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CONVERSATION
Former CIA Officer Tackles Genealogical Puzzles and Dead-Ends

Since founding the company, Ellen and I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some extraordinary individuals—artists, creators, storytellers, fashion designers, and even map makers! That said, it’s not often we meet a fellow CIA analyst turned entrepreneur. 

Ellen and I met Lisa Maddox, Founder of Family History Intelligence (FHI) early on in our journey with Artifcts, and saw an immediate fit between Artifcts and FHI. We couldn’t help but think about all that family “stuff” as we listened to Lisa talk about the families she has worked with and the histories she has helped them uncover from decades—and sometimes even centuries—ago. 

Sure enough, families, “stuff,” and histories go hand in hand. Whether it is a collection of old letters from the turn of the century or long forgotten Civil War artifacts. Those objects all represent lives lived, histories told, and the very essence of what it is to be us, to be alive. 

I sat down with Lisa for a casual conversation last month and wanted to share with you more about what makes FHI unique as it helps families preserve their legacy.  

Heather Nickerson: What led you to make the leap from CIA analyst to entrepreneur? 

Lisa Maddox: I worked at the CIA because of its mission and the powerful, impactful contributions of that work. After a successful career there, I wanted to be my own boss, determine my own career path, apply those hard-earned skills, and continue to work on issues of value. Starting my own family history business encompassed all those desires. One additional influential factor was my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The prospect of watching my mother lose her memories impressed upon me the importance of family and our histories.  

Nickerson: How have your analyst skills come into play with family history? 

Maddox: As an intelligence officer, I often analyzed issues with information gaps and misleading data. I applied rigorous analytical techniques to overcome information gaps and understand the context and environment surrounding the subject matter. When I lacked sufficient data, I came up with innovative ways to study the issue and collect additional information. This analysis and collection approach has enabled me to tackle genealogical puzzles and dead-ends. I go beyond what a traditional genealogist would do. My work in terrorism targeting also had direct application to finding and mapping out client’s ancestors. Finally, my attention to good versus bad sources has provided a natural advantage in my genealogy research.  

I go beyond what a traditional genealogist would do.

Nickerson: Respecting your client's privacy of course, could you share with us some favorite stories of things you've discovered in your research? 

Maddox: One of my favorite projects involved discovering information about my client's father’s arrest and brief placement in a Japanese internment camp after the Pearl Harbor attack. The research spanned numerous National Archives’ holdings, prompted me to ask friends throughout the country for help, and thankfully ended up uncovering the FBI case file!

Another memorable project included the discovery of a client’s ancestors in Hungary. We thought that we had hit a brick wall, because Hungarian records are not easily accessible and language barriers presented significant challenges. This was an important moment for my business, because I didn’t accept those limitations and found a way to proceed. Employing my intelligence officer skills, I established Hungary-based contacts and facilitated on-the-ground research, which uncovered data about several more generations for this client. It was amazing!   

Nickerson: What is most challenging about your work? 

Maddox: I have found marketing to be the most challenging aspect of running my own business. After a 15-year career where I sought to draw attention away from my job and work, I have struggled to feel comfortable talking about my work and selling my services. 

Nickerson: What do you wish people knew or better understood about genealogical research? 

Maddox: I wish people understood the limitations in discovering information about more recent ancestors and family members. Clients often ask for details about their parents or even grandparents, not understanding that privacy restrictions hinder availability of information; for example, 1950 census data just became publicly available. 

Nickerson: In your experience, what is the primary motivation for someone to contact you for help with their family history research? 

Maddox: There are two driving reasons most clients contact me. One, the client seeks to discover and then preserve the family legacy for generations to come. They want the family to ask questions and discuss their heritage before it’s too late and the elder generation’s input can no longer be accessed. Two, the client wants to give the ultimate sentimental gift to their loved one (spouse, parent, or grandparent). It’s the gift of knowledge and understanding your history.  

It’s the gift of knowledge and understanding your history

Nickerson: You know all about Artifcts. How do you think Artifcts could help you in your work with your clients? 

