Eileen Koff and Patricia Campbell work best surrounded by clutter in crowded kitchen pantries or overstuffed basements. But they don’t get their inspiration from immersing themselves in all this physical and emotional baggage; rather, by getting rid of it.
Koff and Campbell are professional organizers. Not to be confused with home cleaners, the women are clutter crusaders — paid to help people let go of the things they do not need and to recognize why they have attachments to certain possessions. Clutter, they say, is far more complicated than what the eye can see.
“People think, ‘I should be able to do this by myself.’ But no. ‘Stuff’ is very emotionally charged,” Koff says. “We don’t even know what questions to ask ourselves.”
In June, Koff started a clutter support group that meets monthly at her Stony Brook home. Koff and Campbell are members of the National Association of Professional Organizers and facilitate the meetings. Attendees need not be actual clients of theirs.
“People come together to share similar struggles. They hold each other accountable with new projects or lifestyle changes,” Koff says. “A lot of these people get to know each other really well. They share something that is important to them.”
People are often reluctant to seek outside help to deal with the piles of baby photos or years-old theater programs stacking up around their homes, but the support group allows Long Islanders overcome by clutter to realize their problem is a common one.
“They will come for something like this because there is no judgment here,” Koff says. “We’re here to give advice and discuss what works and what didn’t work.”
WHEN STUFF TAKES OVER
Christa Johnson began attending the clutter support group last month, after she noticed her Ronkonkoma home had been overtaken by someone else’s possessions.
“A lot of stuff came in when my mom died,” says Johnson, a registered nurse.
Throughout the two-hour meeting, Koff helped Johnson to realize that many people tend to latch on to things as a coping mechanism — especially after traumatic events such as the loss of a loved one.
“A home is really just a reflection of what is going on in our mind,” Koff says. “The home is our larger self.”
Hoarding seems to run in Mary and Katelyn Bryant’s family, and the Hauppague women came to last month’s meeting hoping to find help.
“My grandma gives me stuff,” Katelyn Bryant, 20, says. “My room is the haven in the house for things that won’t get thrown away.”
The items take up physical and emotional space in her life.
“It’s depressing,” she says. “I only have a walkway — and it’s a big room.”
Koff poses a question to the support group: When you walk into a hotel room, what’s there? She encourages the group to model their own spaces after hotel rooms, which she notes have nothing beyond what’s necessary.
In their roles as organizers, Koff and Campbell act as “body doubles,” in most cases physically removing clutter from the homes of their clients.
“We anchor the person into the space,” Koff says. “We keep the anchor strong. When you have a body double or a buddy, you’re more likely to get a task completed.”
While no one leaves a clutter support group meeting in perfect order, Koff closes each meeting with a challenge for each attendee. Last month’s task was to come up with one organization project for each of the 12 months.
Koff encourages the women to start out with small projects — tackle a sock drawer, one shelf in a busy closet or a jewelry box — and not to think it would be mastered in a clean sweep or by storing their belongings in color-coordinated containers.
“Organization is about living simply, paying attention to our actions, making conscious choices,” Koff says. “Simplifying our lives, restoring balance and meaning, feeling connected. These are the core of being organized.”