As a kid, West Kelowna’s Al Stewart used to take things apart on a regular basis, curious as to how they worked.
He wasn’t so good at getting those things back together, but those skills would come later in life.
“When I was a kid I used to take things apart and I could never get them back together. My mom would get so mad,” said Stewart as he worked to fix an old brass lamp at a weekend event called the Repair Cafe at Okanagan College. “Low and behold it became my career. Partly to be a survivor and not have to rely on people to fix things for me.”
From those early beginnings, Stewart turned his inquisitive youth into a career in the trades as an instrument mechanic, power engineer and electrician.
And he soon found himself as the go-to-guy amongst his pals due to his ability to fix things.
“I’m the one of all my friends that gets all the projects,” he said with a laugh. “I was inquisitive as a kid but I didn’t have the training. Some people are afraid to take something apart or try to fix things. Don’t be afraid…what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Stewart was among a solid group of fixer-upper-experts at the Central Okanagan Regional District’s inaugural Repair Cafe last Saturday, stepping up when he saw an ad in the newspaper for people who are good with their hands. At the event, residents hauled in items that were no longer working, from toasters (tough fixes according to Stewart) to sewing machines, vacuum cleaners and any number of household items.
It was an event put together on a shoestring budget by the regional district, which relied on volunteer fixers, a partnership with Okanagan College to provide the space and a limited advertising budget to get people out.
“We’re thrilled to get this off the ground,” said Rae Stewart, CORD’s waster reduction facilitator. “We weren’t sure there was an appetite for this type of thing but apparently there is. The concept is to starve the landfill and to promote a culture of re-use and repair.”
Twenty-two experts were found to act as the event’s fixers in traditional advertising as well as on social media prior to the event. The Repair Cafe was tailored around those volunteers. The experts were tasked with not only fixing items that came through the door but to also asked teach people to tackle projects by themselves.
“It’s also about empowerment,” said Stewart. “We wanted people to sit down, do some trouble-shooting, watch the process and see that they can do the fixing themselves. We want to get people thinking about what they have at home instead of just throwing it away.”
The Repair Cafe was thought to be the first such event in Kelowna and the response was fantastic, according to the regional district. The organization said they will likely host more events like it in the future but would also love to see a community group take over and host it.
Resident Anita Zittlau, whose brass lamp was fixed by Al Stewart, said it was a great event that had a unique feel.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” she said. “It almost has an old-country feel to it, getting the community to come together and help out.”
And Al Stewart was clearly in his element, fixing odd items and passing on his knowledge.
“This is the inaugural event, I don’t see why it couldn’t be held monthly,” he said.