Astoria Characters: The Devoted Declutterer

The cushions on the couch are perfectly aligned, a trio of decorative pillows marching lockstep across them.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Shirley is from Germany.

The books are artfully arranged on small suspended shelves.

The kitchen countertops are unoccupied by appliances.

And there are no toys scattered across the living room floor.

You’d never know that two adults and a 3-year-old live in this apartment, and that’s because Shirley Roberts makes her living organizing people’s spaces.

It’s not all surface stuff – she opens the cabinet doors under the kitchen sink to reveal rows of cleaning products lined up and organized by category.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Shirley studied acting.

It’s the little things, she says, that can make the biggest difference in a messy life.

Shirley’s, by the way, hasn’t been as streamlined as a color-coordinated closet.

She used to be a freelance writer – one of her gigs was producing the monthly New Kids on the Block column for Give Me Astoria magazine.

Shirley, whose hair is the color of red pepper and whose smile is infectious, actually aspired to be an actress.

She knew it was a long shot, but that didn’t deter her.

Nor did the fact that she grew up in a small town in Germany nearly 6,000 miles from Hollywood and almost 4,000 miles from Broadway.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Shirley loves to organize.

Seligenstadt (“stadt” means city, but it’s anything but that) is a 40-minute train ride from Frankfurt.

Shirley, an only child, was raised by a single mom. Her grandmother lived downstairs.

She didn’t meet her father, a U.S. solider stationed in Germany when he had a relationship with her mother, until she was 18.

Her paternal grandparents, however, did keep contact with her, and they spoke with her every week.

“I wanted to be an actress, and there weren’t many opportunities in Germany,” she says. “I knew that in order to do anything artistic, America was the way to go. I always knew I would end up there.”

After finishing high school, Shirley went to Fenton, Missouri, in 2008 and moved in with her father and his girlfriend.

While working on her GED, she took a job as a server at a national restaurant chain.

“It was really a difficult adjustment,” she says. “I only knew a little English, and things didn’t work out with my father, so for the last six months of my year-and-a-half stay, I lived with my grandparents.”

She moved to New York City in 2010 to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she earned an associate degree.

At orientation, she met the man who would become her husband.

She worked her way through school as a nanny and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in film and TV from St. John’s University.

While trying to get parts, she kept her nanny gig.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Shirley’s thinking about going back to school.

Shirley took a break from her boyfriend and her job and spent a year traveling: four months in Southeast Asia, six months in Spain and three months in Berlin.

During that time, she wrote travel stories for online publications.

Upon her return, she married her boyfriend and continued as a nanny until her daughter, Ella Rose, was born.

Shirley was contemplating a career change and going back to school when the pandemic altered her course.

Last year, she saw a job posting that she found interesting.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She’s helped 50 clients get organized.

Dream Organization, a professional organizing company based in Astoria, was hiring.

“I loved it from the first job,” Shirley says, adding that it inspired her to form her own company, Organize With Shirley. “I love the work – even the dirty work.”

Organizing a space, which can take hours or even weeks, is satisfying, she says, because “I love the end result and how it makes people feel.”

As she looks around the apartment, Shirley admits that she’s not as organized as she’d like to be.

Organize With Shirley has really taken off, and she doesn’t have much time to organize her thoughts, much less her apartment.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Organizing helps people, which makes Shirley smile.

She apologizes because her books and closets aren’t arranged by hue – yet.

She opens a kitchen drawer and sighs when she sees the utensils that need to be separated by function and stacked.

If she goes back to school – she’s interested in special education – her apartment is likely to be less orderly.

Parenting, studying and running a business “are a lot when everything starts to fall into place,” she says, adding that “we all need to have a purpose in life. I want to do what makes people’s lives easier. And right now, that’s organizing.”

Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling