Revisiting a Rebuilding

It’s early April, and that means Rebuilding Together season is in full bloom. This is my third year participating through the local affiliate – Rebuilding Together San Francisco (RTSF) – of the national organization that brings skilled and unskilled volunteers together to make improvements in the lives of low-income, senior, and disabled homeowners and nonprofit and community facilities.

I realize that for the majority of volunteers, RTSF projects begin and end when the project begins and ends. They get in there, they do the work, and they get to relish in the physical transformation that unfolds beneath their paint brushes and between reaches for their toolbelt. That is one part of the transformation – the visible.

There is also the invisible that happens over a period of time as a homeowner, for example, eases into the changes. Life is suddenly a little bit different and greatly enhanced. They probably have new paint on their walls and the kitchen faucet no longer leaks. It’s possible their belongings have been purged and rearranged and that all takes some getting used to. (Think about a small home remodel and how invigorated yet discombobulated you feel when it’s finished.) As with most clients I’ve had the honor of collaborating with, the result of our work often yields unforeseen changes.

Several weeks ago I visited with Linda, my first RTSF client turned friend, to talk with her about how her life has been affected since our grand collaboration of 2008.


Before entering Linda’s apartment, the first thing I commented on was the aroma in the air. She was roasting a dish of root vegetables and everything about them filled her home with warmth and comfort. We sat at her kitchen table.

Rebuilding Together San Francisco client

Linda in her kitchen, 2010

Three days prior to my visit, she had taken ownership of a shiny red retro-style toaster that resided within arm’s reach across the table from where she sat. She was overjoyed by its aesthetic and the simple act of being able to make her own toast. She giggled. She loves toast and the joy of making it – especially now that she has a place for a toaster to live.

“I cook now because I have space,” she said, as the veggies sizzled in the background. I remembered how her kitchen looked when we first started.

a cluttered kitchen table

Linda's kitchen table, 2008

The table was her desk and its surface was invisible as it was covered by a computer, papers, and plethora of bottles of vitamins and supplements. It was impossible for her to sit there and eat a meal, let alone find a corner on which to chop vegetables or properly and safely access the stove. Now, she can cook and entertain with ease.

I know the process we went through to prepare her home for the work that ensued was challenging. It was difficult for each of us in different ways. When asked, Linda said it was hard letting go of things that she had from her travels and old friends. That said, the spaces we cleared and the things she can now focus on has enabled her to be more active in her photography than she had been in years – especially since she’s got her entire computer work station set up in her office. (see the transformation below, under “The Rebuilding”)

Not all is perfect. In an ideal world, she would like to have lower shelves for storing the boxes of photographs because she’d been working on a book project and needed easier and frequent access to her collection. She calls on nearby friends to help pull down the boxes when they are needed. Her goal of having a guest bed in the office has been met, and it doubles as an extra surface for spreading out her photographs. The buzzer that was installed two years ago stopped working, so she can no longer open the front door from her second-story apartment. She thinks the door hinges are loose.

The biggest unforeseen change in her life that she generously attributes to our work together occurred a little over a year ago. She has a new roommate, a formerly abandoned chihuahua she named Mjia.

Linda and Mija, 2010.

Linda and Mija, 2010.

