DECATUR — These days, Cynthia Sidwell’s home is a monument to tidiness.
Clothes are neatly folded and displayed in drawers, or hanging unencumbered in closets. Five colorful backpacks and jackets, one for each daughter, hang on five designated hooks. Plastic bins make food easily visible and reachable in the pantry. The linen closet holds towels rolled neatly into cylinders.
It hasn’t always been this way.
Because of medical challenges facing the Sidwells’ youngest daughter, the family hadn’t even unpacked after moving into the house. Boxes piled up in the garage. Clutter piled up in the house.
"We just bought things that we needed, because we didn't have time to mess with it," Sidwell said. "We accumulated things as we needed them and ended up with way too much stuff."
Sidwell is one of many who say their lives have been changed after adopting the methods of Marie Kondo, the Japanese professional organizer whose book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” swept the United States when it was published here in 2014. A new Netflix series, “Tidying Up,” shows Kondo in action, using her KonMari method to help a different family tidy their home in each of eight episodes.
The show has resonated with many since its Jan. 1 premiere. Thrift stores around the country have reported an increase in donations. Professional organizers say they’re seeing more interest in their profession, whether they follow Kondo’s style or not.
"Since the show, I've definitely had a spike in interest and a spike in clients who are serious about making a commitment to this,” said Kristyn Ivey, the first certified KonMari Consultant in Illinois. “Because it does require a bit of time and energy in order to execute it properly.”
Here’s how the KonMari method works: Sort items by category (such as clothing, or papers), rather than by room. Pile all the like items together. One by one, hold them and ask: Does this spark joy? If the answer is no, thank the item for its role in your life and discard it.
Shedding items can be a time-consuming, emotional process, but many KonMari devotees ultimately find it liberating. Kristina Huebner Donley, of Decatur, described the experience of as “absolutely freeing and healing.”
Donley became interested after reading Kondo’s book and said she has been able to declutter about 75 percent of her home.
"The actual thought process behind the purge was my motivation," she said. "I did take the time to handle every object and think about its usefulness."
Stress breeds clutter
For Sidwell, the clutter in her home grew out of a challenging and emotional time for her family. A week after they moved into their home in Altamont, her then-15-month-old daughter, Emmie Jane, began having frequent seizures.
Cynthia and her husband, Greg, were thrown into a whirlwind of medical tests, hospital stays and doctor visits as they sought to find a solution for their daughter, the youngest of five. The couple constantly had their eyes glued to their child. If Emmie Jane had a seizure, her mother recorded it.
Meanwhile, the garage of their home was full of possessions waiting to be unpacked from boxes and stored. The couple juggled the chaos of being in the hospital, caring for five daughters and attempting to feel "at home" after their move. Unpacking all of the boxes was put to the back burner, Cynthia Sidwell said.
After a life-changing surgery, Sidwell's youngest daughter made a dramatic recovery. Things began to go back to normal for the family. But the boxes from the move were still piled high in the garage.
"So all of a sudden, I'm sitting back with a crammed garage, a house full of stuff that's overflowing — all within just a year of moving," Sidwell said.
Sidwell had learned concepts from Kondo’s book and watched a few episodes of the Netflix series. She decided to give it a try, starting with organizing the clothes in her closet.
"I unloaded every single item and stacked it high (on the bed)," she said. "We couldn't sleep in our bed that night, but by the next day, I had my closet organized."
Decluttering and organizing gave Sidwell a feeling of clarity, which motivated her to continue to other areas of her home. So far, she has donated two vans full of items to area thrift stores.
Spike in donations
The shelves and racks of thrift stores across the country are filling with the proceeds of large donations like those made by Sidwell.
Chris Venable, the social manager of Urban Peak and Peak Thrift in Denver, said last month that donations had doubled since the show dropped in January. The Idaho Youth Ranch, which operates a number of thrift stores across the state, reported that donations were up 40 percent in the first two months of the year. Goodwill Industries has reported a year-over-year spike in donations attributed to the show, from 20 percent in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to 30 percent in Washington, D.C.
It appears the trend has reached Macon County as well. Workers at several Decatur thrift stores said donations have been coming in at a heavier clip in recent months, and they’ve either been told or seen evidence that the influx can be attributed to Kondo.
"A lot of people are getting rid of things and simplifying," said Julie Camfield, owner of New To You, 1985 E. Pershing Road.
Donations are up, and some people have been coming in daily. Seeing Kondo’s show made them realize they have extra belongings they did not use or need, Camfield said.
