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On the Mend

Give your busted possessions new life—and add wisdom to your own—at a Fix-It Clinic.


“I’m just happily following along as his apprentice,” Megan Bracken says of fellow Fix-It Clinic coach Dustin Caldwell. - RAY HOWZE
  • Ray Howze
  • “I’m just happily following along as his apprentice,” Megan Bracken says of fellow Fix-It Clinic coach Dustin Caldwell.

It was a crowded Saturday at the Patagonia outlet in Sugar House, and two children no older than 10 were ogling Megan Bracken as she fixed an aging Santa Claus doll that was supposed to say a phrase whenever its hand was squeezed.

"They were standing there tapping their toes, like I'm not doing it fast enough," Bracken recalls of the first repair she did on her own as a volunteer at a Fix-It Clinic. "I think it was sentimental."

As the kids' father watched and absorbed her technique, Bracken unscrewed the battery pack on Santa's back and turned the toy inside out so she could see the button on its palm. It was clear it had been pressed too hard. She repositioned the plastic rings around the old knob, then re-stuffed the doll and attached the battery box. She pressed Santa's hand and got a splash of holiday cheer.

"The spirit of Christmas is in your heart!"

It was January.

Since that successful operation, Bracken has helped repair vacuums, blenders and electronic items at four Fix-It Clinics. The free sessions encourage people to do more than just drop off their faulty appliances or busted bicycle chains and pick them up once they're mended. Instead, the fixers—called "coaches"—take apart damaged goods on the spot and teach the owners how to put them back together, imparting skills they can later employ should the items break again.

"The idea is to help you get to know your stuff better," Utah Recycling Alliance Vice President Sarah Bateman says. "These are pioneer skills we're talking about. It's a very Utah thing to fix our things and put new life back into them."

The clinics service a variety of needs. Fidgety kitchen mixers, powered-down sewing machines, wobbly legged chairs, offtrack zippers, ripped seams, glitchy phones and buggy laptops can all be overhauled by expert coaches. "They're like fix-it nerds, but they like to do what they do," Bateman says. "We don't guarantee everything's going to be fixed, but we'll give it a try."

There have been a dozen Fix-It Clinics since the URA brought the program to Utah last year. In the next several weeks, there will be two more—one on Thursday, Sept. 27, at Weber State University from noon to 3 p.m., and one on Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Salt Lake County Library from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Next month's clinic is the first at the county library. "Libraries have always been about knowledge, so we see this as a very practical way to impart that knowledge," Tavin Stucki, spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Library, says. "This Fix-It Clinic is an opportunity for us to take a repair manual we have in the branch or in our resources, and really personalize it to the community member who has a specific repair they need to work on."

There will be repair stations for bicycles, fabrics, wood, small appliances and electronics at the library's event, giving owners and hoarders alike a chance to save old items they don't want to throw out and replace. Stucki suggests those who bring their own damaged objects should observe other fixes, too, and make themselves a handier homebody.

Bateman says the clinics are popular for children interested in engineering, science, technology and mathematics careers, and for older folks who miss the "good old days where we used to fix things up."

Beyond education and nostalgia, Fix-It Clinics have a higher purpose. "We are interested in any kind of programs that help work toward a zero-waste lifestyle," Bateman says. Since 2017, more than 400 pounds of items have been repaired, put back to use and diverted from a landfill. Bateman says this repurposing protects natural resources, saves people money and safeguards the environment, helping Utahns lead healthier lives.

The local efforts might help lower staggering worldwide statistics. According to a study published last year by the United Nations University, global e-waste equaled in weight to almost nine Great Pyramids of Giza, 4,500 Eiffel Towers, or 1.23 million fully loaded 18-wheel 40-ton trucks—enough to form a line 17,500 miles long (the distance from New York to Bangkok and back).

Dustin Caldwell, another coach and Bracken's partner at the clinic's electronic stations, helps people embrace a greener lifestyle by teaching them the tools to perform their own repairs. "I love for people to feel empowered," he says.

Growing up, Caldwell's dad was a home-repair type. "Saturday was just a day for fixing things, and also installing new stuff," Caldwell says, remembering remodeling a bathroom, restoring a car and using tools to build things on the weekends. "I didn't know there was such a thing as a plumber or electrician or any of that stuff, because Dad fixed everything."

His father died three years ago. Caldwell inherited his leather toolbox—an old kit at least 50 years old that Caldwell brings with him to every Fix-It Clinic. Pulling it out to mend people's electronics brings back old memories. "It seemed like it had anything you could possibly need to fix anything in the world," Caldwell says. "It's kind of like a magic box."

Bracken has fond memories of her own father showing her how to put stereos back together after taking them apart, and of her grandmother sewing the dresses she wore to school dances and on Easter Sundays. "It's kind of a do-it-yourself-er mentality that's been instilled in me," she says.

Bracken and Caldwell's family roots make throwing things away anathema to the repair gurus. "Multiple times I've pulled things out of the trash and given it new life," Bracken says.

Caldwell and Bracken met the day Bracken fixed the silent Santa. She hadn't even gone to that clinic with the intention of fixing anyone else's dilapidated mementos; she just wanted someone to re-strip her electroluminescent wire, re-solder a power cord and make her Vitamix blender work again. It was so crowded that day at Patagonia that people were cutting in front of her in line, so she struck up a conversation with someone from the URA. "They were like, 'You seem to know what you're talking about. Would you be interested in coaching?'" Bracken recalls.

She resigned herself to the long wait and took a seat next to Caldwell, helping restore someone else's blender and a vacuum that a lucky cleaner had found in the trash. Eventually, after she saved St. Nick, Bracken asked Caldwell to take a look at her blender. He got it up and running, but to this day, it still isn't performing at 100 percent.

Eight months later, Bracken and Caldwell are still working on the blender but have added other projects as well. The coaches' current task is figuring out what's wrong with Bracken's espresso machine. "Dustin and I have pulled it apart three times," she says. "I refuse to let it go."

Caldwell, whom Bracken calls a "master tinkerer," is studying the machine's circuit boards. "I hate seeing perfectly good stuff thrown away," he says. "Just seems like a waste of resources."