The power of we

In early 2008, the following email was sent to the general listserv of the National Association of Professional Organizers’ San Francisco Bay Area chapter (NAPO-SFBA):

I’ve been contacted by…Rebuilding Together, the national organization that does Habitat for Humanity type rebuilds and remodels of both private homes and non-profit organization’s facilities.

I was a construction captain a few years ago on a fabulous remodel of the basement of the Larkin Street Youth Center and last year did assessments on two homes…

Apparently there are projects in communities all around the Bay Area, but if you’d like to team up with a corporate sponsor and do some great work while showing off your organizing skills and NAPO’s community spirit–please let me know asap.

Really? A unique opportunity to stretch one’s organizing muscles, volunteer for an awesome nonprofit and cause, AND be part of a team that positively impacts the lives of strangers? “Please do put me on the list! I’d love to help if the timing’s right,” I responded to my colleague, Victoria Roberts-Russell.

Two weeks later, another email landed in my inbox. This one contained descriptions of various projects that could benefit from the input of a professional organizers. I signed on, completed a project, and was hooked. When it was over, I wondered how we could get more organizers on board with this seemingly natural partnership and began conspiring with Victoria and our enthusiastic associates at RTSF.

“Organizers play a pivotal role on our bi-annual projects,” says RTSF’s Valerie Coleman. “Often times the critical repairs that a senior or disabled adult needs is not even accessible until ‘stuff’ has been cleared out. Or, perhaps an overworked and understaffed youth center is just focusing on how to run the best programs possible and to engage the most kids they can, which means that creating an organized, functioning space is just beyond their abilities. Whatever the situation, we greatly value the experience and perspectives that professional organizers bring to our projects. In the past, they have helped us determine scopes of work, whether clients are ready to let go, sourced donations and materials, led volunteers on a task and offered tremendous support to our clients, who are often overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin.”

Over the next few years we slowly but surely recruited more of our colleagues to join us on this annual collaboration. Then came one fine evening in February 2012 at the RTSF office where we had a record number of organizers in attendance to learn about upcoming projects…

Eight professional organizers (the seven pictured above, plus myself) sat around the large table with RTSF staff members Valerie Coleman, Jen Garber and Jonathan Rossall. We were also joined by representatives from the Mental Health Association’s Peer Responders Program. This meeting was the beginning of the deployment of nine professional organizers who would cumulatively contribute nearly 275 hours of pro bono services to three non-profit facilities and three residential clients before, during, and after National Rebuilding Day. (Two projects were cancelled in advance of Rebuilding Day, and organizers assigned to those projects were re-deployed!)

When professional organizers join their clients, skilled tradespersons, and corporate and community volunteers, “the power of we” can take on unique dimensions. Here’s what the organizers’ contributions to this years’ projects looked like.

Margie Lehnen-Holtz and Emily Vander Tuin at Mr. and Mrs. A’s home
Mr. and Mrs. A have done their best to maintain their home of 40 years, but it’s become harder to keep up with as they are no longer physically capable of doing it themselves. They have accumulated quite a bit of stuff that they needed help removing. Below, Margie and Emily work with Mrs. A to sort and remove unwanted items from the overstuffed garage.

Amanda Kovattana at Ms. G’s home
Ms. G is an elderly widow for whom maintaining her home became very difficult after her husband passed on. For the first few years after her loss, grief made it hard for her to let go of possessions which accumulated throughout the home. Enter Amanda who worked closely with Ms. G to clear the kitchen to make way for necessary upgrades in this room. Items being kept had to be temporarily stored in the living room until Rebuilding Day work was complete.

Erin Becker and Courtney King at Holy Ghost Service Center
At Holy Ghost Service Center, the program administrators share their home with ten formerly homeless men, all who pitch in and help with household chores, and also prepare and serve food to the homeless several times per week. On Rebuilding Day, Erin worked with the team’s volunteer carpenter, residents, and fellow organizer, Courtney, to clear and organize the basement by removing unneeded items, building and installing shelving, and moving items onto shelving.

Victoria Roberts-Russell, Kathy Waddill and Sandy Trout at Beacon Center
The OMI/Excelsior Beacon Center is dedicated to improving the lives of low-income families by providing educational, recreational and support services for free to the community.

Victoria, Kathy, and Sandy quickly changed gears when their previous project – a residential client who was a hoarder – was postponed. On Rebuilding Day, they collectively re-configured the staff’s administrative office to optimize the work space, triaged and organized the program’s multi-purpose room, and triaged a storage room (and hallway) that had become less than functional.

Looking at what we all did makes me giddy inside, and then I think about how much more we can do in the future. The possibilities make me giddier.


This post has been registered for participation in Blog Action Day 2012.

Cross-posted at Rebuilding Together

All photos by Debra Baida / Liberated Spaces

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  1. Avatar
    Sven Reply

    wow, you’ve really done it with this one, Deb! Just a superb piece of blogging, using the tools of the online world to connect with real life service and collaboration. The story is compelling, the people inspiring, the photos lively, apropos, and perfectly placed, and of course, the cause this is promoting and the way you all found each other, absolutely divine. In a cyber world full of blah blah and endless opining this post stands out as an example of how to use new media to not only report on but inspire positive change in the real world!

  2. deb
    deb Reply

    Thank you and thank you some more. This is what I strive to do in work and life : )

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