One of my favorite shows was “Clean House” with Niecy Nash (no relation, sadly). Each week Nash would go into homes that were bona fide disasters and work with the owners to show them how to declutter and regain their homes and sanity. I don’t know about you, but this quarantine has made a lot of us venture into the basement and that odd room that becomes a repository for everything now being used right this second. Like Nash, this week’s portrait specializes in helping organize the home, heart and head. Meet Rie Brosco, founding partner of RieOrganize! Whose motto is “Rieduce, Rieuse, Riecycle…so you can Rielax.”
Tell me a little About Rie Brosco.
I’m originally from Lawrence, Massachusetts, 35 miles Northwest of Boston. I am the youngest of three. I had a brother who was 12 years older than me and a sister who was 10 years older than me. I was an “Oh my God, oops” baby. My father was Italian, and my mother was French Canadian. It was a relatively low-income working-class background. I grew up in a family that did not value higher education, so I had to fight my way just to be allowed to go to college. My immediate family is all deceased, but I have nieces and nephews that I absolutely adore. I moved to Philadelphia in 1983; I’ve been here ever since.
I understand that coming out was difficult.
Yes, I came out in 1975, and when I tried to push it a little bit and have my then partner incorporated into the family even just a little bit, I was totally disowned by my family. That went on for a number of years. And unfortunately, it was a very bad, abusive relationship, so it was ugly on all sides. Luckily, I eventually got out of that relationship and found the love of my life a few years later!
How old were you when you were ostracized from the family?
It was in my late 20s. Well, it happened in two pieces. When I first came out to my family, it was really bad. I came out to them in a letter! Not recommended. The response was basically if you want to come home and be straight, that’s fine, otherwise, we really don’t want anything to do with you. I was in college and lived like that for a while, but it wasn’t too bad until after I graduated college. I was trying to settle into life with a partner when things got really bad with the family. I was devastated because it meant that my nieces and nephews were off-limits to me. I adored them, and they adored me, and it was terrible. A funny story was when my nephew was told that I was a lesbian. I mean they had always met my friends and my partner, and they came to visit me when I was living in Boston, so it wasn’t exactly a secret. But when they were ‘officially’ told, my nephew, who at that point was about 7 or 8 years old, asked me, “So mom said you’re a lesbian, which means you kiss girls, right?” I said yes. And he said, “Can you teach me?” “NO! Sorry, that’s something you’re going to have to figure out without me!”
That’s funny. Well, I’m glad that things got better. How did you meet your wife?
I was at a gay and lesbian synagogue and was sitting at the table with a woman I’d never met before. She asked if anyone was headed to West Philadelphia after the service, and I said that I was. On the trolley ride, we realized that we lived two blocks apart, and by the time we got to our stops, we were both totally smitten and in love — though it took us two weeks to get the courage to call one another. It’ll be 35 years in November.
Yes, worth the wait and even better, I’d gotten back in touch with my family at that point because I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which at that point had about a 90% death rate. There’s now about a 90% cure rate. I was very fortunate that my oncologist was on a team of physicians who developed a new cocktail. When my father died, I was in Massachusetts. The family had met Naomi, didn’t really know her. She drove up the next day and made herself so totally indispensable to everyone that they fell in love with her. I also think my father would have been the real stumbling block in the family when it came to accepting our relationship, so his passing made things a little easier from that standpoint. A few years later, when we got married, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, and even my mother all stood under the chuppah with us.
Nice. Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
I got my bachelor’s degree in crisis intervention counseling from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It was a self-designed major. Over the years, I’ve done a bunch of different jobs, I’ve worked in a home for abused children. I worked as an employment recruiter. I worked in a synagogue on the Main Line as the assistant to the education director and then opened my own business 11 years ago.
That’s your company RieOrganize. Give me the dirt on your cleaning company. What do you do?
Well, it’s more organizing than cleaning. I help people organize their homes and/or their lives. I help make their lives easier because when you are living in chaos, you’re not in a happy space. Our job is to help people live the lives they want to live by helping them get organized. Whether that’s organizing stuff in residential properties — closets and cabinets, and all the clutter that can build in any space — or helping someone organize what will happen when they’re no longer here, creating end of life documents, etc, it’s so important, especially in the LGBTQ community. Do you have power of attorney, a will, advance directives? More often than not I’m told, no, we don’t. There’s a lesbian couple I know with a child, and I asked them, do you have a will stating what would happen to the child if the two of you get in a car accident and both are killed? No? Well then, who would get custody of the child? The response was, “We don’t know.” I asked, “Are you friendly with your parents?” “Oh god, I would never want our child to be with them.” Well, that’s who the state is going to give them to unless you make other arrangements now. You can always change it later, but you need to get someone on record immediately. So we work with people to have those conversations and then help supply the documents to start the process before you go to an attorney or financial planner. I also work with people who are downsizing, often to assisted living or nursing care, things like that. And we also do estate clean outs when someone dies, and the family needs help choosing what’s valuable or meaningful to them, and then we try to find homes for everything else. We hate to see things just thrown away when someone out there could use them.
