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Senior citizens give broken things second chance at Repair Cafés

John Herson, 87, from Smithtown, repairs a lamp

John Herson, 87, from Smithtown, repairs a lamp at the Repair Cafe at the Comsewogue Public Library in Port Jefferson Station, Sept. 7, 2019. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

It’s all about reducing waste going to landfills, building a community of environmentally aware citizens and getting broken items fixed for free — all while having fun. And it's also about handy retirees willing to volunteer for four hours on a Saturday and frugal-minded senior citizens with things in need of a little TLC finding a sense of community while doing good.

It’s the Repair Café Long Island, part of a worldwide grassroots effort to get people to think twice before throwing something away. The Long Island chapter was started in 2017 by longtime environmental activist and self-described earth educator Laurie Farber, 65, of Wyandanch. Her aim: to reduce waste on the Island.

“You know, Long Islanders produce 7 pounds of waste per day, as opposed to 4 pounds per day by other New York State residents,” Farber said. “I thought it was about time to do something.”

Farber said she learned about Repair Café International during an online webinar about environmental conservation. The organization was founded in 2009 in the Netherlands by Martine Postma, a Dutch environmentalist and former journalist. Postma saw how many things people in the Netherlands threw away instead of trying to fix them. Her vision was a program that would help people get their broken items fixed for free by volunteers, aka repair coaches, with a variety of skills, while reducing waste going to landfills. Worldwide, all of the repair cafes have prevented an estimated 770,000 pounds of waste, according to the Repair Cafe International Foundation.

Today, there are 1,653 active Repair Cafés in 35 countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Netherlands, United States and Canada, according to the Repair Café website. There are 75 in the United States, with 14 in New York State.

Farber used the starter kit purchased from Repair Café International to recruit volunteers and get the word out to the community. “I have found that the best way to recruit people is by word-of-mouth and meeting people at events,” she said.

Farber’s Repair Café Long Island is among the programs she runs under Starflower Experiences Inc. of Wyandanch, a nonprofit she started in 1989. The nonprofit’s educational programming and experiences aim to help people of all ages understand, appreciate and live more in harmony with the earth's life systems, according to its website.

Coaches in action

“I adore being a volunteer repair coach. I love it,” said John Herson, 87, of Smithtown, at the Sept. 7 Repair Café at the Comsewogue Public Library in Port Jefferson Station.

Having worked all 10 events since 2017, Herson said, “I love helping people and fixing things — it’s all part of a puzzle. I don’t do drugs; this is my high.” His dark blue sweatshirt, emblazoned with “Mr. Fix It,” was a gift from his grandchildren Rachel and Matthew 15 years ago.

Herson tells the story of his other granddaughter, Kara, 21, who is a junior at Stanford University in California and a member of the campus chapter of Repair Café. “She told me she repairs bicycles on campus for Repair Café,” he said. “I was proud and amazed.”

Herson sold his marine supply company of 27 years, Dynagrout in Deer Park, in 1998 and retired. “I have been fixing things for over 60 years. The only thing I’m not good at is electronics. I can fix anything mechanical or electrical,” he said.

One client, Janet Morahan, 84, of Port Jefferson Station, brought Herson a broken lamp.

“I heard about the Repair Café through the library’s newsletter,” she said. “We should recycle; it’s the right thing to do.”

Herson first took apart the lamp switch and socket. Troubleshooting, he removed the switch of another lamp, put it on Morahan’s lamp, which then worked. He told her she would have to get a single socket switch from the local hardware store, come back, and he would replace it for her.

Morahan did so and was delighted.

She thanked Herson especially when she heard another client, Deborah Moss, 76, of Port Jefferson Station, mention that she came to the Repair Café because a hardware store was going to charge her $60 to fix one lamp — and she had three broken ones.

Along with Herson, there were three other repair coaches working in the library’s community room.

Aiming for 'second chance'

Twenty people — all of them in the 50-plus demographic — turned out for the September event, toting bags and crates of items to fix.

“Younger folks do seem to have a more 'throw away' mentality,” Farber said. “We older folks are not as quick to throw things away seeing value in the possessions that might have a second chance.”

Farber started her first Repair Café in 2017 at Our Lady of Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch. Since then, there have been five more events at Our Lady of Miraculous Medal, two at Patchogue-Medford Library and two at Comsewogue Public Library.

“The Comsewogue Public Library is very excited to have hosted Repair Café Long Island for the second time,” said Christine Parker-Morales, 39, of Bellport, the adult program coordinator. “Although the March 2019 event was not well-attended due to a snowstorm, we see the Repair Café as a wonderful way to promote sustainability by keeping things out of landfills, and a great opportunity for patrons to share their skills and knowledge with each other.”

An electrical engineer at Data Device Corp., a defense contractor in Bohemia, Chris Solomon, 30, of Central Islip, says he volunteers as a repair coach because “I’ve run out of things of mine to fix. So this is perfect.”

