CHRISTIANSBURG — Helen Capobianco hasn’t used her sewing machine for four years.
She said one day she just couldn’t get the needle arm to lift up, making it useless. And that’s how it stayed — until Saturday when she brought it to the first New River Valley Repair Cafe at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
There, about 40 volunteers staffed repair tables for computers, clothing, furniture, small appliances and knife and tool sharpening.
“I want it fixed, so I can have it available for minor repairs” to clothes, Capobianco said.
Tech senior mechanical engineering student George Waskowicz took the sewing machine apart and found the problem: a broken presser bar cam.
“It’s probably just a fatigue thing,” Waskowicz told Capobianco. It got old and brittle from use, finally snapping in half.
They talked over the options and eventually decided Capobianco would order a new cam, and the repair staff would install it on another day.
The event, held from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., drew between 100 and 200 people, who brought in everything from fritzing computer monitors to torn Halloween costumes. The volunteers assessed the problems and scrounged parts — sometimes from the ReStore shelves, sometimes from nearby stores — to fix them.
The event fits right into Habitat’s mission, according to executive director Shelly Fortier.
“Repairing stuff is what we do,” she said.
Habitat volunteers often repair items donated to the store, which sells them to help fund construction of affordable housing. Habitat also provides space for the New River Valley Bike Kitchen, a nonprofit charity that fixes up bicycles for needy kids and adults.
The idea of both the ReStore and the Repair Cafe is to keep items out of landfills and reduce overall material consumption, Fortier said.
Repair cafes began in Amsterdam in the early 2000s. The movement has since spread to 32 countries and 18 U.S. states, according to figures from repaircafe.org.
Habitat and its partners held the New River Valley’s first repair cafe during International Repair Cafe Week, which runs from Oct. 14-22.
To execute such large event, Habitat partnered with the New River Valley TimeBank and the Virginia Tech Myers-Lawson School of Construction.
TimeBank is a national movement that brings together people who want to trade their talents and labor. Volunteers offer services and bank those donated hours for trade with other volunteers. The NRV chapter was established last year. Areas of expertise offered through the network run the gamut from sewing and yard work to elder care and business services.
As the Repair Cafe event evolves, Dan Crowder of TimeBank said he hopes volunteers will be able to teach people how to fix their own items.
“I’m so glad you’re doing this,” Marjorie Modlin of Christiansburg said to Annie Pearce, as she dropped off a porch rocker with a less-than-safe seat.
There are no more places where you can get things repaired, Modlin said.
Pearce, a Tech building construction professor, organized the furniture repair station staffed by department faculty and students.
“It drives me crazy when people throw things away that can be fixed,” Pearce said.
Ten other Tech students educated homeowners on ways to reduce energy consumption and utility bills at a sustainability fair set up in the store’s parking lot.
Pearce said the event gave students a chance to practice their classroom lessons.
“They had to design a booth. They had to design outreach activities for adults and kids. They went out and got sponsors and donations,” she said.
It was good practice for their careers, Pearce said. After all, planning, logistics and execution of complex projects is a major part of the construction industry they hope to join.
Other volunteers just wanted to share skills that had been passed on to them.
Four seamstresses, including TimeBank Coordinator Ellen Stewart and Blacksburg Sustainability Manage Carol Davis, sewed buttons on shirts, hemmed pants and stitched new life into little girl dresses.
Laura Drew of Blacksburg was one of three volunteers working at the knife and tool sharpening station. With whetstones, honing steels and a motorized bench grinder, they made blunt items useful again.
“Mother taught me,” Drew said of sharpening. “She got me a little peanut [Case brand pocketknife], and I would sharpen that.”
Crowder and Fortier said planning for the next event will get underway soon.
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