Building a Network of Compassion, She Helps Coordinate Free Maid Service for Women Battling Cancer
Each year, L'Oréal Paris and Points of Light recognize, celebrate and support Women of Worth who make a beautiful difference in their communities. For exceptional commitment to service, 10 honorees each receive a $10,000 grant to support their most cherished cause. One honoree, selected during the open online vote, receives an additional $25,000 grant.
“Cleaning is my whole world,” said Debbie Sardone, who’s spent the past 35 years running a highly successful cleaning business in the Dallas, Texas, area called Buckets & Bows Maid Service.
Her company’s success – “apparently, it’s unusual to grow a maid service to $1 million,” Debbie noted – led to the creation of a consulting business that helps other cleaning companies get started and implement best practices. Eventually, Sardone and her husband took on a third business that sells “green” cleaning products and promotes a method described in the book "Speed Cleaning."
But Sardone said it was an unforgettable phone call that prompted her to start giving back. “I’d gotten a call from a Buckets & Bows client who said, ‘I have to cancel because I have cancer,’ and then hung up,” said Sardone. “I decided that as a company policy, we would give free cleaning services for cancer patients.”
Ultimately, Debbie created a nonprofit organization into which she’s poured her business savvy – this time, recruiting and organizing cleaning firms nationwide to join her in volunteering. “I realized I could take this idea nationwide because of my consulting business and get other maid services to be a part of giving back. I started calling maid services and inviting them to donate services through our organization.”
Cleaning for a Reason is a consortium of cleaning service firms that offer four months of free, monthly household cleaning sessions for women with cancer.
The organization acts as a central hub, with staff vetting each participating service to make sure it is a legitimate business, with workers who are licensed and bonded. People who apply for free cleaning must provide a doctor’s note as proof of cancer. A computer program matches applicants with cleaning services in their ZIP code. “We do all the hard work,” said Sardone.
Sardone and her husband spent $10,000 to launch the project, and participating companies now contribute a $20 monthly fee to offset the organization’s expenses. “In exchange, they get a lot of marketing and PR and the opportunity to put in place, in your own company, a really good give-back program that otherwise, as entrepreneurs, they’re probably too busy to do,” said Sardone.
Although Sardone does a lot of speaking on behalf of Cleaning for a Reason and remains involved in its operations, she’s a “100 percent unpaid volunteer.”
Sardone said her organization constantly receives emails from appreciative women and their families. “As women, we tend to feel the need to be superwomen,” she said. “One testimonial came from a woman who said ‘Walking into a clean home was the most normal I’ve felt in months. My whole world felt like I’d lost all control of it, with all doctor’s appointments and my hair loss and all my surgeries, but walking into a clean home, I kind of felt in control again.”
Stacey Schwinghammer, who first underwent ovarian cancer surgery in 2010, met Sardone in a local exercise class a few years later as she was preparing for breast surgery. “She offered her cleaning services – I didn’t want to ask for help,” said Schwinghammer. She noted that concerned friends want to visit cancer patients, “but you don’t want to allow them to come if you’re ashamed of your home.” The soreness after breast surgery can leave patients unable to “even reach for a cup of coffee, much less pick up clutter,” said Schwinghammer.
Cleaning for a Reason has recruited more than 1,200 companies in nearly all 50 states and Canada to join its program. Sardone estimates that more than 21,000 women with cancer have received up to four free cleanings, valued at $5.5 million in donated services.
Even during the Great Recession and other crises, Cleaning for a Reason stayed strong. “We were amazed that even during tough economic times, these maid services that are committed to the program are still willing to get out there and clean for free, because the owner still has to pay employees their regular salaries,” said Sardone. One cleaning service in New Jersey continued to participate in the program despite having its offices damaged by Hurricane Irene.
“The employees said, ‘These cancer patients need us now more than ever.’ And they didn’t drop out. Once participants get a taste of what it’s like to help a fellow human being with no strings attached, it really does create a bond between employer, employees, and the customer.”
Sardone has managed to bring together myriad cleaning businesses across the country that normally view each other as competitors. Members of Cleaning for a Reason include small, privately owned firms, as well as several major franchises, such as Merry Maids, The Maids, and Molly Maids.
She uses the internet and social media to advertise her program, and to efficiently match participating maid services with cancer patients. Some recipients of cleaning services have gone on to become volunteers themselves, helping to promote the program.
Sardone was named Woman of the Year in 2016 by the Lewisville, Texas, Chamber of Commerce. The same year, the New York Yankees baseball team chose Cleaning for a Reason to be honored as part of its HOPE Week. “We surprised a cancer patient who thought she was just getting free cleaning,” said Sardone. “We rang her doorbell and there’s a bunch of Yankee ballplayers and the team manager – we were all in rubber gloves and aprons with brooms and mops and we went in and cleaned for her and then treated her to the game.” The organization has also been ranked second on Reader’s Digest’s annual list of 25 Best Things in America.
Sardone knows exactly how she would use prize money through the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth recognition program. “We would use that money to recruit more maid services into the Cleaning for a Reason program so we could reach more women,” she said. “There’s like 20 million women in this country with cancer, but we have 2,100 participating maid services. The need is always going to exceed capacity. But when we get a maid service to join, it’s not going to help just one woman; it’s going to help several women in the area, and then other maid services in that cleaning company’s area are going to see what they’re doing and they’re going to want to jump on board.”
Sardone has actually become a close friend and confidante to some of the women who have benefited from Cleaning for a Reason. One of them, Stacey Schwinghammer, now gives back to the project by writing articles and press releases. “She is a role model,” said Schwinghammer.