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No two work days are ever the same for Sheree Richnow, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Colorado native began her college experience in 1973 at UC – Boulder. “I loved it,” she said, “but it was just too big for me, and I felt lost.” She left school to enter the advertising business, and learned no one seemed to care she didn’t hold a degree.
“Then I began my own company when I was 24,” she said, “and I still didn’t need a degree, but it was a personal yearning. Over the years I took courses at universities in Denver and Houston. I knew it didn’t matter to anyone but me, but I still wanted my degree.” Life found her heading east – she’s been a West Chester, PA, resident for the past 16 years – and thinking again about college.
“I looked at three or four universities in this area,” Richnow recalled, “and something magical happened when I set foot on the Immaculata campus. It was not easy to get in, and I had trouble getting my funding. The staff in the Admissions Office worked with me diligently. They were wonderful. Every day I walked onto campus, it made me want to get down and kiss the ground.” She earned her degree summa cum laude in Organization Dynamics in 2005 from the College of LifeLong Learning, and that same year, founded a firm specializing in lifestyle transitions. Its goal is to aid families as they navigate through the potentially overwhelming challenges that often accompany major life changes.
“My entire life was about transition,” Richnow said. “Growing up, we moved a lot. My mother taught me how to make our home appealing, and about not owning or accumulating too much.” At one point in her career she spent more than a year in community relations for a senior living community, and reflected, “Every day, I met people who said, ‘My mom and dad have a 5,000 square-foot home they’ve lived in for 50 years. We don’t have a clue where to start.’ So I designed my company, wrote a business plan and partnered with the owner of an auction house, then two years later bought him out.”
Richnow described her five-prong approach: deciding what will be retained by the client; what will go to friends and family; what’s to be sold via auction or to private buyers; what will be donated to charity in the client’s name; and what’s to be thrown away.
She also offers packing, unpacking and resettling services. Once a house is ready to go on the market, Richnow LifeStyle Transitions staff can also stage it, helping to make it look its best for a potential buyer.
All the while, one of the goals, Richnow said, is to be “ecologically correct.” She recalled learning in an environmental science class at Immaculata that Pennsylvania “is the single largest importer of other people’s trash, and I decided I don’t want to contribute to that. So we not only recycle reusable items to be used by other people, but we recycle metal, paper and glass.”
Her clients, she said, quickly realize she is going to go the extra mile for them. Often, she said, after an initial consultation, “Clients hand me the keys and say, ‘You’re in charge. Let me know when it’s done.’”
After living in their homes for so long, Richnow said, people often forget just what they have. “I’ve found gold, original birth certificates and all sorts of precious belongings people thought were lost forever,” she said. “And sometimes people don’t know certain things have value. For example—I have a million of these stories—not long ago I dragged a lamp, about four-and-a-half feet tall, down from a client’s attic. She didn’t know where it had come from, and thought maybe it was already there when the house was bought. I just had a feeling, so I asked if it would be okay to take it to auction, and the client said, ‘Yes.’ Well, in going over the settlement statement from the client, we saw the lamp sold for $2,000.”
Her most valuable find to-date?
“Well, that was about two years ago,” Richnow said. “We were processing an estate, and a major auction house had already come through. We were in charge of processing what was left, and up in the attic I found a collection of flags from “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution. I did quite a bit of research and was able to authenticate them. They sold at auction this past April for $680,000.”
There are so many stories Richnow wants to share she decided to write a book about what she terms “O.P.S.,” or other people’s stuff. Except every time she thinks she might be close to writing the final chapter, she thinks of something else she wants to add. So the publication date is still unknown, but a preview is available on her website at www.lifestyletransitions.us.
“I have found writing the book a fun experience,” Richnow said. “I talk a lot about trying to help people understand the psychology of this kind of service, and I want to try and help them understand that these belongings don’t set them free, they hold them down.” Passing some of those items on to others who will put them to use was the idea behind the creation of a charity effort Richnow termed “my purpose.”
The Holiday House Gift Boutique grew out of her realization that clients had accumulated many things they’d bought and never used. “So I began asking them if I could set aside those items for an event for people in need,” she said. Thus the boutique was born.
“We began storing items in a tractor trailer,” Richnow explained, “and when it was getting close to Christmas time, we found a space that would work, brought in shelves and decorated it to look like a store. We invited women and children affected by domestic violence and the elderly. Agencies, non-profits and churches sent people. No money is exchanged. It’s just like Christmas shopping, only everything’s free.” In addition, children in need are welcome to “shop” for their parents.
Richnow said, “There are a lot of programs like this for children, where they can come and get toys and other gifts, but not so for adults. Wonderful volunteers work side-by-side with us. When we began, 150 people came to shop. At our last event, we provided gift items for almost 700.” But the boutique has outgrown any space LifeStyle Transitions has available, so Richnow, her staff and volunteers have been looking for a warehouse or other appropriate venue for the Community Warehouse Project of Chester County.
“We’ve put the word out that we’re looking,” she said. “We’re seeking a large space, so the boutique can be year-round and CWPCC can distribute household goods and furnishings to people year-round.”
As part of her efforts to get the word out, Richnow lines up speaking engagements, both on her own and through an organization called Aging With Wisdom, for which she serves on the board.
“I love going out to speak to seniors groups and at Ys, senior centers and community centers,” she said. “I find that people are always really engaged and ask a lot of questions.” Often, people are interested in how Richnow finds new homes for clients’ belongings.
“I work with six to eight auction houses on a regular basis. I try to go to auction every week to keep up on market demands and trends,” she said. “For example, right now, Victorian furniture is dead. Ten or 15 years ago, there might’ve been a piece you could get $800 or $900 for. But today? You’d be lucky to get $100, maybe $125 for the same piece.” But she always has her eye out for a hidden treasure a client may have overlooked.
“One client had a dollhouse, and it wasn’t in perfect condition, but it was adorable,” Richnow remembered. “When I asked, the client said it might be worth $300. I did my research – I’m always doing research—and I found her the right auction house, and $1,700 was realized.”
Richnow said her firm is successful because of her clients’ willingness to trust her throughout the transition process.
“I have wonderful clients,” she said, “who trust me to provide intelligent guidance and know how to get the job done. I provide an extra level of thoughtfulness, and my clients know I’m operating in their best interest. They realize that in me, they have an advocate.”