Maddox: Artifcts' approach to understanding and preserving the stories associated with sentimental objects and possessions is an interrelated service that could naturally be woven into FHI ancestor narratives. I’ve written stories about ancestors who fought in battles and then discovered that the client’s family still possesses that old weapon, uniform, or keepsake from a battle. Embedding an Artifct would enhance the story and our understanding of our ancestors and their experiences.   

< End of interview >

We know that when it comes to our personal lives and histories “someday” often turns into never or maybe simply too late. We hope you will think about those pieces of you that should be Artifcted and archived to pass to friends and family and future generations before it’s too late. Take it one object at a time. If you get stuck, see if some of our partners and membership organizations can help you!

Interested in uncovering the origins of your family history? You can reach out to Lisa at Family History Intelligence to start the conversation. 

Photos are provided by Family History Intelligence and designed by The Scout Guide in Alexandria, VA.

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Capturing Family Stories, One Video Biography at a Time

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Lori Roux, founder of Whole Story Productions (WSP), for many years. In fact, Lori was one of our earliest sounding boards as we contemplated building a community around all things “stuff” and “stories.”

Aside from being a die-hard skier and former New Englander, Lori was an Emmy-award winning team member of ESPN’s X Games and the creative genius behind WSP. Lori and the WSP team help families bring to light the stories, memories, and histories that make them who they are today through beautifully directed family videographies. 

Ellen and I saw an immediate fit between Artifcts and WSP—we couldn’t help but think about all that family “stuff” as we listened to Lori talk about the families she has worked with and the stories she has helped them tell over the years.

Sure enough, families, “stuff,” and stories go hand in hand. Whether it is a collection of old photos from the turn of the century or Grandma’s china or an assortment of antique silver. Those objects all represent lives lived, adventures had, and the very essence of what it is to be us, to be alive.

I sat down with Lori for a virtual conversation last month and wanted to share with you some of our key takeaways.

Heather Nickerson: Tell us a bit about your typical client. 

Lori Roux: Usually I’m working with a family, but once in a while there may be more of a corporate lean, where the story is more business oriented. Many clients have had successful family businesses and are telling the story of how it started, where, and when. Then we progress through family evolution, historical aspects, philanthropy, and legacy.

I also had a project for a museum exhibition – that creates challenges around length, how long can you keep people’s attention while standing at a kiosk of some sort.

Nickerson: How do clients typically find you?

Roux: Clients usually find me by word of mouth, so somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who I’ve worked with. I’ve also met clients through their other service providers – attorneys, accountants, financial advisors. I am listed as a service provider with large and small financial institutions.

Nickerson: You’ve said that people often tell you that they are not interesting enough to do a video. How do you convince people that they are?

Roux: Almost to a tee people will say, “Oh, there’s not much to tell.” Or, “We’re not really that interesting.” But I try to explain that to their audience, their family and friends, it’s incredibly interesting. It’s a story for the rising generations. A story of who they are, their successes and failures, and what their message is for those that they may never meet.

As one client said to their hesitant father/patriarch, “It’s not about you Dad. It’s about us. It’s FOR us.”

It’s not about you Dad. It’s about us. It’s FOR us

Nickerson: Can you share a story or two that stands out from the families you’ve worked with?

Roux: There are a number of stories, so I’ll pick one of my favorites.

I had a family that I worked with in Australia with eight adult children. The family tells a story debating whether they were “free settlers or convicts” when their ancestors came from the Isle of Skye. There were multiple versions of the story depending on who in the family you asked. I don’t usually do the research, but I was searching for an image of a ship from the 1800s to include to help the visuals of the story. I happened to come upon the original manifest of the ship’s passengers. It listed a number of the family names with a $ fee next to it, which means they paid for passage! Not sure it put to rest the argument, however, as they genuinely like the mystery and family lore!

Nickerson: Getting people to talk about their most intimate family details has to be challenging. How do you get people to trust you? 

