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Community café teaches how to repair not replace

Steve McDonald (right) investigates why this remote-control truck belonging to Campbell (left) doesn’t work. Dad, Graeme, looks on
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For followers of television’s The Repair Shop programme, the growing popularity of community repair cafes will come as no surprise.

They have sprung up around New Zealand as people seek help to fix broken items rather than send them to landfill.

Upper Hutt’s Repair Café began in early 2020 and is blessed with a diverse team of volunteer ‘fixers’. Some learned their skills in the former Post Office or the electronics industry.

Learning is the focus

The co-founder of the repair café, Steve McDonald, says the philosophy is about people being taught how to do the repair rather than having it done for them.

When the Daily Encourager visited on Saturday, 15 May 2021, a steady stream of visitors was coming through the doors, most clutching an item needing repair or seeking advice.

Around the hall were tables staffed by one or more volunteers. A sign above each table showed what sort of repair was on offer – from bikes to electrical, ceramics to 3D printing and more.

Some tables had a queue, but the atmosphere was relaxed. Volunteers in the kitchen sold drinks and food to people while they waited.

Looking after the jewellery repair table was Catherine, whose day job is as an office manager.

She has a background in craft classes and taught beading at summer camps in America.

Many items handed down families

Stories behind the broken jewellery people bring are exactly like the television programme and many items have been handed down in the family, Catherine says.

I do get a lot of people coming through saying ‘this was my mother’s or grandmother’s’.”

 

And like the TV programme, it’s a team effort on the day, with volunteers sometimes borrowing equipment from each other.

At another table, George uses a 3D printer to replicate broken or missing parts. To create a replacement dial for a car radio, he measured the surviving one and used his laptop to design a duplicate from scratch before printing two new ones.

These days George works as a software engineer but he originally trained as a toolmaker.

George with the replacement car radio dials he created on his laptop and made using a 3D printer

In another corner, Steve McDonald was disassembling a vacuum cleaner with the help of its owner, who googled useful information on her cell phone. Eventually the fault was traced to a faulty wire in the appliance plug, and then fixed.

A way of giving back to the community

Self-taught and still learning how to repair ceramics was Donna. It’s a way of giving back to the community, she says.

She recently reassembled a china vase from six pieces. It took her most of the day but the outcome was a success.

Other repairs around the room included a clock radio, a leaking hot water urn, two jewellery boxes and a range of work on bikes.

In the centre of the room were containers welcoming donations of small tools to be recycled by local community group, Earthlink.

In another room volunteers taught visitors how to make repairs to knitting, crochet and sewing.

Kelly (left) can again wear this heirloom pearl necklace, which was given a new clasp by volunteer jewellery repairer, Catherine (right). The necklace had belonged to Kelly’s grandmother who married into Upper Hutt’s Craig family, former owners of Craig’s Flat (now Riverstone Terraces)

Statistics are kept for each day.

That day there were 49 visitors with 70 items. Around 75 per cent of items were repaired. Of the remaining 25 per cent of items, some owners were referred to businesses for help, while the remainder would go to landfill or to  Earthlink, which has a workshop where it repairs items and sells them.

The repair café began after Steve, who loves fixing things in his garage, put a post on social media.  Steve, Marilyn Olds, Linda Martin and Lisa Crawford became co-founders. Lisa offered to research how to set it up, and spoke to people from other repair cafes.

They would need volunteers, start-up funding and a venue close to public transport with wheelchair access.

The Wesley Centre on the corner of Fergusson Drive and Benzie Avenue near the CBD has proven ideal.

Covid delay provided time for set-up

The café was just getting started when Covid-19 struck.  They used the downtime to get the charitable trust set up. Steve says they decided not to resume public events until the country returned to Level 1 because, with the main focus on helping people make repairs, social distancing would be difficult.

With a focus on repair or recycle, the aim is to stop items ending up in the landfill.

Involving the item’s owner in the repair process provides an educational element as many younger visitors don’t have the repair skills that were commonly taught in the past or they lack the right tools.

Help is provided free but koha is accepted.

Waste minimisation the ultimate goal

Steve says the café is proud of the high percentage of items its volunteers repair because the focus is ultimately about waste minimisation.

There are about 65 volunteers who attend on a roster. Steve says it offers them an outlet to use and share their skills.

Co-founder, Lisa, says volunteers have listened to “some awesome stories” from visitors about their items.

One woman was “over the moon” to have repairs made to a vase that had been broken in the Kaikoura earthquake.

Some of the elderly visitors are widows whose husbands used to carry out household repairs.

A registered electrician is among volunteers, as many items brought in need some sort of electrical repair.

Only repairs that can be done in a reasonable timeframe are taken on – otherwise the volunteers are able to recommend businesses for them to use.

Bikes repairs are especially popular. Everyone likes to ride, but many don’t know how to maintain their bikes, Lisa says.

Again, like the TV programme, collaboration among volunteers often happens.

Volunteers also enjoy the social side of the café and make friendships that continue outside it, Lisa says.

Upper Hutt’s Repair Café runs one Saturday every two months.

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