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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A family gets together

SARAH MCGINN doesn’t have a junk drawer in her house. Even with four children ranging in ages 2 to 8, the Spokane mom says she doesn’t need one. Everything has a place and everyone in the house, even the 2-year-old, knows where things go. The best part: They actually put them there.

McGinn, who one local mom described as the “guru of organization,” says the reason is simple: “I don’t do well with chaos.”

“I feel like if my external world is organized my internal world is more organized.”

Though organization seems like a no-brainer to her and she doesn’t quite understand why people think what she does is something exceptional, McGinn has started giving seminars to parent cooperative preschools in the area. McGinn holds a bachelor’s degree in home economics and taught the subject at the high school level before raising her kids.

Her system boils down to binders, bins and basic expectations.

“If I didn’t believe my 2-year-old could put away her laundry…,” she says, trailing off. Indeed, clothes never pile up in her house. All four of her children take their dirty clothes to the laundry room each night. They also put their clean clothes in appropriate drawers.

She’s also helped them learn to put toys and other things away when they’re finished using them. These two habits alone have eliminated the toys, clothes and assorted kid stuff that clutters so many families’ homes.

McGinn admits that training kids to do these things takes time and patience but she insists the rewards are tremendous. Still, the real key to her organization is what she calls her family notebook.

“This is the engine,” she says, clutching a three-ring binder whose cover is decorated with family photos. “It keeps us all going.”

“Everything either gets filed in here or documented and chucked,” she says. At quick glance, it’s filled with all the things that often get stuffed in a junk drawer, except it’s neat and tidy and, well, organized.

Divided into sections, the binder has daily and monthly master calendars to keep track of who’s doing what and when. It also holds the family address book. When a new number needs to be added, it’s written on the margins of the paper to be added the next time she updates it. The little piece of paper the number might have been scribbled on is tossed.

“I don’t have 10 minutes here or there to look for a piece of paper with a phone number on it,” she says. With the binder, she doesn’t have to.

There is also a “home” section in the binder where she keeps master grocery lists, one for a supermarket and one for Costco. As they run out of items, family members check the item on the list. McGinn said she shops twice a month at regular grocery stores and once a month at Costco.

“I see my job as mom as I would any other job,” she says. “I plan for it. I research for it. I wouldn’t go to a job not prepared.”

Her binder’s home section also includes weekly and quarterly cleaning lists. “I couldn’t see how I could manage to get the house clean,” she says. So she went room by room noting the little things like dusting and wiping down cabinet doors that need to get done to keep the house clean. “In two minute pieces of time I can get my cleaning done,” she says, adding that there’s a lot of satisfaction in checking the chores off throughout the week.

Other sections, such as “activities and school” and “pending” give her a place to file paperwork announcing school performances or dealing with home or car maintenance needs or scheduling medical appointments, for example.

She keeps a three-hole puncher in the kitchen drawer near the binder, which is just about the only thing that stays on the counter. Throughout the day, or at least at the end of the day, documents get punched and filed or the important information jotted down on the calendar and then tossed. “Once every couple of weeks I go through (the binder) and pull things out that we don’t need any more.”

The last section is labeled “mailing” and includes a supply of envelopes, stamps, address labels and such for easy reach when she’s taking care of the paperwork that goes in and out of the binder.

“Organizing is a daily thing. You’ll spend a lot of time getting a house organized and it takes work each day to keep things going,” she says. But McGinn says she doesn’t feel like she spends that much time organizing anymore. She’s starting to help friends get their homes organized.

“A lot of it is in the training. But that’s a lot of what people give up or quit. But the rewards (of training your kids) are priceless,” McGinn says. “I no longer have to put away their stuff. It’s not all on me.”

And because of that and because she has her binder, McGinn says, “I feel less anxious, less stressed about things that come up.”

She’s not necessarily a neat freak, though. She says she lets her kids be kids. If they create a Lego structure they can’t bear to take apart or are not ready to tear down a castle they set up, they can leave it out for a few days, but they must clean it up when they lose interest.

“People say, ‘My kids would never do that,’ she says. “It doesn’t come naturally. It starts with cleaning up with them.”

By putting almost every toy in the house in clear plastic bins and stashing them in a single good-size closet, she’s able to keep the messes to a minimum. Toys go back in the bin they came from and the bin goes back on the shelf it came from. When new toys enter the house, it’s time to clean out the bins and make room for them. For example, there is only one puzzle bin. When it’s full and there are new puzzles to put in it, the kids have to decide which puzzles to let go of.

She also put labels on bins in bathrooms and other rooms to provide a permanent home for everything. Nail clippers, for example, go in the “nails and hands” bucket in the bathroom. “I’m not the only one who knows where things go,” she says.

“Not everything needs to be clean all the time,” she says. It’s less about messes and more about knowing where things are so she doesn’t waste her time looking for them. Like the 45 minutes she spent recently looking for a turkey tetrazzini recipe.

She was so frustrated she couldn’t find the recipe that she decided to go through all of her recipes and pick out the 15 or so that the family eats over and over. She typed them into the computer, added grocery lists to each and put them in – you guessed it – a binder. She says it took her a couple of hours to do but now planning meals is a breeze and she no longer has to search for the recipe.

McGinn also uses binders to organize her kids’ school and artwork. Everything her kids create first gets displayed on one wall in the kitchen. When it’s time to put new artwork up, she takes the old work down and decides which to keep, dates them and puts them in a binder. If they’re too big for a binder, she puts them in “portfolios” that she created for each child by taping together three sides of two poster boards. She stashes the portfolios behind her dresser.

If she thinks a child might ask about an art project or school assignment that didn’t make it into the binder or portfolio, she puts it in a plastic bag in the garage for a few weeks until it’s been forgotten and then tosses it.

“You can’t keep everything,” she says.

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