Roux: You know, that’s something that I work really hard at. It all starts at that first meeting – trying to talk about the project while also expressing your own humanity and sharing a story of your own that might apply. Even offering a comparison – like, my own family immigrated from Eastern Europe and though they thought they really didn’t know much about their history, it turned out, the more questions they asked each other, the more they discovered they knew collectively!

I also talk about their privacy, and how they will end up including other family members, and how we keep their final product secure. 

It’s all about them… and I try and express that it’s not a “gotcha moment” when we do an interview. It’s all preplanned and preapproved so the final film is what they envisioned.

Nickerson: Explain how you incorporate other keepsakes in a video (e.g., photos, letters, music). 

Roux: Some of the most important parts of a project are the photos, videos, letters, and other family records. You know the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, that’s so true! We can tell so much of someone’s story with a few photographs and some music, without even a word being said. We try and include whatever is meaningful and significant to each family – whether it’s a business contract or a love letter.

Nickerson: You know the story of Artifcts. How do you think Artifcts could help you in your work with your clients?

Roux: With all the photos and keepsakes that people share, that we include, Artifcts is a great place for them to find a home. When the project is complete, all the photos can be archived on Artifcts so family members can then go and peruse them at their leisure. When it’s in the film, you might only see something for five seconds. All the people in the photo might be recognizable, but in the film, the images fly by so quickly. Having organized, archived access for everyone who the family wants to share with will be invaluable. It’s like a secure online photo album shared with the entire family, accessible any time, only the family can then add documents, stories, and all the details that you typically don’t get with a photo album.

< End of interview >

We know that when it comes to our personal lives and histories “someday” often turns into never or maybe simply too late. We hope you will think about those pieces of you that should be Artifcted and archived to pass to friends and family and future generations before it’s too late. Take it one object at a time. If you get stuck, see if some of our partners and membership organizations can help you!

Interested in creating a family video biography? You can reach out to Lori at Whole Story Productions  to start the conversation. 

 

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Archival Preservation in the Mainstream with Monocurate

The joys of Artifcts have been endless for Heather and me, the founders. We’ve experienced with our early subscribers the emotional highs and lows of bringing back heritage and forward memories. Whether that’s unearthing long forgotten family heirlooms, discovering the joy of connecting through shared experiences incapsulated in objects, or simply finding a new, safe place to preserve bits of ourselves, we’ve experienced a lot with our Arti Community.

One of the more remarkable and surprising aspects of the Artifcting journey has been how often people have come to us with ‘stuff’ that really should be in a museum or carefully preserved to ensure it can even last another year much less generation! Browse Artifcts and you’ll see what I mean – letters from WWII, old maps, stacks of photos, bibles hand carried from Europe in the 1800s, cherished cookbooks, original sketches, and more.

So, imagine my surprise when one Sunday morning while reading my local northwest Austin community paper I saw a short blurb about a new company that specializes in archival preservation services. Monocurate is just around the corner from my house, has a web design aesthetic that immediately drew me in, and drum roll please… is another female-led business!

I reached out to founder Brooke Lake to learn more. While her sweet spot is paper – think photos, books, and documents that require stitching, dry cleaning, and other restoration and preservation – her skills also include preserving textiles (think wedding gowns), digitization and digital catalogs, and more. I can also disclose the thoughtful, patient course correction she offered us at Artifcts to ensure we never encourage people to write on photographs or attach QR codes to objects in ways that could ultimately be damaging (now in our FAQs, "Artifcting Process"). Thanks, Brooke!

Brooke and I have since met several times, including a tour of her workshop, and I wanted to share with you some of our musings and discoveries about the overlapping world views of Artifcts and Monocurate.

Ellen Goodwin: Well, we might as well start at the beginning – we both launched our businesses during the late summer of 2021 with no end in sight for the pandemic. What led you to make that leap, at that time?

Brooke Lake: When quarantine happened, I, like many others, found myself faced with looming uncertainty. Widespread closures of public institutions left me with some extra time on my hands, and I used this opportunity to reflect on my experiences in public archives. I couldn’t shake the feeling that however much I enjoyed my work, it was becoming increasingly disconnected from our day-to-day lives. I created Monocurate with the hope of filling the need for archival and preservation services on a personal level.

