Tinker time: Hennepin County Fix-It Clinics

Your broken toaster could make a fix-it guy's day

Hennepin County's Fix-It Clinic / Photo courtesy of Hennepin County

For you, maybe, a broken toaster is an electro-mechanical annoyance with serious implications for breakfast.

For Jesse Daun of Minneapolis, it’s an opportunity to do what he loves: take something apart, figure out what’s wrong, and put it back together. And that’s why Daun is a regular among the engineers, seamsters, and tinkerers who volunteer at Hennepin County’s Fix-It Clinics.

“It’s super-fun,” Daun says. “I was talking to [Fix-It Clinic coordinator] Nancy [Lo] a few nights ago and I’m like, if we could do these twice a month that would be awesome.

“I get pretty fired up and excited about them,” he continued. “I’d do more if I could.”

Volunteering at a Fix-It Clinic is hardly work for the software engineer, who gets to scratch a tinkering itch and do good for the environment too.

Lo, a county waste reduction and recycling specialist, said over a ton and a half of stuff has been diverted from the waste stream since September of 2012 [this article first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Minnesota Good Age], when she organized the first Fix-It Clinic at Washburn Library in the Tangletown neighborhood of Minneapolis. “We have diverted 3,021 pounds of waste so far,” Lo says. “After tomorrow’s Fix-It Clinic [held in June, when Lo was interviewed], it will probably be about 300 more pounds.”

That 3,600-plus points of stuff includes common household items like lamps, DVD players, sewing machines, many toasters, and even a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner or two—all granted a reprieve from the incinerator by Lo’s volunteers.

Fix-It Clinic volunteers / Photo provided by Hennepin County

Tinker, tailor…

Southwest Minneapolis resident Jim Hartmann gets the same kind of tinkerer’s buzz from the Fix-It Clinics as Daun.

“I’ve just always had a talent for fixing things, and I kind of enjoy it, the challenge of it,” Hartmann says. “I thought it would be fun, too, to hang out with other people and try to solve problems.”

Hartmann also has a background in engineering and grew up fixing things around the house. And to him, the clinics—begun after Lo read a New York Times story about Amsterdam’s Repair Cafe—just make sense.

“It’s better to make things last and not buy new ones,” Hartmann says.

Lo said she gets about 20 volunteers per event, and they’re busy from the moment the doors open. (Here’s a tip if you plan to show up at a Fix-It Clinic: Wait an hour or so for the rush to die down, and you’re far less likely to be stuck in line.) Although lamps and toasters are among the most common items brought in for repairs, the volunteers have a variety of skills; some of the most under utilized are the seamsters, who are itching to get to work on your ripped jeans or frayed linens.

Lo estimates about three-quarters of all items brought to the Fix-It Clinics are successfully repaired. In some cases, the volunteer team doesn’t have everything needed to make a repair, but they can at least diagnose a problem and help the owner find spare parts.

Education is a key component of the clinics.

Daun says many people are afraid to loosen the screws on a broken appliance, but that’s the first step in most repairs. As he puts it: “Hey, it’s already broken.”

“I find it rewarding personally to be able to help people and also to teach people a little bit—help them get over that fear of opening things up—and knowing we’re reducing the impact on landfills by some small amount,” Daun says.

Fix-It Clinics are held roughly once per month [the second Saturdays from noon to 4 pm)] at various locations across the county. First come, first served, no pre-registration required.

The following items are just some of things repaired at the clinics:

  • Antique radio
  • Blender
  • Camping lantern
  • Clothing and other soft goods to mend or alter
  • Dremel tool
  • DVD player
  • Electric hot water kettle
  • Fan
  • Flashlight
  • Hair dryer
  • Lamp
  • Paper shredder
  • Remote control
  • Sewing machine
  • Steam mop
  • Stereo
  • Telephone headset
  • Toaster oven
  • Toaster
  • Toys

By Dylan Thomas. To learn more about Fix-It Clinics or to volunteer, visit their web page at Hennepin County. The article first appeared in our August 2013 issue.