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Stephanie Stukins, manager of the Habitat for Humanity Restore on East Wood Street, said the store has had an increase in donations, especially in the past couple of weeks. These donations are consisting of a lot of household items like dishes and knick-knacks.
Although The New Life Thrift Shop at the New Life Pregnancy Center has also had more donations than usual, employee Sheree Schinzler said people who have donated have not mentioned Kondo.
"It seems like normally this time of the year, in January and February, it is normally lower than usual, but now it's up," employee Sheree Schinzler said.
Lois Hinz, an employee of LSA Resale Shop on East Cerro Gordo Street, said the store has always gotten some high-end donations, such as clothing with price tags still attached and fine China.
"We certainly are getting many 'used, but very good' items, which might be easier for the new downsizers to donate," she said.
‘Sparking’ a trend
Ivey, the KonMari Consultant who also co-hosts a tidying-related podcast called “Spark Joy,” completed her training in August 2016 when Kondo held sessions in San Francisco. Since then, she has spent more than 800 hours helping clients tidy.
"Well it all started when I was going through a bit of a crossroads in my life," said Ivey, of Chicago. She began to feel unhappy with her 14-year career as an engineer and project manager and didn't see it as her ultimate passion.
Ivey discovered Kondo and her method, read her books and immediately told her friends, "As soon as she comes to the U.S., I will be there."
One job that stands out to Ivey was helping an empty-nester over the course of 60 hours. "She was really taking a moment to reclaim the space for herself and really discover what sparks joy for her," she said of the client.
Ivey, one of 116 certified KonMari consultants in the country, believes "Tidying Up" is helping people overcome embarrassment or shame about the topic of clutter. While other professional organizers might not always agree with Kondo’s methods, many say she has raised awareness of the reasons to declutter.
"To me, everything that I read in (Kondo's book) was more or less what we as organizers try to implement with people,” said Becky Rogers, owner of Organize My Clutter, which offers services throughout Central Illinois. “She put it into words that are catching attention, like 'spark joy.’”
Rogers, a member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, said the book created controversy in the organizing industry when it was released. An average new home in the United States is double the size of an average Japanese home, Rogers said. While the KonMari method works for some clients, it doesn’t work for all.
Sarah Brent, a professional organizer from Bloomington-based Practical Harmony, said a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon after seeing the show. "We love to help people through this issue that so many people have," she said.
Practical Harmony is a team of four women who serve the entirety of Central Illinois, decluttering and organizing homes. Brent said she started the business because she has been into organizing since she was a child. She grew up around a relative who was a hoarder, an experience she described as traumatic.
"It came so naturally for me to help people through the process," Brent said.
Unlike Kondo, Brent does not advise clients to pile similar items together. Instead, she encourages sorting by room, but added that every organizer has his or her own method. She follows the same logic as Kondo, but uses different words: Instead of asking if something “sparks joy,” she asks if it makes the client happy.
Another technique Kondo implements and Brent agrees with is to file-fold clothing, to make it more accessible in drawers. It is an approach she uses in her home and a tip she encourages clients to use.
"I think that it's definitely been a plus as far making people aware of what they have in their home and think about what they should get rid of," she said.
The hardest part
The dark side of decluttering, for many, brings a sense of loss. It’s hard to give up those jeans you hoped would fit one day, or the cache of old Christmas cards from 15 years ago. That’s why Kondo’s method emphasizes expressing gratitude toward each discarded item, to honor its contributions to the owner’s life.
Farah Mahmood, of Forsyth, said she learned to be thankful for the memories an item gave her, even when it’s time to make new memories. "It's nice to give it away and pass it on to someone else who can use it and make their own memories," she said.
Mahmood began sorting after watching an episode of the Netflix show with her daughter. They piled all of her daughter’s clothing on the bed in her studio apartment, marveling over how much had accumulated — and realizing they had to clear it off to go to sleep.
"When you do make one pile, it kind of surprises you to see how many items of one thing you have," she said.
Mahmood said Kondo's method has helped her with other life tasks, like shopping. She now asks herself how often she will wear the item or if she has something similar already.
The next tasks Mahmood will tackle include organizing her junk drawer and garage when weather is warmer.
For the Sidwells, the tidier house comes along with other relief: 2½-year-old Emmie Jane is home and doing much better. "Since her surgery, she's just been so much happier," Sidwell said.
Now the couple does not have to be in constant fear.
"I think that has played into how good it feels to get rid of things," Sidwell said. "I needed (items) gone to breathe."
She said she follows Kondo's step of thanking items before getting rid of them.
"I do take a moment to be thankful for what we have and being able to identify items we need and items we don't," she said. "We can be thankful we had it, and let it go."