Goodwin: You told me you have a passion for papers. What’s your background and how did it lead you to papers?

Lake: I have always been interested in the written record. I have a BA in history and and a masters in library science (MLIS). Through both, I have spent countless hours reading through source material. However, with my history degree I was the researcher; with my MLIS I was able to work as a formal Archivist making me the custodian of the records. Later in my career, I was trained by a highly respected Conservator here in Austin. My time spent with Carrabba Conservation gave me another perspective on the physicality of paper. Through all three—a researcher, a custodian, and a caretaker—I was provided with a multi-faceted perspective of the use of the records (i.e., paper). As a result, I was able to respect and appreciate use of paper and the importance and connection papers have to our day to day lives.

Goodwin: Respecting your clients’ privacy, of course, can you share with us the outlines of a favorite project?

Lake: One of our favorite collections in the past year was a client’s late mother’s poetry collection. It consisted of a handful of partially organized folders but the paper was folded, crinkled, and in desperate need of TLC. We flattened, cleaned, and encapsulated fragile pieces so that they could be safely read and handled. We created a simple inventory and reboxed the collection in an archival box with a brass nameplate with the client's name on it. The cherry on top was finding an old email that the client had written to her mother while she was away at school. Our client had no idea her mother had read that email let alone printed it out and saved it. We loved that we were able to rediscover that part of her history and preserve it along with the poetry collection, just as her mother had originally. 

Sample archival box with brass nameplate

Goodwin: What about the most challenging? What makes one object more challenging than another, or is it really just more time consuming?

Lake: Everything we take on can be challenging and time-consuming. We have to work slowly to respect the material regardless of what it is. Each object, in some way, tells us how it needs to be cared for and preserved. For example, with paper, it can rip so we must be meticulous when handling and caring for it. This is especially true of high-acid wood pulp paper. It was first developed in the early 1800s and used in some newsprint, kraft and manila papers, as well stationary, and is fragile as well as prone to darkening and staining with age. 

For digitization, when we scan, say photos from the 1920s, we have to ensure the color is calibrated perfectly to get the most accurate representation of the photograph which can be time consuming and challenging. For objects, there is no one-size-fits-all approach so everything we do is individualized to meet the needs of the material. This can be especially true for objects that people want to handle or display. Since we offer an array of services everything we do is met with some sort of challenge. The silver lining of course is that we are always learning and developing our skill sets so I appreciate the fact that our work keeps us on our toes. 

Goodwin: What do you wish people knew or better understood about archival preservation?

Lake: It’s not as simple as keeping everything “safe” in a bin in your closet. Lots of factors come into play with preservation. The environment (light, humidity, air quality) to the type of enclosure you are storing items can not be understated. Poor handling takes it’s toll as does poor-quality storage, which can accelerate the deterioration of your collection.  

It is important to remember that very object is unique and should be treated as such when it comes to preservation, as mentioned above: it’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach. A common example is scrapbooks. Sure they store all your favorite photos and nostalgic items but ultimately they are incredibly damaging and horrible from a preservation standpoint.

Goodwin: I could imagine that like Artifcting, with archival preservation services people may not know where to start. They have too much to prioritize. What would your advice be to these people?

Lake: Start organizing your collections at home first. I think this is an area where Artifcts truly shines. Just being aware of what you have and where it is located is a great first step. From there, evaluate your collection and decide what needs to be prioritized. For example, if your important family papers are in a plastic bin on the ground, move them into an acid-free cardboard box to a mid-tier shelf. If you have a large collection of glassware, rearrange them so the boxes are not overcrowded and include lots of padding. For metal objects ensure the environment is dry and ensure each piece is stored individually. Move slowly through your list of Artifcts and focus on one area at a time (e.g., first family documents, then glass, then metal) that way you are in the headspace and can streamline your at-home preservation endeavors.  

Goodwin: Artifcts are literally unique, transferable digital assets. Artifcts will outlive us as individuals, they might even outlast the objects they capture. And yet, with your services, we have hope that objects can be carried forward from generation to generation, family history and world history captured and preserved. Tell us about a project that really resonated with you and the why behind it.

