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The Upper Hutt repair café bringing new life to beloved items

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In October 2019, Upper Hutt resident Steve McDonald put a call out on his local Neighbourly website, asking if anyone was interested in starting a repair café. The idea was simple: create a community hub where people could bring in everyday items to be repaired for free by experienced locals.

The response was huge, with lots of residents excited about the idea. The next day, McDonald, along with fellow founding members, Lisa Crawford, Linda Martin and Marilyn Olds, got to work starting Upper Hutt’s very first repair café.

After finding a venue and connecting with volunteers, they hosted their first event in January 2020. With little funding, it was difficult getting the word out and the team were worried about the turnout. “We were so nervous,” says Crawford. “Honestly, we weren’t sure if anyone would turn up.”

Luckily, the event was a hit. One hundred people came through the door, looking for all sorts of repairs, from clothing and jewellery to bikes and furniture. By the end of the day, the team of 20 volunteers had done more than 30 repairs.

“That first event was really one massive experiment,” says Crawford. “It was really special hearing the stories that came out of it.” One woman brought in an old lamp that was an anniversary present from her late husband. “It hadn’t worked in 20 years, and the volunteers managed to fix it,” says Crawford. “Her husband just only recently passed away so she was incredibly emotional and grateful to have this very sentimental lamp restored.”

The team had timed the first event before the start of the school year, hoping to help kids with back-to-school repairs such as hemming uniforms, fixing backpack zips and repairing bikes. “One parent brought in a bike that was literally in pieces,” says Crawford. “The team fixed it and the girl rode out of the venue on it.”

After the successful first event, they were excited to plan the next one. Sadly, COVID-19 hit and they were forced to postpone their March, May, July and August events. They booked the next one for October, only to have the election moved to the same day. “The incredible thing was that despite all of this and the fact we couldn’t meet our volunteers in person, we kept having people email and call wanting to be involved,” says Crawford. “Our volunteers have been engaged the whole time – they couldn’t wait to get back into it.”

Finally, they got the go-ahead for an October event. More volunteers arrived and more repairs were done. “About two-thirds of the things brought in were fixed. It was a really high success rate,” says Crawford. Their third and most recent event this January had more than 200 people visit, with 22 volunteers completing 70 repairs – more than double the amount of the first event. “Despite COVID-19, we’ve grown hugely. It’s not so much us, but the concept that people are really excited about.”

The events feature a big mix of volunteers with a variety of skills, from textile teams and a retired sewing machine repair person, to picture-frame fixers and electrical experts. At every event, a registered electrician is onsite to oversee and sign off all electrical repairs.

Sustainability, circularity and waste minimisation are the founding values of the Upper Hutt Repair Café. By repairing items that might otherwise be thrown out, they can divert waste from landfills. They have partnered with local e-waste collection service EarthLink so that any items that can’t be fixed are recycled.

Education plays a big role in this philosophy. It’s not just about providing a service, but teaching people how to repair things themselves. People who bring in items will sit with the repairer and are given the chance to fix parts themselves. “You can learn a whole lot through observation,” says Crawford. “It’s about educating people on what can be fixed and passing on those skills.”

All the volunteers bring in their own tools, but the team are looking to set up a tool library to help people fix things at home. “We’re trying to plug that gap between teaching somebody then them going home and not having the right equipment,” says Crawford. “It’s also good for sustainability and waste minimisation because if you have a tool library, people aren’t going to buy hundreds of one item they don’t have in their shed.”

The volunteers get a lot out of it, too, says Crawford, who was blown away to discover the wealth of talent and expertise in the community when they first put the call out for help: “We have a lot of people who are genuinely interested in pulling things apart, putting back together and tinkering.”

One volunteer brought in his 3D printer and printed a replacement switch for one elderly woman’s electric stair lift. “The company weren’t going to replace the switch and it was going to cost her $150 to fix the whole unit,” says Crawford. “He repaired the switch, which saved her money, saved an entire item going to landfill, and all those resources that would have gone into making a brand new unit. It was a perfect full circle.”

Every event is hugely collaborative, with all volunteers learning something from one another. “One father and son came in with a robotic toy and even though the team were unsuccessful in repairing it, they were blown away by the number of volunteers who were willing to take a look,” says Crawford. “It was passed from the mechanical person, to the electronics expert to the textile team – you see this incredible level of care and love going into all the repairs.”

The team are setting themselves up as a registered charity so they can source more funding to meet their incredible growth. So far, they have six events planned for 2021, but are hoping to make that monthly, then fortnightly once the word is out and they have funding.

“We’ve got lots of goals and dreams. As long as we’ve got the volunteers and the interest from the public, we’ll keep doing more and more,” says Crawford

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