With the help of volunteers, Habitat’s domestic housing support program “Project Homeworks” aims to serve the elderly, those with disabilities, and single parents who have difficulty keeping their homes tidy on their own. For this kind of work, the cooperation and optimism of stakeholders is invaluable. The home, no matter its condition, is a place filled with memorable items and acts as the foundation of one’s life. It isn’t unusual to be anxious about letting strangers into the home for fear they might dispose of one’s precious artifacts. As such Habitat places the Home Partner’s desires first and foremost, working with them to ensure that volunteers work towards each occupant’s vision of an improved home.

We recently visited the home of two elderly sisters, the Nosaka sisters (pseudonyms) for the first time in a year. Both are visually impaired with the younger sister being completely blind. A year and a half ago Habitat was approached by a social worker from the senior support center the sisters belong to. She joined us in visiting the sisters’ home, which we found was in an unsanitary state that became the dwelling for cockroaches and mice. 

After some persuasion from their social worker, the sisters agreed to accept Habitat’s cleaning support. But on the day of the volunteer cleanup, the sisters told us “we don’t need tidying up. We’re fine the way it is.” When asked why, they told us that due to their blindness, they are very sensitive to changes in their environment; Should the location of their things change, they were worried they would lose track of where they were, making life more difficult. They were also concerned that in their blindness they might accidentally throw away important things. To ease the sisters back into the idea of organizing their whole space, it was decided to start by cleaning only their kitchen. After a thorough cleaning, the kitchen was almost unrecognizable from before.

This June, one year since our first visit, we were contacted by the social worker again with a request to meet with the Nosaka sisters about a cleanup. For the past year she had continued to persuade the sisters to improve their living environment, going so far as to ask their estranged brother for help. With the sisters coming back around to the idea of tidying up, Habitat’s volunteers paid another visit this July.

Three Habitat volunteers were joined on the day by two from the senior support center. Opening the Nosakas’ door, a long lapse in housekeeping was evident by heaps of dust, pet hair, and cobwebs. First and foremost, the entryway had to be cleared. Taking each pair of shoes from the stuffed shoebox, we let the sisters touch and feel them to decide which pairs to keep and which to throw away. It became evident that over half of these shoes were no longer being used, and, with the decision to dispose of them, the entryway felt refreshed. With the unneeded shoes dealt with, volunteers wiped away dirt and blemishes from the shoes the sisters would continue to use.

With the completion of the entryway and the prospect of tidying the home proper looming, the sisters echoed that they still didn’t need to tidy up: “There’s nothing don’t need. We don’t want you touching anything”. We tried to assuage the sisters’ anxiety, assuring them that we never throw away anything without permission. One by one, we presented items to the sisters for judgement. With their inhibitions fading, the cleanup slowly but surely made progress. By the end of the day, we’d gathered ten garbage bags worth of things the sisters didn’t need. With their disposal, there was finally a comfortable amount of living space to enjoy.

Finishing the activity, we were asked “when will you come back next time? I hope you’ll come help tidy up again soon.” Though it will undoubtedly take time, we will return to continue to work with the sisters, respecting their feelings, to create a decent, clean, and safe place for them to live. Habitat continues to offer personalized support to our Home Partners through the continued support of our volunteers.