Lake: Currently we are working to digitize and preserve a large collection of hi8 home-movies. This family came to me to digitize and preserve the original media that they recorded over a 20 year time period. These tapes include a complete timeline of their marriage and children’s childhood through birth to graduation. It’s an incredible amount of footage. I found it interesting that each family member had a different take on the “why.” For example, the father simply didn’t want to lose the footage. The mother was more interested in editing clips of the newly digitized media to share with friends and family, and their two now grown children didn’t recall all the moments that were filmed and were more interested in watching the footage to see what was there. 

For me, I was just happy to bring these forgotten memories to light while simultaneously stabilizing and preserving the original media should a better analog-to-digital conversion technology come along in the future.

Goodwin: In your experience, what’s the primary motivation for someone who brings you a precious object for archiving?

Lake: Many collections are becoming increasingly fragile and are in danger of being lost forever. Our clients want to ensure that their collections remain in stable condition to be passed down for generations to come. This is true regardless of whether it is a family collection or work for institutions. While deterioration cannot be stopped, it can be slowed down, and that’s our primary motivator for helping people. In addition, we also provide organization, inventories, digitization, and reference and research services—all of which provide our clients with an accessible, holistic approach to their collections regardless of what they may consist of. 

Goodwin: Okay, last question! I asked Jennifer Singleterry of Sort & Order about this and want to ask you, too. You know all about Artifcts. How do you think Artifcts could help you in your work with your clients? 

Lake: One of the biggest aspects of family collections is the lack of collaboration. Usually, one person is the gatekeeper so to speak. As a result, external stories tend to be lost or forgotten simply because the other individuals don’t have access to the item. Artifcts rectifies this problem by providing the space to crowdsource and share stories. The way Artifcts allows several individuals, no matter their distance, to provide context to objects is just incredible. 

< End of interview >

We know that when it comes to our personal lives and histories “someday” often turns into never or maybe simply too late. We hope you will think about those pieces of you that should be Artifcted and archived to pass to friends and family and future generations before it’s too late. Take it one object at a time. If you get stuck, see if some of our partners and membership organizations can help you!

You can reach out to Brooke at Monocurate for a free consultation. She has beautiful project examples and easy to follow steps on her website as well. And, if you’re in Austin, we encourage you to attend a Monocurate workshop!

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The Importance of Digitizing Your Old Photographs, Documents, and other Artifacts

Shortly after the launch of Artifcts, I was introduced to Steven Fuhrman, Business Manager of Didlake Imaging. Steven and I immediately connected over a shared mission, helping individuals, families, and corporations preserve pieces of “their” story. Be it family wedding photos from generations gone by to historic maps, documents, and other physical pieces of paper that help shed a light on who we are, and where we’ve been. 

Steven and I also bonded over our respective privacy first mindsets. It’s not often you find someone who goes the extra mile to help people protect their own privacy. I had an ear-to-ear grin as I listened to Steven describe in detail the steps he and his team take to preserve people’s privacy when handling their most sensitive and cherished objects. 

Two months and several conversations later, I had the pleasure of taking a tour of Didlake’s Manassas, VA digital imaging lab, and sitting down with Steven and Valerie Spencer, Director of Business Development, for an interview/extended conversation. 

Seeing that we at Artifcts get asked from time to time, “what should I do with this box of old photos,” we thought we’d share our conversation with our ARTI Community. But before I do, one more comment: their facility is amazing. First, it is spotless. Paper generates a LOT of dust, and you would never know it by touring the Didlake facility. Second, they take security to heart. From cell phone lock boxes to security cameras. No stone was left unturned when planning the security footprint of the facility.  

What should I do with this box of old photos?

Having said that, on to the interview! 

Heather Nickerson: Didlake has a fascinating, decades long corporate history as a non-profit. What prompted you to get into the digitization business?  