Mija was found outside what was probably a foreclosed home in Sacramento. A friend rescued her and Linda happily gave her a new home. Two years ago, it would have been impossible for Linda to take in a dog. There was no room for a dog bed and the apartment was too much of an obstacle course for her, let alone a little animal.  Mija gets basked with attention and takes her new mom on regular walks. “It really changed my life.” Linda now gets out of the house every day.

~~~ The following photo essay outlines one third of the process Linda and I went through to prepare her home for the Rebuilding Together project. In addition to the office (below), we also triaged and purged belongings in her kitchen and living room, including three closets. This essay was originally published on the former iteration of my website in 2008, and has been relocated and ever-so-slightly (read: barely!) modified here for the purpose of a general “then and now” comparison.~~~


As a volunteer Project Leader with Rebuilding Together, I worked closely with a homeowner in San Francisco’s Mission District to prepare her office, kitchen, and bathroom for painting and various safety improvements which were scheduled to be done on April 26th (2008), Rebuilding Together’s National Rebuilding Day.

Over the course of a month, we worked side-by-side to sort, purge, organize, and stow the contents of these rooms. The photographs below summarize the transition of her office space.

an office is unusable if it is filled with clutter

This was my first view of the office from the doorway. The closet (see photo below) would be a few paces in toward the left. The filing cabinet was one of the few fixtures that was permanently removed from this room.


Here’s a view of the office facing the closet during my initial assessment visit. The entrance to the room is to the left of the closet (partially obscured by the curtain.) Boxes of photographs and artwork are on the left, and the desk is on the right of the image.


The interior of the office closet during my initial assessment visit. The majority of items in the closet were no longer needed by the homeowner. One of the first steps was to remove these items from the premises and provide access this much-needed space.

a cluttered office

Standing near the desk, here is another view of the office during the initial visit.
There is a window behind this curtain.

After the homeowner and I determined which items in the apartment needed to be removed, I requested assistance from Rebuilding Together. They graciously sent a team consisting of two big wonderful guys with a big truck to remove items that were destined for donation, electronic recycling, and the dump. (Watching them manuever the large items with relative ease, I fantasized what it would be like to be over 6′ tall with the ability to carry a filing cabinet over my shoulder while trotting down a flight of stairs.)

pickup truck loaded and ready for the dump

Here’s the back of the truck almost fully loaded. Another small load of donations was to be assembled weeks later, and throughout the process, at least three large household bins each of recycling and trash were removed from the premises.

closet archive

Once the under-utilized closet was emptied, shelves were purchased and installed. The space is now a centralized archive for storing photographs and artwork that the homeowner has created and collected over the years. And oh, the relief she expressed to have landed an organizer who knows how to handle artwork!


Many hours, days, and trips up and down the stairs later, the room was nearly empty.

a reorganized and decluttered office

Open space in the closet turned archive (above: doorway with boxes) was used as temporary storage for assorted office items packed in preparation for the big work day. Many other boxes of items were stowed in spaces throughout the apartment – in another closet, the kitchen pantry, and even under the bed!

The surfaces of the drafting table and desk (in foreground) were finally visible…but not for long.

Rebuilding Day arrived and with it a parade of at least 14 volunteers. Over the course of eight hours, three rooms were painted, electrical repairs were begun, an intercom was installed, and more. It was  a hive of unstoppable productivity.

Rebuilding Together 2008

Rebuilding Together 2008

When the paint dried, things were moved back where they belonged. I returned a few times over the course of the next week (accompanied one of those days by a colleague I recruited!) to help unpack and resettle things.


The table and desk were place side-by-side after the room was painted. All computer equipment, which had previously resided on and around the kitchen table, now had a permanent home in the office. A much loved purple textile replaced the old curtain covering the entrance to the closet. Other textiles cover the computer equipment to keep them dust-free.


With the desks full of computer equipment, a shelving unit emptied in the transformation of the space was reused to provide storage and access to frequently used items.

And to quote the homeowner, “I love my new office! Thanks so much for everything.”

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  1. Avatar
    Barbara Reply

    You are doing such beautiful and transformational work with people! This was never just a job for you, was it?! Congratulations to you, Linda and Mija on the new horizons!

  2. Avatar
    Karen OShaughnessy Reply

    I am so impressed with the end result. My studio has been filled with clutter and boxes of photographs and with the help of good friend I was able to get rid of so much and organize. It is as though a rock has been lifted off my head. I wish you lived closer!

    • liberatedspaces
      liberatedspaces Reply

      Karen, you are fortunate to have a good friend nearby to help. It’s amazing what a focused effort on your space and stuff can achieve. The satisfaction and levity that is ultimately created is incredible. No more rocks…just liberated spaces : ) It wouldn’t take much to convince me to fly in and help you should there be a future organizing endeavor!

  3. Avatar
    Tom Hlavacek Reply

    Deb: After reading and viewing the photos of the Linda project I feel pretty good about my life. I could always be better organized and I always have hope.

    Keep doing what you do…help people get organized and feel better about themselves. Feeling good about yourself is very important to a happy life.

    Tom Hlavacek

  4. Avatar
    Gina Ryerson Reply

    Debra, thanks for demystifying the organizing process for us. Good to see Linda making better use of her home. And you didn’t mention this, but I’m sure her home is also easier to dust and vacuum!

  5. liberatedspaces
    liberatedspaces Reply

    And a little Linda followup: she was just profiled in the local paper, and Rebuilding Together got a sweet mention!

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