Solomon, who read about the Long Island Repair Café two years ago in Newsday, was visited by Irvin Fritzhand, 83, of Smithtown, who brought two of his father’s drills from the 1930s and didn’t know if they were still working.

“My dad was from Yugoslavia and immigrated to the United States,” said Fritzhand, who retired as chief of treatment at Kings Park Psychiatric Hospital in 1996. “He started his own sheet metal company in Brooklyn. These drills are memories and treasures to me,” Fritzhand said.

Solomon discovered the cable on one of the drills was tangled. Once untangled and plugged in, that drill worked; but the other didn’t — the motor was shot. Fritzhand was happy to find out their condition. “At least it’s good to know now,” Fritzhand said. “I was just curious.”

Another repair coach, Paul Orfin, 40, of Patchogue, a mechanical engineer for 10 years at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, was busy fixing a boom box. “I’ve done Repair Cafés for two years, and they are very rewarding to me,” Orfin said. “I like helping people and figuring out a solution.” He found out about Repair Cafés from his library, Patchogue-Medford Library

Edith Tilley, 75, of Mount Sinai brought the boom box. “I love playing music and when the CD player stopped working I was devastated,” she said.  

Orfin took the unit apart and used his multimeter to troubleshoot the CD player. The CD player’s motor didn’t work and replacement parts were too expensive, so he explained to Tilley how to bypass it to play her cassette tapes.

Enjoying the challenge

The fourth repair coach, Dave Spieler, 42, of Mastic Beach, has volunteered at five Repair Cafés in the past two years. For the past 12 years, Spieler has worked as a service technician at Supply One in Farmingdale, repairing, diagnosing and installing packaging machinery.

“I enjoy the challenge when someone brings something in to see if we can figure out how to take it apart, fix it, or at least diagnose it properly, and then put it back together in working condition, [that] is a great feeling,” Spieler said.

He said he revels in fixing things, like old radios or tools, that he normally doesn’t get a chance to work on. “I like repairing old electrical devices such as electric-powered tools. Today, they are just not made the way they used to be,” Spieler said, explaining that he’s found older devices were generally made better and are easier for him to repair.

Spieler was presented with two particular challenges by Charles Kwon, 61, of Mount Sinai: a 2-cup rice cooker and a blow dryer.

“I was not able to repair the rice cooker or the hair dryer, but I was able to diagnose both problems,” Spieler said. “The rice cooker seemed to have a heating element that was not good, and the blow-dryer had a broken on-off switch for which parts are not readily available.”

Kwon, who found out about the event from the library newsletter, was “ very satisfied with the diagnosis, but obviously left with nothing repaired,” Spieler explained. “He told me he wanted to bring home a working hair dryer for his wife and a working rice cooker for himself.

"We can’t guarantee we can fix everything.”

Ricardo Rivera, 65, of Wyandanch, a repair coach who has volunteered at four cafes, didn’t make it to the September event. A retired industrial mechanic and security guard, Rivera said he's always loved to repair items. “On my mother’s side, the whole family was in construction and that’s where I learned how to use tools,” he said.

Although Rivera said he can fix nearly anything mechanical, he loves repairing bicycles the most. In addition, he said, working at the Repair Cafés feeds his passion for volunteering.

Farber said she’s beginning to plant the seeds for others to organize Repair Cafés on Long Island.

“I just had a conversation on Facebook with someone in Hampton Bays. That's a bit far for me so since they are a nonprofit, I'm encouraging them to purchase the 'kit' themselves [about $60]. I expect they'll be very successful out there,” Farber said.

Starflower’s next Repair Café is in October, with two more scheduled for early 2020 (see box).

Future Repair Cafés

  • Oct. 26, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Church, 1434 Straight Path, Wyandanch.
  • Feb. 29, 2020, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Comsewogue Public Library, 170 Terryville Rd., Port Jefferson Station.
  • March 28, 2020, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at South County Public Library, 22 Station Rd., Bellport.

For details, visit the Repair Café Long Island Facebook page, RepairCafeLongIsland, or call Laurie Farber at 516-938-6152 or email starflexp@aol.com.

— Ron Marge

Think you've got the 'Repair' stuff?

Repair Café Long Island Chapter is looking for residents with different skills to volunteer as repair coaches. Potential coaches are people who can bring their own tools and enjoy sharing their knowledge with their neighbors. The chapter is looking for repair coaches who are handy with: clothing and textiles, bicycles, electrical appliances, furniture and wooden objects, jewelry and toys/stuffed animals.

In addition to repair coaches, the cafes need hosts and hostesses to welcome clients and serve as a contact point for both clients and repairers in the Repair Café, as well as provide coffee and tea at events.

The group also needs volunteers who can bake cookies for the upcoming cafes along with those willing to loan or donate books and magazines about repairing things.

For details, visit the Repair Café Long Island Facebook page, RepairCafeLongIsland, or call Laurie Farber at 516-938-6152 or email starflexp@aol.com.

— Ron Marge

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect email address for Repair Repair Café Long Island.

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