Valerie Spencer: Didlake’s mission is to create opportunities that enrich the lives of people with disabilities. (Editor’s Note: Didlake prides itself on hiring local individuals with disabilities for a variety of jobs, such as photo scanning.) The management team at the time saw an opportunity with the Coast Guard to digitize large format drawings leveraging our past experience digitizing microfilm. Our first major investment was a large format scanner, a requirement for this project. Once we could demonstrate our success with large format, we could easily do other, less complex formats. Given our government contracting background, we pursued other large format and traditional digitization projects, including one with an airport. This then led us into the mass digitization market. 

Heather: Tell us about the clients you typically take on.  

Valerie: There is no typical project or typical client! Really, we work with anyone who has paper, anyone who has photos, maps, documents, student files, etc. We saw a need to support people cleaning out their homes during the pandemic and the holidays, prompting us to invest in specialty photo scanning equipment and to make improvements to our webpage. 

We work with anyone who has paper, anyone who has photos, maps, documents, student files, etc.

Heather: Any surprises or heart-warming stories from over the years?  

Steven Fuhrman: Our goal is to never turn anyone away. Most people send us boxes of photos, but no job is too small. One customer sought us out in the middle of the pandemic. He had lost his dog, and he only had three or four really good photos of the dog. He asked if we would digitize them for him as a way to memorialize his pet. Since it was in the middle of COVID, we did it for him while he waited in his car. It brought tears to his eyes knowing the photos would be preserved for years to come.   

Another story that comes to mind is that one of our clients is an owner of an art gallery. She had recently discovered a box of letters that her father had wrote home to his family during the Vietnam War. She wanted to preserve the letters and his story. Our team handled the letters very carefully, taking them out of their original envelopes, digitizing them, and returning them to their original envelopes and safely storing/returning them. We were honored that she trusted us enough with those family treasures. You don’t just hand something like that over to anyone. We wanted to make someone’s life better and help preserve that piece of family history.  

We were honored that she trusted us enough with those family treasures. You don’t just hand something like that over to anyone. 

Heather: I can imagine you are dealing with people’s most cherished artifacts. What do you tell clients to reassure them that their items will be safe with you?  

Valerie: We have a stellar reputation and have built up a lot of trust over the years. If the U.S. government trusts us with its most important documents, that says something. We also reassure clients that all our employees have background checks and have signed confidentiality agreements. We also franchise three The UPS stores and are experts in shipping and packaging; we know how to protect items in transit.  

Heather: Not every digitization company has a state-of-the-art, secure facility. Can you tell us a bit more about that?  

Valerie: Security is really important to us so we chose a location in a professional business park occupied by other county service providers. We utilize security cameras to track entry from the exterior and access control systems to permit access to sensitive internal areas. Our storage facility is dual climate controlled, and we use a secure cloud server for our digital services. We have invested in the security infrastructure to make sure people feel safe sending us their items.  

Heather: You know the story of Artifcts. How do you think Artifcts could help you in your work with your clients? 

Valerie: Artifcts is a natural complement to what we do at Didlake. We’re both preserving items in a digital manner and making it accessible and easy for people to share their memories. We all like to tell stories, and Artifcts lets the user tell the story.  

We all like to tell stories, and Artifcts lets the user tell the story.  

If you are looking for someone to help digitize your old photos, documents, maps, and more, contact Steven at Steve@DidlakeImaging.com

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At the Intersection of Artifcts & STEM

It’s fitting that in the middle of the National Hispanic American Heritage month we turn to the topic of STEM. If you have missed the STEM rocket ship, it stands for Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and reports have it that it was in fact the STEM Institute initiative of the Center for the Advancement of Hispanic in Science and Engineering Education that first coined the term back in 1992.  

I am too old to have been indoctrinated into the STEM programs the way that my daughter has already, but that’s not for lack of trying. My aunt Melinda Piket-May is a professor of electrical engineering and has patiently and persistently pushed open doors for women in the sciences. When I was in college, she provided me the opportunity to work with freshman engineering students who while brilliant in mathematics and specialized fields of engineering, suffered a combination of lack of interest and skill in writing.  

