Empowering Communities through Sustainability: The Resounding Success of SPEC’s Repair Café in the Heart of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side

September 18, 2023

Dr. Carole Christopher,  SPEC Guiding Elder and long standing board member, reflects on a recent Repair Cafe which served the most vulnerable Vancouverites at Union Gospel Mission in the Downtown East Side.

Over the past year, SPEC has offered monthly Repair Cafes with invitations to bring your electronics,  clothing, and small household appliances to be repaired rather than tossed into the trash. It’s a very successful and ‘feel good’ program that’s satisfying to ‘customers’ and rewarding to volunteers who arrive with tools, knowledge and skills that bring useless items back to life and produce delighted and appreciative fans who leave with a new commitment to keep items out of the waste stream. 

Every Repair café is an upbeat experience, and it was especially satisfying to see the tidal wave of people who arrived at Union Gospel Mission on the downtown east side with a wide variety of items to be repaired. The volunteer repair people set up early and were ready when the doors opened at 10 am. The tables filled up immediately and the turnover was brisk until the event ended at 2:00 pm. Every successful repair was celebrated with the ringing of a bell and, with each bell, everyone stopped to clap and cheer before resuming their work. 

Most things get fixed but, even if they left without a repair, people were satisfied because they knew they’d ‘done the right thing’ and they could now peacefully let it go. The people who streamed into this Repair Café were a sampling of the neighbourhood of the downtown east side. This is the community that’s been most devastated by COVID in terms of the disruption to their lives. Just east of Chinatown and along Hastings, it’s an area where the homeless congregate and drug use is most visible, though none of that was particularly evident on this Saturday morning. It’s a place where many Vancouverites are a little afraid to go but what we experienced was an outpouring of enthusiastic appreciation for the repair services by respectful volunteers who altered clothing, fixed all kinds of small appliances, (including a sleep apnea machine that hadn’t worked for months) and repaired a wide range of electronics. The sewers were elder women, including SPEC administrator, Barbara, and the appliance and electronic repair people were a range of ages but mostly male and mostly young. One delightful young woman, Jamima, delayed her return to Alberta for a final College year to attend this café and help repair electronic items.

Barbara, SPEC administrator, volunteering as a sewer.

Three SPEC Elders set up an “Elders Table” with an invitation to consider the need to repair ourselves, our relationships, and our way of living on the planet. One Elder, Maggy, brought a small but significant “Earth Treasure Vase” that she is stewarding as it collects offerings of small gifts and many prayers and good wishes. It was made in Asia and is part of a Tibetan spiritual tradition that has become a powerful movement around the world to “hear the call of the Earth to wake up and engage with the great work of our time – and to participate in restoring the balance and harmony to the web of life.” 

SPEC Elders with the Earth Treasure Vase.

Most of the Repair Café’s that SPEC does are under contract with the City of Vancouver. Indeed, we were extremely fortunate to recruit Brian Wong as the Repair Café Coordinator. Brian headed up the city department that previously ran repair café’s and, as a retiree, brought his knowledge and experience to support this SPEC program. Union Gospel Mission, a venerable institution of the downtown east side, organized this particular Repair Café as an add-on to our regular schedule.

We were delighted to bring this outreach to the UGM neighbourhood and it was so successful that they have asked to schedule more café’s in 2024. Hooray for Repair Cafes!


The SPEC Elders Circle would like to invite all who are invested in the wellbeing of their communities, younger generations, and our ecosystems to a special event with guest speaker David Suzuki on October 12th from 10am-12pm. This free event is open to all ages.  Learn more at spec.bc.ca/guidingelders