KITTERY, Maine — A European concept teaching Traip Academy students self-reliance and critical thinking skills is bringing back a long-forgotten notion for much of today’s young generation: When something breaks, you fix it.
Championing a culture of trades among a nationwide worker shortage, as well as everyday “handiness,” the Repair Cafe model encourages a sustainable society where communities work to keep products and materials alive, rather than throwing them to the landfill the second there’s a malfunction.
Traip Academy’s Repair Cafe is run by the school district’s sustainability coordinator Jen Thayer, who has worked as a paraprofessional in the district for 18 years. She heads up the high school’s sustainability group of about 15 core students, who will ultimately perform the repairs alongside skilled volunteers from the Kittery Lions Club.
The Repair Cafe, which takes place the first Thursday of each month and is open to the community, is one facet of the student sustainability group. It’s also looking at recycling, composting, woodworking, farm-to-table cooking, fishing and hiking.
“We’re losing the trades and I think that’s due to a wide variety of reasons,” Thayer said. “Hands-on learning, outdoor education and the trades, we’ve seen those disappear over the last few decades.” She said the Repair Cafe takes place in the high school’s iLab, which in its former life, was a woodworking shop. That’s not really taught in schools anymore.
The idea behind the cafe is for community members to bring their broken or malfunctioning items, presenting a challenge to the students and their Lions Club mentors. They fill out some paperwork, drop off their item and let the group work its magic. During the first cafe of the year Thursday, students had a miniature refrigerator, Keurig and toaster.
“It seems like a lot of fun,” said sophomore Kathleen McPherson. “I feel like it’s a great group that’s very beneficial to our community. It’s awesome people can bring this stuff and we can help them with their needs.”
Volunteer Ed Racicot joined the Lions Club three years ago. He said the Repair Cafe connects well with the club’s mission, as one of its big services is providing people with recycled eye glasses, hearing aids, medical equipment and wheelchairs; things that can be quite costly nowadays.
“When I was younger, your TV broke, you called the repair man,” Racicot said. “Your watch broke, you got it fixed. Your shoes broke, you fixed them. And now in this day and age…”
Racicot said he’s always been good with his hands so he thought it would be fun to help at the Repair Cafe. Over the summer, they repaired a floor lamp and sewing machine, for example. The work promotes critical thinking skills, he said, and there’s also that intergenerational piece.
“In today’s day and age, when you look at plumbers and electricians, there’s just not enough people to work,” he said.
Thayer estimated 60 to 70 percent of job vacancies today are in agriculture, mechanics and labor. “That’s why I think this program is really important,” she said. “It teaches repairs at a basic level and brings students together with members of the community. When you teach people to repair things, it prevents them from going into the landfill.”
It’s a foreign concept for many millennials, some of whom go through iPhones like toothbrushes: They use it for a few months, and then trade it in for a new one.
Currently, Thayer said, there’s only two Repair Cafes in Maine. The concept began in the Netherlands, and later spread to Belgium, Germany, France and much of the United Kingdom.
“It also furthers students’ understanding, how products are made now, and that we live in a very throw-away society,” said Thayer, who noted much of the older generation that brings their items to the cafe are of the schooling that “you don’t throw that away.”
“I’ve always been interested in fixing stuff ever since I was a little kid,” said sophomore Jordan Kofos, who has fixed his home dryer and fence, for example. “It’s a good thing to be self-reliant. I think everyone should have basic skills.”
Sophomore Yolanda Ares said she’s frustrated with the current state of recycling as a global market issue. Because of costs, Traip Academy doesn’t recycle right now, and the sustainability group wants to find out how to tackle that. Ares is also interested in the local food aspect, too.
“I’ve been researching a lot of environmental stuff,” Ares said. “My parents are chefs. They do organic stuff and have taught me it’s important to get your food from a natural source, so you know where it’s coming from.”
An aeroponics tower garden also sits in the iLab, where Thayer said they hope to help the school district’s nutrition program by growing spinach, lettuce and herbs.
Thayer recently joined Kittery’s municipal advisory energy committee, and they’re discussing ways to combine the work of that group with the student sustainability effort. Similar “green” initiatives are also taking place at Mitchell Primary and Shapleigh schools.
The next Repair Cafe is scheduled for Dec. 6 from 2 to 4 p.m.