Now I aim to play my part in correcting this skills gap and Artifcts has given me that platform. Girlstart interviewed me recently (check it out), because I have become a female entrepreneur of a tech startup—even though I have no formal tech background—landing be squarely in a STEM field. What my co-founder Heather Nickerson and I have built together through Artifcts could serve as a megaphone for girls in STEM to get into the practice of writing about their experiences from a young age in a privacy-first environment focused on what they create.   

Click the image to access the interview with Girlstart.

Researchers, scientists, engineers... all have to document their processes not to mention communicate in journals, patent applications, media, grant applications, and more. They must be able to communicate, not just create!  

Circling back to Hispanic American Heritage Month, we know how abysmally people of color and females alike continue to be underrepresented in STEM educational programs and labor markets thanks to continued tracking by US Census Bureau and thoughtful analysis from the likes of the Pew Research Center. The Girlstart after school program alone brings STEM to young girls in nearly 90 high-need schools to help address access gaps in STEM. But schools and programs like Girlstart cannot do this in isolation. Parents, grandparents, guardians, and other mentors all need to be engaged in their girls' experiences and Artifcts offers an easy way to do so by meeting the adults where they are at - showing up in parents’ social media feeds and emails and from the voice of the girls. You will be surprised what the girls will tell you if you hand them the megaphone and listen.  

Stay tuned for more on Artifcts in STEM. We will be teaming up with Girlstart throughout spring 2022 in after school programs nationwide to so that the girls can capture and preserve their STEM experiences, share them, learn from them, and be proud of their accomplishments. Ellen Goodwin will also present on behalf of Girlstart at a local Austin elementary school in March to share her insights on careers in STEM.

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A View on 'Stuff' from a Professional Home Organizer

Just before the launch of Artifcts, I was introduced to Jennifer Singleterry, owner of Sort and Order, a home organization company based out of New Braunfels, Texas. As you might expect, we hit it off. She deals with stuff all day, and we at Artifcts want to help people to remember, record, and preserve the stories behind their stuff.  

We laughed over a shared frustration, too. I told her my brother in Wisconsin always quips that someday, if left to his own devices and he was forced to clean out the home our parents have lived in for over 40 years, he would just give it all away. That makes me cringe. But all the stories! Grandpa's clogs from Holland, the country barn painting Mom did in college, the vinyl records that are a part of my parents' youth and my own Christmas memories. Everything just gone?!  

Jennifer had a similar story to share of a son she worked with recently who hired her to help transition out of their family home of 60 years. As it turned out, the family's ‘stuff’ included war memorabilia dating back to the civil war, such as tintype photographs and well-preserved handwritten notes from the era. The project was rich with legacy and family history. Jennifer said she felt emotionally exhausted by the sense of loss because it was so hard to go through these items and appropriately manage them and often the sons felt the same way and defaulted to getting rid of it. 

She felt emotionally exhausted by the sense of loss. 

A week later I could not stop thinking about my conversation with Jennifer. She said she works regularly with women especially who tend to take on the role of the family "keeper." You know that person I bet in your own family. The person who not only knows the birthdays and anniversaries, but keeps track of family photos, brings people together over the holidays to remember the origins of favorite ornaments and recipes, and, in the end, manages who gets what when a loved one passes away. 

Women especially tend to take on the role of the family "keeper." 

My complete interview with Jennifer

I sat back down with Jennifer last week to unpack this a bit more and get her perspective on how Artifcts could help. We thought that everyone could learn and benefit from us sharing our interview notes. So, here we go!

Ellen Goodwin: Why did you get into the home organization business? 

Jennifer Singleterry: My first foray into this business started with the passing of my grandparents and then my mother. When you're in this process personally you realize the emotional toll it takes on those closest to the situation. The emotional and physical attachment to things and the weight that bears in going through them. Another component here is that a lot of families may not have that person who is equipped to take on a project of that scale. That's where we can come in and help lighten the load. As an impartial but considerate party it is easier for our team to go through and delineate what is precious and boil it down to just those items in question and then decide how we handle these items. 

Goodwin: Tell us about the typical project you take on.

