Peter Walsh, Kristi Bates and her daughter, Caroline Mallio, pitching in at the sale.

The winner of our first annual Declutter for a Cause challenge (conceived with Peter Walsh) rallied her friends and neighbors for an epic town-wide yard sale that brought her community closer—and helped her family heal from unthinkable tragedy.

The e-mail arrived late at night, thumbed hastily on an iPhone from the ski condo in Vermont where Kristi Bates and her kids were staying with her sister's brood. "On Father's Day of 2012, my brother-in-law, Matt Mallio, was diagnosed with leukemia," it began. "Less than two weeks after he was diagnosed, his 10-month-old son, Aidan, died in an accidental drowning in their backyard."

Bates, of Westford, Massachusetts, told the story of a family blindsided by a series of gutting events—the kind that expose the thin, arbitrary line between life-as-usual and life-will-never-be-the-same. She was writing because she wanted to channel her grief into something positive.

"To honor the memory of my young nephew," she continued, "and to help our family heal, we are rebuilding the young children's section of an older, local playground. Our goal have a dedication by late September, when my brother-in-law should be healthy enough to attend."

It was just one of hundreds of moving messages that O received in response to our March Declutter for a Cause challenge, which encouraged readers to plan a large-scale declutter-athon to support a charitable cause—and promised to send organizing whiz Peter Walsh to work his magic on one exceptional event. Bates, who had already been raising money for the playground through smaller initiatives, had written at the suggestion of her sister, an O subscriber.

"As soon as I hit 'send,' I thought, 'Oh, expletive, what if they pick me?'" she recalls with a laugh. A busy mom of two who runs her late father's custom bottle-opener business, Bates had scant event-planning experience ("Well, aside from my wedding"). But Walsh thought he spied in her e-mail a latent type-A planning streak. "Not only did she want to create an enduring monument to a child for the benefit of her whole community," Walsh says, "but she was obviously a woman after my own well-organized heart." After talking to her, he felt sure she had the requisite blend of confidence, optimism, resourcefulness and efficiency—call it get-to-it-iveness—to stage the most ambitious yard sale her New England town had ever seen. Together with O, he decided to help Bates Declutter for a Cause. "I feel like I just won the $300 million Powerball!" she wrote when we told her (adding, with typical attention to detail, "I just spent $5.99 on a Website URL!")

Next: The quest to find volunteers and a (free) event location


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