. I had brought with me storage solutions to implement but first had to do a lot of cleaning, yet again! I knew when I had left the house two weeks before they weren't quite ready to maintain it but I was still disappointed to see the dishes piled up in the sink and so much stuff back on the counters and table.
And I hadn't even opened the refrigerator the last time but when I did there was a smell that came out that I knew I would have to spend time eliminating right then and there. Waiting for the cleaning service that had been hired to do a deep clean a few days later wasn't even a slight consideration. Rubber gloves and a double mask, regardless of COVID, were absolutely necessary for this...
Yeah, it was pretty bad.
But, again, I am not saying any of this to embarrass her.
I am saying it because I felt so sorry for her.
She needed help months ago and wouldn't allow it.
I took me over an hour to scrub the surfaces clean and organize the contents that weren't sent to the trash.
By the end of Tuesday, we had put in almost 30 total hours of work (5 people working an average 6 hours). And this is what the rooms looked like when we left ...
BTW...this hallway closet was a work in progress throughout the day as we were finding medications and toiletries scattered throughout the house. Yes, this is way more than 2 people need but at least everything is now in one place and they will be able to find what they need without searching. Suffice it to say, a label maker was definitely a much needed tool from our organizer toolbox!
I thought it would take at least another half day with that many people to get that far but, hey, we don't mess around.
So I decided at the end of Day 1 that I would only need one other team member two days later to complete what we set out to do.
I spent the first few hours on Thursday working on the pantry area in the mud room and thanks to some inexpensive bins and containers I had gotten at Walmart, WHAT...A...DIFFERENCE!
The biggest recommendation I make whenever dealing with a pantry is to get rid of the boxes that some items come in whenever possible. They simply will take up too much space as you start to use the actual items inside. The other key thing to think about if you are tackling a pantry area like this...make sure you are putting the more recent purchases of like items behind the older purchases. Otherwise, you will end up with a lot of expired items that will have to be thrown out.
The "finishing touch" on this space was putting a table in the center of the room that could be used as both a landing pad for bringing groceries into the house and easily get them put onto the shelves. It also will serve as a laundry sorting and folding station so that clothes will never again leave that room without being ready to be put away in one of the bedrooms.
Meanwhile, my teammate continued to help the son get more of the sorted items from Tuesday into his car to make several trips to his house a few miles away where it would all remain in his garage and one bag/box at a time would eventually be brought into his house for his mother to go through and decide what could be donated vs. set aside for a yard sale in June or July. There were at least 100 bags/boxes so it is definitely going to take some time but none of it will be coming back to her house...she promised and I know she means it.
I moved back into the kitchen to clean out the freezer, something I didn't have time to do two days before. It was loaded with food, most over a year old and thus had freezer burn. The vast majority had to be thrown out, something that is so painful for me as a former food service professional who never allowed my kitchen staff to waste food like that, especially knowing how many people have struggled to keep food on their table this past year. Again, I am not trying to shame her but I just want to emphasize the importance of always knowing what you have on hand before going to the grocery store.
By 3 pm on Day 2 we were done. My teammate left but I waited for the sister to arrive to see the fruits of our labor and as I sat at the kitchen table I heard the wind chimes in her backyard and realized the blinds had been down the entire day. When I raised them up it was the first time I was aware that there was a beautiful apple tree in full bloom and, for me, that was the picture that truly painted a thousand words and could be the ending to this story.
The sense of calm I felt after two full days surrounded by a lot of chaos took my breath away and I smiled thinking how nice it would be for both women to sit at a clean table in a clean kitchen and enjoy that view every day.
I was fortunate to return to the house yesterday to be there for the "Big Reveal". I decided to make them a Welcome Home poster with a copy of a sign that I noticed in the room right off of the kitchen. I can't imagine a better way of summing up the entire experience than with these words...
"Life takes you to unexpected places; love always brings you home."
To say the women were shocked and amazed is an understatement. Jaws were dropped as were countless "Ay Dios Mio" or "Oh My G-d" as we made our way from room to room, closet to closet, drawer to drawer and cabinet to cabinet.
To say I am proud of myself and my team?
Well, that is certainly a given.
But to know that we may have forever changed two women's lives is something we get to continue to carry into every job and never question the importance of what we do for a living.
I will never stop believing that the service we provide really is a necessity and not a luxury for the majority of people. It is also why I am so proud to be doing a Mental Health Awareness Month Giveaway. It was announced in our weekly #WhatsOnYourMindWednesday blog and I encourage you to submit your compelling story for the chance to get 10 hours of our decluttering and organizing help. That actually amounts to up to 50 human hours of time and energy so please click HERE for more information and/or share it with anyone you may know who wants and, more importantly, needs a transformation like the one we just finished. Time is of the essence, though. All entries must be submitted by May 19th and the winning stories will be shared during a panel with myself and Mental Health Partners of Boulder on May 26th entitled, Cluttered Home, Cluttered Mind: Exploring the Connection between Mental Health & Physical Space.
And on that note, it is now almost 9 pm MT on Sunday. I came home last night after the Big Reveal and collapsed into bed, woke early this morning and had a bunch of other things I needed to do all day and into the evening, including attending a bridal shower all afternoon so I am finally able to push the publish button on the amazing picture I got to paint with WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY more than 1000 words 😉