Singleterry: (Laughing) I've never had a single project that is remotely similar to another! They are as individual as our fingerprints. Never the same chaos. Actually, it's not even usually chaos. Usually people just don't know what to do with the stuff. We work with a lot of garages, closets, and pantries - high turnover, daily use places, that need to accommodate change. I go in big picture, with the first priority being to clean it all out and then intentionally put things back in a manageable system. We cannot see our own things! We have to bring it to light. 

We cannot see our own things! We have to bring it to light.

Goodwin: Is there a typical client?

Singleterry: Yes and no. Really it's simply that someone has finally had enough of the inertia of not knowing what to do or how to do it with their own space and was referred to us while telling this tale of woe. Or they have just gotten overwhelmed with their situation and need someone to help. It's the feeling that made someone Google "home organizer" or "estate transition." You know this feeling on a project.  

Goodwin: You have an inside track to everything personal and mundane that we all keep (and maybe forget about!) in our homes, garages, etc. Has a client ever been surprised or excited maybe when you've discovered something they forgot about or thought was lost?

Singleterry: Every. Single. Time. A funny anomaly about humanity - we don't know what our “thing” is that contributes to the overwhelming situation. In every project it's been fun to see what a person's thing is. For one person, it was journals, 30 of them or more. Some journals had just one page used, in some none of the pages were used. For another person it was makeup and other beauty products, some in daily use, some for travel, some for special occasions. We had a whole box at the end and the woman said, "I had no idea I had this problem!" For another it was reusable bags, many with the original price tags still on them. There were more than 100 of them! 

The coolest thing that I have ever found was in an 80-year-old woman's closet. Her family was a founding family of New Braunfels. She asked me to pull down a box from the very top of the closet. Inside was the original bible from 1843 that was brought over on the boat with her family from Germany. It was in wonderful condition. It even had the family genealogy in it. I felt like we should have worn gloves to handle it! It should be in a museum, in a collection somewhere, kept safe, because what happens if the keeper isn't there to keep it anymore? 

In an 80-year-old woman's closet ... was the original bible from 1843 that was brought over on the boat with her family from Germany.

Goodwin: Some stuff really is just stuff. What happens to the stuff your clients decide not to keep?

Singleterry: We do our best to take things where they go, to give items another life. Some call it re-homing. We try to take women’s and children's clothing, bedding, and toys in good condition to the local women's crisis center. A lot of home goods, lumber, surplus hardware, and industrial items go to Habitat for Humanity, because they have the need and foot traffic to utilize it. Miscellaneous goods go to local charities. When an estate sale is part of the project, the majority goes through that avenue and then we work with a company that takes goods that did not sell to be sold onward from another location. If at the very end it's trash, unwearable, unsaleable, unusable... it goes to trash.

Goodwin: You know the story of Artifcts. How do you think Artifcts could help you in your work with your clients? 

Singleterry: Artifcts is invaluable. If I had known about this, even just weeks ago, I could have employed this system for good. Families have histories and members of a family can engage with that history together on Artifcts from anywhere. One sister has the desk, but here's the story, and all family members can see it.  

Artifcts gives objects another life. So often when I'm hired, especially if the person is deceased, the history is lost, the stories do not transfer with the items. This would literally be a way to continue the story, to carry on the life that they began. A person had a bond with an item and there was a story there - what did a postcard mean to be sent from someone far away and to be saved by the recipient? It's a piece of an experience, a bigger story. 

Artifcts gives objects another life... a way to continue the story, to carry on the life that they began.

< End of Interview >

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the stuff in your life, try Artifcting (register free here). You might find that by taking it one Artifct at a time, it is fun and rewarding to parse out the meaningful objects from the other stuff that might be crowding your garage, bedroom, closets, attic, and other convenient hiding places! If you need help getting started, explore our virtual and in-person concierge services. 

If you’re in the New Braunfels or surrounding area and likewise need help rescuing a chaotic space to clearing out an estate, contact Jennifer at jenn@sortandorder.life or call her directly at (830) 500-0142.

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