In one of those happy Twitter accidents, I became friends with Geralin Thomas, one of the organizers on the A&E TV show Hoarders. She has a great website called Metropolitan Organizing which is full of great tricks and tips for organizing your own life. If you're a fan of the show like I am, you appreciate how understanding she is with people in crisis and how much patience she brings to the job. It was a thrill and an honor to interview her recently:
I actually considered becoming an organizer at one point. How did you become a professional?
I’ve been organizing as long as I can remember. Even as a young girl I appreciated having quality over quantity. I was emphatic about keeping only one Barbie and wanted nothing to do with any of her friends. Instead of dating Ken, my Barbie stayed in on Saturday nights organizing her dream home & evening gown collection which was color-coded in ROY G. BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Indigo, Violet).
In elementary school, when we started diagramming sentences using the Reed-Kellogg system, I was in organizing geek heaven. I knew then and there that if organizing words could bring me such joy, organizing tangible stuff would be nirvana.
Once I had children of my own, the organizational skills had to grow exponentially. My two boys, born only 14 months apart, provided all sorts of organizational challenges – not just their stuff, but their time, their activities, and how everything fit into our family’s lives and our space. As every parent knows, children bring a new world of social networking, and the moms and dads I met all had their organizing challenges, too. I had fun helping solve some of their organizing puzzles, to the point where I realized this was a business opportunity; parents asked for my advice and hands-on solutions and were willing to pay for it.
2. 2 Everyone knows you from your work on Hoarders on A&E. How did you start working on the show?
I became involved with the show thru a very “old-school” technique -- they picked up the phone, called me and we chatted.
3. 3 You are so patient with the participants on the show – has there ever been a situation that you felt you just couldn’t handle?
Every single hoarding case has many challenging moments; each and every job is emotionally and physically draining. The homes are often full of safety hazards so spending long days in that environment isn’t healthy and once I walk out the door, for the day, the day’s events remain in my mind.
I do not accept clients that are animal hoarders, have dementia or live in squalor - - I don't take on those clients because they require a different skills set.
4. 4 One of the most difficult things about hoarding is that the problem tends to be hard to manage. Do you see a lot of success stories?
In my experience, hoarding is treatable but not curable. With the "Harm Reduction" method, success is measured by keeping someone SAFE so yes, there are plenty of success stories. Dr. Michael A. Tompkins covers the Harm Reduction method in his book, Digging Out.
I also consider it a huge success when clients begin to get educated about this disorder and agree to collaborate with both a mental health professional and myself.
Besides that, every step towards the client’s goal is a cause for celebration. My goal is to make the organizing experience a pleasant one for them and have them realize that organizing is just the tip of the iceberg.
5. 5 We only see two days on the show – do you work with the participants longer, either before or after the filming?
So far, I haven’t worked with anyone located in my home state of NC. I refer my TV clients to a qualified professional organizer who lives near them whenever possible. I do however stay in touch with many of the clients via phone and email. I even talk to some of their family members too, with their permission of course.
6. 6 Do you think Hoarders on A&E has had an impact on the disorder?
The show has indeed had an impact - - people now know there is help available and know the term "hoarding." The show provides aftercare so people can hire help and learn more about the disorder and the treatment.
Individuals can apply to be on the show by filling out a form at http://hoardersdocumentary.com/machform/view.php?id=3 or access other resources listed at http://www.aetv.com/hoarders/treatment.
One of the things I love most about the show is that it provides the public with an armchair view of a hoarder’s home. Though some viewers might cast unkind or unsympathetic remarks, the majority of viewers are supportive; cheering on the hoarder while applauding the bravery it takes to broadcast their homes and lives to a film crew.
Best of all, viewers can witness the different approaches and various techniques being used. Personally, I prefer a ‘team approach’ where several organizers are brought in to sort and purge while I work individually with the client. When emotional issues arise, I remind them that these are issues they should discuss with their therapist and that we have a job to do. My goal is that the client is understood, supported and cared for. I am painfully honest about expectations and feel it is important for them to realize that they will be experiencing some discomfort. I stay beside them the entire journey and when they decide they want me in the driver's seat, I am always willing to take the wheel.
I also think viewers are inspired to ultimately buy less stuff. And in addition, I believe the show holds the potential to motivate masses of American viewers to get organized and develop their own internal efficiency.
7. 7 If someone is interested in becoming an organizer, what is the best way to start?
Explore a lot of websites and blogs outside the field of organizing. It’s beneficial to investigate business ideas and models from somewhat related areas, such as record management companies, interior designers, therapists, handyman services, personal chefs, fitness trainers, etc.
For parents reading this, your children’s teachers are probably among the best organized people you will ever meet – volunteer in the classroom and watch a master of time management, space management, and stuff management at work! When you’re at a friend’s house, see how they organize their kitchen drawers, or their child’s artwork and school supplies. You may be able to transpose an idea you saw for a kitchen drawer to a brilliant idea for sorting something totally different, like jewelry or office supplies. You never know what will jump out at you and trigger an idea for another application.
8. 8 On the flip side, if someone is in a hoarding situation, do you have any advice or resources you’d like to share?
First, educate yourself about the condition. Being a “pack rat” may be due to chronic disorganization, which is not the same as compulsive hoarding. You can find more information on the A & E website, and I’ve written about this issue on my blog.
Second, seek support, whether from a mental health professional and/or qualified professional organizer who specializes in hoarding and chronic disorganization. You can contact the NSGCD for referrals. You'll find a list of questions to ask when hiring a professional organizer on my blog.
Thanks so much to Geralin for her time! If you have any questions for her, you can pop over to her blog or ask them in the comments.
On this date: In 1977, Star Wars opened.