So all that is to say that what you do goes a bit above and beyond what we might think.
Yes, a lot of what we do is teach skills, so we have online sessions as well as one-on-one meetings. We don’t come into your house and do the organizing for you because unless you’re part of the process, as soon as we leave, you’re going to go back to what it was. And I need to listen to the clients to figure out what works best for each person; it’s not one size fits all.
I bet your crisis counseling comes in handy for some situations.
Yes. I’ve also worked as a hospice and hospital chaplain during the beginning of the AIDS crisis, so it’s been very useful.
Your website is also very interesting. You have everything from a poignant blog to book recommendations to vacation photos.
Yes, when I started the business, people told me not to put anything personal on the pages. But I felt that with the intimacy of my business, it’s important for people to be comfortable with me, and the only way to do that is to share myself with them as well. That’s why I mention my wife and our cats, or that I’m a vegetarian. And if I lose someone because of it, I probably didn’t want them as a client anyway because I wouldn’t be the right person for them. I don’t debate politics or religion, that’s not what I’m there for, but I want you to know who we are.
Speaking of religion…
[Laughing] Yes, I’ve taken a bit of a journey. I grew up Catholic, and I woke up one morning in the late ’70s and said, “You know, I don’t believe all the stuff that I’ve been taught. I don’t believe in the Trinity, the Catholic or Christian version of God, heaven and hell, none of that.” So I started exploring and realized that Judaism fit perfectly. Where I was taught by the church never to question religion, and when I did, the answer was always, “It’s a miracle,” in Judaism not only am I allowed to ask questions, I’m required to ask them. I fell in love with it, converted in ’84 and never looked back.
I understand that you are a founder of your synagogue Kol Tzedek.
Yes, the name translates to “Voice of Justice.” There were 10 of us who got it started in 2004, and we now have over 260 member households. We are a reconstructionist social justice-focused synagogue. If you look on our website, it says, “We are artists, organizers, academics, parents, professionals, students, social workers, midwives, and misfits. We are a mixed multitude; people of varied ages, abilities, and genders committed to racial and economic justice.” Our rabbi is a trans man and one thing that I love that is a little unusual is that we have a very young demographic — a lot of members are in their 20s and 30s.
And that website is pretty cool too. It has everything from political statements to a multitude of virtual events. I saw readings and services, a spreadsheet where people could ask for what they needed or what they had to give, resources, games. I even saw a tab for doing a 600 piece puzzle together, though I can’t figure out how they manage that online!
I have no idea! Luckily, there are other people who do that stuff. I think the hardest thing online is figuring out how to sing together! With the Zoom delay, it’s a little tricky.
True, we just had a family birthday and trying to sing Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday was a disaster! Ok, switching gears, what’s something of yours that your wife would probably want to throw away and what item of hers would you get rid of?
Probably my clutter on the bed stand. Sometimes, we’re the worst at taking our own advice. I tell my clients I understand their pain because I can be just as guilty sometimes. As for her things? There was a ratty old T-shirt with holes in it that she wore to bed for ages, but she just got rid of it. I can’t think of anything else!
What’s your most sentimental item?
A wedding gift that my mother and father got from my mother’s parents. When they got married, it was considered an interracial marriage because he was Italian and she was French-Canadian. But an item that means a lot to me is a hula hoop that we have in our living room. Naomi and I got married in 1995. When civil unions became legal in Vermont, we went there and became a couple by law. When marriage became legal in Connecticut, we decided to get legally married there. We couldn’t get our wedding rings off for the ceremony! As we were wandering around that day, we saw these beautiful hula hoops at a street fair, so we bought one, and during the ceremony, we stood in the hula hoop to represent our ring. For me, it symbolized that no matter what, or how many obstacles life throws in your way, you can always find a way to make it work.
And it shows how important a sense of whimsy can be.
Absolutely! I’m incredibly blessed.