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A View on 'Stuff' from a Professional Home Organizer

Ellen Goodwin, Artifcts
September 21, 2021

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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It Wouldn't Be Thanksgiving Without...
Dear Readers,
The holidays are fast approaching and here at Artifcts we are already thinking about our favorite “things.” High on that list are recipes. Nothing evokes memories quite like the smell, taste, and look of our favorite recipes. They may be ones made year after year or passed down for generations. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without....” Or maybe you have a new favorite, one that was discovered during our national COVID-induced cooking craze.
Nothing evokes memories quite like the smell, taste, and look of our favorite recipes.
For me, nothing says “holiday” quite like one of my mom’s tea breads. These breads were always present on our holiday table, almost as important as the turkey. (Or if you were to ask some of my family members, MORE important than the turkey.) They are simple to make and present beautifully when arrayed on a platter or served warm from the oven. Sweet enough to appeal to children and children at heart, but not too sweet to be reserved for the dessert table. (Although I grew up eating tea breads in lieu of more conventional desserts.)
  
I am now the “keeper” of the recipes as my mother is no longer here. I can always count on a phone call or two from my aunts and brothers the week before Thanksgiving to get copies of the recipes and to double check the countless alterations my mother made to each recipe. Did she double the cranberries? Omit the orange zest? Was it two bananas or three?
I am now the “keeper” of the recipes as my mother is no longer here.
This year I have decided to Artifct the recipes and share with family and friends. No more searching through old photos, disintegrating recipe books, or recalling from memory the substitutions that my mother made. The stories, photos, and memories are all here in one place, as well as every ingredient, alteration, and the occasional quote of kitchen wisdom passed down from my mother to me.
I invite you Dear Reader to join me in Artifcting your favorite family recipes this holiday season. Keep the traditions alive and share the love (or at least the banana bread). 
Happy Artifcting,
Heather 
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A Harp, an Accordion, and 60 Years of Merriment

He said it started with a train ride to buy a harp at the turn of the 20th century.  

Jerry May’s father made young Jerry wait until he was 10 years old to learn to play the accordion. Begging since the age of seven, his dad wanted to be sure his eldest son “knew the value of his music” and would not give up on it. But Jerry would never give up. 

Music was in his blood. From Jerry's grandfather taking the Burlington railroad into Chicago to purchase a Chicago Harp to his mother and eventually his siblings each playing piano, music was an ever-present part of Jerry’s life.  

The accordion by design is a lonely instrument. With the keyboard on the right and bass on the left, you are your own accompaniment. But you don’t have to be. By the time Jerry was 13, he was taking his 12 bass accordion to accompany his twin sisters who would sing at events in town. Jerry recalled the amazing payment they received after playing for the local fire department where their dad volunteered - a pizza dinner! This was the early 1950s and pizza was just getting its start. He delighted in the novel treat. 

12 bass accordion          

Fast forward to Jerry’s senior year at the Marmion Military Academy, a local Catholic high school, when he joined the school’s professional band as the only accordion among largely classic brass musicians. He was inspired and upon graduation he and a friend started a band named the Mello Tones.  

For the next 40 years, the band—which also included tenor sax, alto, clarinet, drums, and a bass—played classic dance tunes, including polkas, waltzes, and period classics from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, at weddings, clubs, private events and parties, riffing off each other, and loving life. Jerry led the band with a singular mission after all — making people happy.  

Jerry Performing with His 120 Bass Accordion

About 20 years ago Jerry shifted his music back to his family’s German roots. He formed a new band, Jerry’s Happy Wanderers, and with lederhosen, a pinned fedora, and a collection of over 30 German songs the now seasoned musician found his dance card fully booked with requests to play Oktoberfests, pubs, and special events throughout the US and Europe. He was now only one of a few remaining accordion players in the 80,000 strong American Federation of Musicians and the only one playing German music.  

Jerry is now in his 80s and intends to retire from professional music at the end of this year. We suspect you may still find him in one-man shows at the request of his family, like the snippet above from his recent gig at Two Brothers. His 60 years have brought him as much joy as the merriment he has inspired. From state fairs and festivals, river cruises and clubs, and even those sparkly Chicago high rises, Jerry has brought what is becoming a lost art to many and become one of its keepers along the way. 

We close with a tantalizing surprise. Artifcts from Jerry’s extended private collection, which includes accordions that came into Jerry’s life from those who play no more.  

Accordion gifted to Jerry by woman dying of cancer     Accordion gifted to Jerry by couple during 65th birthday celebration

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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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