Health Care and Small Business & Startups

Former social workers turn pro organizers

Susie Marsh, Kate Wert help individuals with mental health issues organize spaces.

January 6, 2017
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Susie's Organization Solutions
Susie Marsh, left, and Kate Wert use their background in social work to assist clients who are overwhelmed by clutter. Photo by Michael Buck

Two former social workers have turned their expertise toward helping individuals de-clutter their spaces and improve their mental health.

Susie Marsh spent over two decades doing case management and program administration for a mental health nonprofit before launching Susie’s Organization Solutions (SOS) in 2007.

She said while there are many professional organizers, few of them have a background in social work, which is why she was excited to meet Kate Wert a few years ago at an end-of-life conference they were both attending.

“I really liked that she had a social work background, too,” Marsh said. “You don’t get that a lot with organizers. You get a lot of people with a business background or maybe an office background, something with the organization part, but not often with the mental health background.”

Wert, who has a master’s degree in social work and has previously worked in foster care and hospice, said she was interested in starting her own professional organizing business but was hesitant as a single parent to take the leap.

“The thought of starting a business on my own was terrifying,” she said. “It didn’t seem like something I could do.”

But Wert decided to give professional organizing a try and began working with Marsh to get a feel for the business.

“I wanted to shadow and volunteer with Susie and get a taste for it and see if I enjoyed it first before I committed,” she said.

She began working with Marsh this past spring and now is in the process of launching her own professional organizing business, Clean Slate by Kate, having discovered she loves organizing and has a real passion for helping people in this way.

Both Marsh and Wert utilize their backgrounds in social work to help make a difference in their clients’ lives.

“Since I specialize in chronic disorganization, that means there are usually ongoing issues,” Marsh said. “Chronic disorganization encompasses people with depression, anxiety, traumatic brain injury, hoarding, physical disability and chronic illness, and often they are co-occurring disorders. That is where it gets really challenging.”

Wert added, “The draw to Susie is the mental health background. They see she is a social worker, and that builds that trust off the bat. She’s a professional, and has an understanding, and is empathetic and has that knowledge base.”

Wert said there is a natural transference that comes with having a background in social work.

“As social workers, we have ethical guidelines we follow — confidentiality being a big one.”

She also said being able to meet clients where they are is very important.

“We are not going to force people,” she said. “We are going to meet them where they are at and go at their pace. We use different models in the practice — harm reduction, stages of change, person centered. We want to empower them to make the decisions and help them through that process.

“There are a lot of people who have experienced trauma or loss and are at a crossroads where things have become overwhelming, or they’ve lost a loved one and letting go of items and processing can be difficult. So, having that background, it turns more into a therapeutic process as a goal. It’s not just about organizing. It’s not solution focused.”

When starting with a new client, Marsh and Wert first conduct an assessment that helps them build a relationship and better understanding of the person’s needs.

“It’s very comprehensive and holistic,” Wert said. “We want to get to know the individual. People can divulge as much information as they want, but we do ask personal questions, such as mental health history and medical history, but people seem to want to share their story. It’s a relief for them in a way.”

The next step involves developing an action plan.

Marsh said she approaches situations differently based on the types of mental health issues.

For example, she said, “If it is true hoarding disorder, the attachment is really strong. They can’t let go of those items, and it is starting to impair the daily functioning. You start having the pathways and the piles and all of that. You are looking at those indicators.

“If it’s depression, and they can’t get out of bed or can’t do anything and they are overwhelmed but willing to get rid of it, that’s different.”

Marsh said a big part of her initial work with clients is building up trust.

“We are not going to go in there and blow the house apart. We do it side by side, sorting with the person as much as they are able to.

“You’ve got donate, keep, relocate, give away to family or friends, trash and recycle piles and you sort into those categories. You let that person start that sorting, and if they don’t know what to do with it, you talk them through it. ‘Does it make sense for you to keep it, do you love it, is it giving you joy or guilt?’”

Wert said on many occasions, it helps clients to talk about the items.

“There is a lot of reminiscing, lots of history,” she said. “It’s a privilege. You get to go in and people open their homes and heart to you, and you take a walk down memory lane with them.”

Wert said sometimes the process involves taking photos of items being given away and turning them into memory books.

“We come up with alternative ways of preserving the memories,” she said.

Marsh said the amount of time she spends with a client is really dependent on the severity of the disorganization and the mental health issues they might be dealing with. She’s had clients that she works with on a quick organizing project like a closet space or downsizing, as well as clients who she’s worked with for multiple years.

“I have one right now that is ongoing, and it’s been about four years,” she said. “It’s an ongoing step-by-step process. I do get calls to do a downsizing for a family, if an older adult is moving or something like that. I’ll go in and do a short amount of time. The majority of them will be at least 12 hours.”

Marsh and Wert are members of the Grand Rapids Area Hoarding Taskforce (GRAHT) and are sometimes brought in to help individuals who have come to the taskforce’s attention.

GRAHT typically has 30 active cases at a time, according to Eric Jordan, code compliance supervisor for the city of Grand Rapids.

The taskforce has been in place for two years and was created to deal with difficult code enforcement situations where typical procedures aren’t going to work. Its goal is to help people remain in their home safely.

“The taskforce tries to get involved at the forefront of a problem that is discovered or found,” Jordan said.

Often, a government department, nonprofit, area agency or medical staff who witnesses the situation on a visit to the home will report the issue to the taskforce, which will then assess the level of the issue.

Jordan said the taskforce does training with organizations throughout the city and has developed a one-to-five scale to measure the level of hoarding and create consistency for reporting and response.

Jordan said GRAHT works with several state-approved vendors or contractors in the personal organizing realm but said Marsh and Wert’s social work background is a definite plus in the situations that come to the taskforce’s attention.

Jordan said cost is definitely a challenge. He said it can cost $10,000 to $20,000 in some situations to bring a home into compliance, and that kind of money isn’t typically available.

Personal organizers, like Marsh and Wert, receive payment in many of these instances through a nonprofit or area agency that is helping the individual.

Wert said the cost of renting a dumpster alone is substantial, so residents in more dire situations often need the financial help.

Marsh and Wert said there still is a lot of research taking place around hoarding and disorganization, and they are continually staying abreast of new findings to help their clients.

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