Sewing on a Button, Giving Hope

AFSCME Local 2829 member Michelle Ooley started Mobile Menders to offer free mending to the community.
AFSCME Local 2829 member Michelle Ooley started Mobile Menders to offer free mending to the community.

Saint Paul resident Sue Urban pulls a red winter coat out of her folding shopping cart at the West 7th Community Center and holds it up so volunteers can take a closer look.

The zipper pull is broken, Urban explains. Can they fix it? She hands it over to Michelle Ooley for inspection as several other women nearby hem jeans and pants at tables full of sewing machines.

Ooley assures her they’ll try to repair the coat, plus three more with broken zippers or ripped pockets that Urban brought in.

Saint Paul resident Sue Urban (right) gives Mobile Menders four coats for mending, and a bunch of gloves, scarves and a coat to donate to those in need. Volunteers were able to fix three of the coats, and the fourth is in the works. Mobile Menders did a coat drive as part of their recent event at West 7th Community Center in Saint Paul.
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Helping people get more use out of their clothing and diverting it from landfills is part of the mission behind Ooley’s Mobile Menders. So is letting our most vulnerable people, the ones who can feel invisible, know that they matter.

Volunteers from across the region – including members of Ooley’s AFSCME Local 2829 and her coworkers at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency - provide free mending in the Twin Cities for people in need. They hem pants and skirts, mend torn seams and patch holes for people at food shelves, missions, schools and community centers.

A lot of times, these are the only pair of pants they’ve got and they’re donated, so they may not fit or be too long or torn,” Ooley says. If you have clothes that fit, you feel good. To think I’m helping someone succeed is very humbling, very gratifying.”

Mobile Menders’ slogans are simple and heartfelt: “We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to have clothes that fit and are in good shape.” And “Sewing mends the soul.”

Ooley got the idea when she volunteered to mend clothes at Union Gospel Mission during MPCA’s Lafayette Park Earth Week.

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A man named Jim walked up with a bathrobe with a ripped seam and a jacket with a shredded zipper. The jacket was donated, and Jim told Ooley he’d never been able to zip. Ooley didn’t have a zipper with her, so she asked Jim if she could bring his jacket home to mend.

“He said, ‘You’d do that for me?’ I said, ‘Of course I would.’ He was dumbfounded.”

When she met Jim a few weeks later to return his jacket – with a working zipper – he cried. He told her it was the night of his first softball game in the sober league, and he could finally wear his favorite jacket.

“It’s wonderful,” he told her. “It’s never zipped before. Can I give you a hug?”

“It dawned on me that to me, it was just a $3 zipper,” Ooley says. “To him, it was obviously more. When I went back inside, I had goosebumps. I thought we have to do something. There’s a need here that’s not being met.”

She started Mobile Menders, reaching out to other nonprofits and recruiting more volunteers.

She and her volunteers make sure they greet and make eye contact with everyone who comes in. Some clients are bringing in clothes because they don’t know how to mend them and don’t want to toss them, while others are in a more precarious position, just getting out of prison or experiencing homelessness.

They’ve become used to no one making eye contact, no one saying hello. Having someone there to greet them and mend their clothing, asking nothing in return, frequently moves them to tears.

“I felt sad that they didn’t feel they were worthy of having their clothes fixed,” Ooley says. “I want to let people know they matter.”

Several volunteers do repairs at the West 7th Community Center.
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Ooley gives her entire heart and soul to building community, hope and kindness, says Mel Preczewski, a Mobile Menders volunteer and vice president of Ooley’s Local 2829.

“Michelle represents what so many AFSCME workers do,” Preczewski says. “We are more than our jobs; we are givers and changers of the communities we live and work in. Michelle applied the principles of our agency - reduce and reuse - and found a way to do even more for the people of Minnesota than she already does with her job as a public worker.”

Today Mobile Menders has a dozen agency partners and more than 140 volunteers. People in Duluth, Mankato, Virginia, Ohio and Illinois have contacted Ooley about starting chapters.

She plans to keep growing Mobile Menders. She’s working to gain nonprofit status, find grants and locate warehouse space. She plans to start teaching people how to mend their own clothes and has several sewing machines, some in need of repair, which she’ll get fixed and then place at agencies for community use.

Future goals include working with the VA to adapt clothing for vets with disabilities, helping domestic violence survivors and eventually having a vehicle like a food truck filled with sewing machines to be truly mobile in the community.

I think the reason this resonates with so many people right now is its something so simple,” Ooley says. “In the climate we’re in, we need something positive to get us through everything that’s going on in the outside world.”

Want to help? Mobile Menders needs monetary donations and sewing supplies. Find their GoFundMe and Amazon wish list at