Repair Café fosters community, fosters ingenuity

A legion of volunteers armed with repair kits and a wide range of backgrounds sat around tables set up in the lobby of the Robert Crown Community Center.

From 10 a.m. to noon on that June day, they welcomed people bringing in anything from broken ventilators to ripped jackets, refurbishing their belongings while giving attendees the skills to tackle repairs on their own. – all for free.

Volunteer Peter Leon De Jong (centre) is a regular diagnostician at the Repair Café.

Evanston’s Repair Café took root in 2018 at the Ecology Center, sponsored by Citizens for Greener Evanston and the Evanston Public Library. After a brief hiatus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is back and thriving.

When “you walk in here with a toaster or with a torn blouse, you don’t just leave it; you, ideally, co-fix with the person helping you. Some people just watch and ask questions while you do it, while others really get their hands dirty,” said Beatriz Echeverria, Repair Café organizer and assistant at the Public Library branch in ‘Evanston. “The benefit of that is abundant. For example, he takes things out of the landfill. Another good thing he has is that he builds a community because we have a lot of fun with people.

Organizers say one element has been particularly critical in promoting the event’s mission: people.

As organizers, volunteers and community members gather on the second Saturday of every even-numbered month, the event nurtures unity among people of all ages and backgrounds.

“There was a young student from the North West here maybe four months ago and she had a tear in her jacket caused by a dog pulling. She brought it and I taught her how to thread a needle,” said Kitty Nagler, longtime seamstress and Repair Café volunteer. “She didn’t know how to do that, [and] I asked her to start sewing it. She did a better job than me; she was doing these lovely little delicate stitches all the way.

Boss Gail Trauger explains how members of the older generation can use and share their skills with younger members of the community through the Repair Café.

“From a generational perspective, it was mandatory when I was in middle school that we took a home economics course, so I know how to sew,” Trauger says. “I don’t sew anymore, [and] I don’t own a sewing machine. I tried to fix this [bag] on my own, [but] it wasn’t as safe as I wanted it to be.

It’s “a way for older volunteers to broaden the number of people they meet and put their skills to good use as well, because they have a ton of skills that they might otherwise only use for themselves at home,” adds Echeverria.

Customers are expected to help volunteers during the repair process, often learning the skills needed to restore items themselves afterwards.

“It’s also a way for people to realize that repairing isn’t really that hard. Most people think you have to be an expert, but you just have to learn or lose the fear,” notes Echeverria. “My intention, at least, is for people to lose the fear of tackling repair. If afterwards they still want to come, that’s fine, but many of them do so at home afterwards.

On June 11, boss Jenna Morgan walked into the Repair Café with a broken fan and, thanks to the volunteer’s advice, left with a working fan.

“It was good for them to explain to me what they were doing and for me to put everything in place. I feel like I can fix things a bit more on my own now that I’ve done that said Morgan.

Another recurring patron, Mary Beth Roth, echoes Morgan’s experience of being involved in the healing process.

“It’s a very good service because we’re supposed to come and help, so when [the volunteer] was taking apart my vacuum several weeks ago, I couldn’t make the small moves,” Roth said. “So I just held him the flashlight and whatever I could do to help him, and it was fun, and he explained stuff to me, [which] is really nice.”

Independence can also be rewarding for some.

“Sometimes [the patrons] come in and they feel like they can’t fix things. It’s funny because you see a lot of women who are interested but they say, ‘No, but I don’t know how,’ and they know how to fix things,” says Echeverria. “I see a lot of women who would be great as appliance repairers.”

The practical element – both financial and practical – was demonstrated by its partnership with local Wheel and Sprocket, a bike shop on Davis Street. Wheel and Sprocket employee Liam Ouweleen lends his time and skills to help with the repairs.

“There are people who maybe don’t know their local bike shop, don’t know where to get their bikes repaired, or they don’t feel like they have the money for repairs” , says Ouweleen. “A lot of people who ride bikes do it because it’s one of the cheapest forms of transportation, so it’s a great resource for people who just need to keep going.”

So even with a repair as complex as fixing a bicycle, Ouweleen always strives to educate customers along the way.

“When someone drops a bike off at the store, they say, ‘It’s broken. Fix it, please.’ when people come [to the café] with their bikes, they are much more curious about how they can learn from what I do so they can take ownership of their stuff,” Ouweleen said.

Alexis Rogers and Sophia Sherman are part of the 2022 internship program at the Evanston Roundtable.

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