LONGMONT — Longmont professional organizer Mary Anne Lessley now knows her worst-case client was her first about 25 years ago.
That woman felt so disorganized that she admitted to stuffing garbage in the freezer to keep smells down until she got around to tossing it.
Lessley’s colleagues at the National Association of Professional Organizers Colorado have reported finding other oddities squirreled away, from teeth that fell out in adulthood to tricycles ridden decades ago by children who are now middle-aged.
They said some clients consider stashes of kitschy knickknacks, outdated clothing, old utility bills and the like too precious to part with for one reason or another.
But the roomiest closet, basement or garage will eventually bust a seam. And crisis — be it the threat of standing room only at home, the death of the pack rat or an unexpected move that requires rapid downsizing — typically prompts somebody to make an SOS call.
It took 15 years for Longmont real estate agent Collette Coyle to flip through the Yellow Pages and dial up Lessley. But she did it when the paper chase at her home office reached hurricane status.
“If I would need a piece of paper, I had to go through two or three stacks,” she said. “My heart would race. The stress factor was just incredible.”
Coyle, 41, said it was the best money she had spent in years because it helped her dig out and establish a system that would prevent future paper pileups.
Jan Keller of Totally Organized! in Golden said one of her clients called from a highway shoulder as a cop wrote a ticket for her expired tags. The woman and her husband lived in a spacious $2 million home. Yet both managed to lose everything in the mess, from license renewal notices to clothing.
“Getting organized transforms people’s lives. It saves marriages — that is what she told me in her thank you note when I finished that job,” Keller said.
From the outside, a professional organizer’s work might seem like a fit for natural neatniks — those born with an invisible white glove and searching eye.
But during the October chapter meeting in Denver, some NAPO members confessed that they were recovering slobs.
“A lot of us felt like we were not organized and we needed to teach ourselves,” Denver pro organizer Julie Cordova said during a meeting break. “Then, I think people noticed the difference in us, and they wanted to know what was the magic pill. There is no magic pill, and so we became organizers.”
Making a living this way, then, requires attitude adjustment and skill development, Keller said.
“Part of our mission is to be nonjudgmental,” she said of clients, who often feel embarrassed and ashamed. “We’ve probably seen worse. And actually, the bigger the mess, the bigger the opportunity to help.”
Her NAPO counterparts seem to share an unspoken philosophy, a belief that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
Tip-top communication skills also enable the professional organizer to aid a client grappling with what compels them to cling to things.
Sentimentality, guilt over giving away unwanted gifts and a waste-not-want-not poverty consciousness play into this touchy business, according to organizers. Yet these professionals press on under a shared philosophy: that clutter is a collection of postponed decisions, and that this condition can be remedied.
“A personal trainer helps you exercise your body’s muscles,” said Lisa Sarasohn, 43, of Hire Order of Boulder. “An organizer helps you exercise your decision-making muscles.”
That begins with sensitive questions, a tactic that helped Caroline Kert of Achieve Organization in Boulder better serve a client fretting over a pile of adult diapers stored in her late parents’ long-cold sauna.
When the client’s father died, her mother kept the diapers there as a link to him. The daughter then somehow considered the padded underwear a link to both her mother and father.
“Then, I asked her, ‘Does this bring up negative or positive images of your father?’” said Kert, 38. That helped the woman let go, since the diapers highlighted her father’s incontinence in illness and old age.
Gentle recommendations work, too.
According to Lessley, taking photos of nostalgia-laced objects helps shrink the clutter, as does developing a filing system and reminding clients that clutter can be a health and safety risk, from fire hazards to mobility problems.
She also noted that people struggling with clutter let go with less fuss when they see, but don’t touch, the object in question.
Despite her successes over the years with individual clients, Lessley wants to take her organization to a group level — a Messies Anonymous meeting or Declutter Group.
Until then, she will keep preaching a no-frills organizational selling point in getting people to donate, dump or reorganize homeless items.
“Organization does not need to look like House Beautiful,” she said. “Organization is being able to focus on what you need when you need it without stress.”
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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