Julie Hibbs founded her professional organizing company, Squared Away, in Houston back in 1999. “Helping her clients reduce their stress, increase their productivity, and better manage their time and energy” is her mission, explained Leigh Jackson, a long-time Squared Away employee. She does so “by offering proven, dependable, and stylish organization solutions.” There is no denying Hibbs is good at what she does; she is a member of NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, and has even served as president of the Houston chapter. She is so good at what she does, and has been at it for long enough, Hibbs was “one of the first in the country to earn the designation Certified Professional Organizer.”
Now in her fifth year as a full-time employee, Jackson began working for Hibbs while in college as an errand runner for Squared Away. She “eventually fell in love (became obsessed) with organizing!” When it comes to the job, Jackson is “project-driven and loves a great before-and-after.” But ultimately, a tidy, organized, functional, yet beautiful space brings peace to people, said Jackson. It provides “the opportunity to run your day-to-day most efficiently!”
While Squared Away has been serving the Houston metroplex for years, catastrophe recently struck when Harvey made landfall in Texas on August 25, 2017. Flooding thousands of homes in the Bayou City, the waters displaced far more individuals and families than anticipated. Neighborhoods nowhere near the coast were destroyed and those who had planned for just a power outage or general inconveniences in the coming days found themselves being rescued in boats.
While the list of to-dos in a home ravaged by flood waters could fill volumes, there is a second home that also needs attention during an event such as this; temporary homes provide people a place to settle as best they can while they try to process the shock of a natural disaster and wade through the metaphorical waters of managing the demolition, repair, paperwork, and claims that seem never-ending. Those who have lost everything but are lucky enough to find somewhere to reside, as apartments and rental homes that remained safe and dry are quickly claimed, then have to face additional loss as they take an inventory of all the things they need in a new home in addition to all the things they can never recover from the old.
While the rains from Harvey still fell from a dismal sky, Jackson received a call from her sister Emily, sharing about one their friend’s experiences. “Not only had the Murphys lost their home,” shared Jackson, “they were in the hospital, having delivered their second child during the hurricane.” The sisters knew that someone had helped their friend secure a “home” to which the Murphy family could bring their family and newborn. With that knowledge alone, Jackson and her sister jumped to action. The family had only what they had taken to the hospital, so she began reaching out, pulling all her resources “to get this new place set up for a family of four.” She was able to help secure “beds, furniture, groceries, and even kayaked into their home to retrieve their personal items that were salvageable.”
After witnessing these devastating circumstances, Jackson drove home that night musing over what she had seen and experienced that day. After helping her friend, and with a background as an organizer, she came up with the concept of the home starter kit. Additionally, Jackson’s career at Squared Away provided the perfect platform to put the new idea into immediate action. Jackson called Hibbs from the car, who loved it instantly.
The very next day, one of Jackson’s friends went out and purchased all the items for the first prototype, bringing it to the office. “We knew Squared Away had the platform, resources, and the clients,” she shared. “We have great client relationships and everyone was looking for a way to help.” She added, “I also think people want to know exactly what their money is going towards!” Many of the initial donations were made by someone to a friend or family member directly affected. “They knew where the kit was going!”
Home Starter Kits come in a few levels: Complete Home, Bed, Bath; Kitchen; and Kids. The complete kit offers everyday items for the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, such as plates, mugs, utensils, towels, and sheets. The kitchen kit includes items such as dishes, cups, cutlery, dishtowels, pots, pans, and even a can opener. The idea is that someone can select the type of kit depending on what they can spend and give a tangible gift to someone who has lost everything. It takes years to fully stock a kitchen with all the perfect gadgets and pans and such. People are arriving at their temporary homes with nothing, not even a spoon. This helps ensure that the new place can function as a home, albeit minimally, from the start.
“The reception of these kits has been amazing!” Jackson personally delivered one to the home of a displaced family and can confirm that “people have been overwhelmed by them … what we are doing is making a difference. It is allowing people to get one step closer to normalcy and a routine. They can focus on the bigger picture if the little things are [handled].” Jackson told the story of one client who purchased ten kits and delivered five to teachers of her child’s school. “There were tears of happiness” and the teachers each wanted to give it to another teacher who “needed it more.” The client assured them they would all be getting a home starter kit. “They were in awe and overjoyed,” said Jackson.
For the foreseeable future, it seems that Jackson is back to her college days as an errand runner, building more kits for those setting up home under unexpected and unfortunate circumstances. Making trips back and forth to IKEA and The Container Store though is “more realistic than me driving across town to pick up donated items from Fairfield and the Woodlands and trying to get them delivered,” explained Jackson. “IKEA is amazing, and for a small price it makes a huge difference to be able to provide people with full, matching, new sets of things.”
The team efforts for Harvey relief, however, do not end at the home starter kits. Jackson, with her good friend Kat, spent several days post-flooding serving meals where possible to victims of the rising waters. Jamie, also an employee at Squared Away, had also jumped to action, as she works in search-and-rescue. “She ended up out in Wharton,” explained Jackson. “She texted all of us and asked if we could go out there to help.” The team took medical supplies down and helped arrange for a doctor to see and treat people who were staying in a local shelter. “We walked door to door to see if people needed medical attention and gave out masks.” Jackson explained that many people in this community cannot afford temporary rentals or hotels while their homes are being demolished and salvaged. “They don’t have other options.”
Squared Away and its employees have tried to do as much as they can out in Wharton “to help the people we have met there!” Their efforts have ranged from taking lunch to members of the community, to partnering with caterers to make that happen. They have taken Play Station videogame consoles to a local school, for those suffering from mental illnesses. “We’ve put a family of seven up in a hotel until they could get into the FEMA hotels … I could go on and on.”
“At the end of the day, it’s friends, family, and coworkers all doing anything we can to help meet the needs of those impacted by Harvey,” shared Jackson humbly. “Social media has been an amazing tool in showing others what these [victims of Harvey] need!”
For everyone involved, from the evacuees to the displaced to the first responders to those making efforts to continue to help where needed, “It’s been a whirlwind for sure.” Unfortunately, one that will continue in the months to come as many try to reclaim the lives the storms so viciously washed out from underneath them.