Today I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Kristin Bergfeld, who is a legend in the cleaning industry. BERGFELD’s Clearance Services is celebrating its 30th year of business in New York City and Kristin is frequently tapped to share her expert advice about helping hoarders recover their lives. As I was doing background research before our call, I discovered that she had also been one of the original founders of Earth Day back in 1970!
Being the eco-nerd that I am, I had to start our interview with Earth Day and get the details on her involvement. Kristin was teaching in the New York City public school system in 1970, working with kids, “growing lima beans and those sorts of things,” and thinking about environmental issues. She joined a group of other like-minded citizens in an auditorium on E 49th Street, which is where she met Denis Hayes. “He had a million ideas a minute,” Kristin recalled. “We closed down Fifth Avenue and 14th Street for parades, educational demonstrations, lobbying groups, speeches, and all manner of celebrations to raise public awareness. We held the first Earth Day ever.”
Fast-forward seventeen years, and Kristin continued her eco-friendly ways as she started her own green cleaning business after her marriage ended. “My husband left and I had about two cents to my name.” She registered her business at New York’s City Hall on what would have been her father Albert’s 77th birthday, and began carting her weighty metal vacuum to clients’ apartments along with her own homemade, non-toxic cleaning solutions. Running around New York subways with a heavy Electrolux vacuum thrown over her shoulder, she had to laugh. “Here I am with a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and a master’s degree in education, walking all around the neighborhood trying to get work!” Her tactics of leaving flyers on bus shelters and under windshield wipers worked and she steadily built up her business.
“Scrub a little harder—it’s worth it!”
Her homemade, environmentally-friendly cleaning solution was a combination of vinegar, borax, and carbonated water which were mixed up on the job to match what was needed for the job. Kristin is a believer in replacing chemicals with extra effort from your muscles. “Scrub a little harder—it’s worth it,” she said. Watching the evolution of the green cleaning market, she is thrilled to see all the eco-friendly cleaning products that are available for purchase right off the shelf, which makes it easy for everyone to have a healthy alternative to cleaning their homes.
Focus on helping hoarders
At one point, something clicked with her business and she discovered the true path it should be on. She had been cleaning the apartment of a well-known, retired university professor whose clutter began to get out of control after his children moved out and his wife of 50 years died. His resistance to anything being thrown away intensified over the time Kristin and her crew had been cleaning for him, and the apartment was becoming dangerous for him as he tripped his cane over piles of paper on the floor. Concerned that the brilliant professor was becoming a hoarder and that he needed more help than she could provide, Kristin called his daughter and suggested that she come take a look at what was going on with her father. The daughter decided to take her father back home with her and asked Kristin to ship certain items and to sell, donate, or recycle the rest. Kristin handled the transition of the professor’s papers to a university’s archives and organized book buyers to come in and bid on his vast book collection.
This is now the main focus of BERGFELD’s Clearance Services—helping people clear out a home for an estate sale or a move, and helping hoarders bring their homes into compliance with local fire codes to prevent eviction. Kristin’s favorite part of the job is the feeling she gets from helping people. One woman that she recently worked with left a message that delighted BERGFELD’s team. “She phoned the next day and left the most wonderful message that she felt happy and freed up. With her permission, we have saved the recording of her message,” Kristin said.
“She phoned the next day and left the most wonderful message that she felt happy and freed up.”
Besides helping paying clients, Bergfeld has a pro-bono initiative as well, offering services as part of a “Fix, Don’t Evict” plan to help elderly residents of New York who are threatened with eviction because of hoarding. She organizes and coordinates the receipt of goods and services from other companies and collaborates with other professionals to provide what’s necessary. On a recent project, she worked closely with a social services agency, legal aid attorneys, Legal Guardian and NYC’s Adult Protective Services (APS) and prevented the eviction. APS usually has time only to bag, remove, and discard when cleaning out a person’s home. BERGFELD’s team went into the person’s apartment for a single day before APS was scheduled to do their clean out and saved material important to the client, packed, organized, and labelled boxes with an inventory of which items the client needed to keep. This made it much less stressful for the client and more efficient for APS to clear out the home and return it to habitable status that passes fire codes.
What to keep? Ask the client what is most important
Whether or not she’s helping pro-bono or paying clients, Kristin’s key to success when dealing with hoarders is to figure out what’s valuable to the person and go from there. By connecting with them on this issue, clients are immediately put at ease because they know that she will look out for what’s most important to them. BERGFELD’s main goal is to get the person out of danger and reduce the risk of clutter choking their home. It’s not just clients who are at risk, but hoarding can affect neighbors as well by making the building an unsafe fire hazard.
“Hoarding is a complicated mental disorder.”
She tells her crew what not to touch, whether it’s family photos or twenty salt canisters used to ward off evil spirits in a Caribbean ritual. After these “don’t touch” items are identified, her team dives in and starts removing things that can clearly be recycled or discarded. “Hoarding is a complicated mental disorder. We help a lot of people who are facing legal action and we have to be aggressive to get them out of a fire violation or infestation. Sometimes an eviction notification is the only thing that gets a person going. People don’t generally call for help on their own because they have a severe hoarding problem,” Kristin said.
BERGFELD’s has seen an increase in eviction notifications which she attributes to both the increasing value of New York real estate along with an increase in public awareness of the hoarding disease. “The show, Hoarders, has been useful to getting people to see how real this disorder is. It is a serious mental disorder that can be medically diagnosed and those people can be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Giving back to the community
The drive to provide public service is strong in Kristin. “I’ve always been this way,” she said. When she was growing up in the countryside, she enjoyed having a swimming hole in the river and a pool a little further off, and she was shocked by an image on television that showed kids playing in the street getting cooled off by a fire hydrant. That ad for the Fresh Air Fund made Kristin burst into tears and she started baking cakes with portraits of her neighbors on top that she’d then sell to those neighbors to generate money to send to the Fresh Air Fund. She also organized a clothes drive during her last year of high school to donate their pastel-colored uniforms to a hospital in Haiti.
“We’ve never spent a nickel on advertising except in the yellow pages.”
Kristin’s story is a great example of someone who works hard and who is absolutely committed to doing good work in the community. The success of her business goes hand in hand with that altruistic goal. “We’ve never spent a nickel on advertising,” she said. BERGFELD’s does such high quality and compassionate work that it is regularly featured in top publications who are eager to share a positive story. After being courted for an interview by the Wall Street Journal for quite awhile, she agreed to do a story as long as it didn’t paint hoarders as objects of derision. The resulting story pointed out the value Kristin’s service brings to her clients by helping to unearth treasures and advocating for a go-slow approach to clearing out hoarders’ homes.
As awareness of the hoarding problem continues to grow, Kristin finds herself tapped to give a lot of talks to groups around the country, to share her learnings with people who are tackling this issue in their own communities. BERGFELD’s recently earned certification as a Women-owned Business Enterprise (WBE) by the New York City Department of Small Business Services and looks forward to continuing to help the greater New York community. If you’re in the New York City area, BERGFELD’s Clearance Service is your best choice to help with a clean out for estate sale or move, or even just to bring your life back on track.
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