Repair cafe provides service for those in need

By Ellis Clopton

Sarah Romereim isn’t an expert seamstress, but she knows a thing or two about garment repairs.

She routinely mends clothing and even did some custom stitching on a ripped pair of curtains. It’s not her full-time job, and she hardly describes herself as someone who produces professional-quality alterations.

But she is the perfect volunteer for the Lincoln Repair Cafe, a small community outreach program that is growing in popularity since it was first established in 2013.

Located at the New Visions United Methodist Church in the heart of the Everett neighborhood, the Lincoln Repair Cafe is comprised of a group of volunteers with certain hands-on skills who meet once a month on Saturday afternoons to help repair broken items brought in by members of their community.

The nine regular volunteers involved in the program have a wide variety of repair skills and are able to mend clothing, fix jewelry and repair furniture, small appliances and machines, said organizer Larry James.

“The repair cafe will look at anything someone brings to us, and we’ll see if we can’t fix it from there,” he said.

The cafe, open to anyone, is an important service for the community, especially low-income citizens who cannot afford to pay a professional to repair any broken household items, James said.

“When something breaks, there’s plenty of people who can’t afford to just throw it away and buy a new one or go out and get it repaired professionally,” he said. “That’s getting more and more expensive as labor costs go up and up, and then it comes down to not being able to use [the item]. And that’s awful.”

The Lincoln Repair Cafe is a part of a larger organization called the Repair Cafe Foundation, which began in Amsterdam in 2010. The Lincoln Repair Cafe is only one of 1,600 cafes in 33 countries worldwide, said Jeanette Nakada, founder and former organizer of the Lincoln Repair Cafe.

The repair cafe model was cited by the United Nations in 2015 as a way for communities to improve their sustainability by keeping broken items out landfills, thereby avoiding harmful carbon emissions as a result.

From 2013 to 2015, the UN estimated that repair cafes across the globe repaired more than 407,000 broken objects, which helped save about 400,000 kilograms in carbon dioxide emissions.

“I think the aim here is that we and our colleagues at the other repair cafes across the world will do our level best to reduce waste on top of deepening community ties during our sessions,” Nakada said.

This story is part of a series about the people and issues in Lincoln’s six most diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods.

But the Lincoln Repair Cafe also is about community. James said people who have come to the cafe almost always find their gadgets, tools and heirlooms repaired quickly and sometimes walk away with new skills.

“There is a kind of teaching element to this,” James said. “We want people to be able to see what we’re doing and take something away from it so that they might be able to apply that themselves the next time something breaks down.”

Romereim said when she repairs clothing on her sewing machine, she tries to talk through the process with the garment owner. “Since two hours once every month isn’t really enough time to teach them everything they need to know, I try to at least show them what I’m doing and help them understand what’s going on,” she said.

Since James joined in 2014, the café has grown from three or four repair volunteers to nine, not including a volunteer who greets people and offers them coffee and baked goods.

While every repair is free, but the group does accept donations and generally earns somewhere between $20 and $50 a month.

“We never really need the money, but we still use it toward the next cafe and spend the money on donuts and stuff like that,” James said.

The repair cafe defines what the Everett neighborhood is all about, said Matt Schaefer, president of the Everett Neighborhood Association.

“Repair cafe represents exactly what is great about this area,” he said. “It’s just a few dedicated people who ran with an idea, and the community around them kept supporting them. And now it’s basically an institution.”

Romereim said being a cafe volunteer has a double benefit.

“With the repair cafe, I get to work with heirlooms and other stuff, and I get to run into so many great people I wouldn’t otherwise.”

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