When you own nothing, the clothes on your back are everything.

That's why Michelle Ooley started the Mobile Menders, a Twin Cities volunteer group that provides free clothing repair services to people in need. "A lot of times this is all they've got," Ooley said. "They don't have the financial resources to go out and get a new pair of jeans."

Several times a month, Ooley and the Mobile Menders haul their sewing machines into homeless shelters, and senior and low-income housing complexes. Stitch by stitch, they breathe new life into well-worn clothes, providing a free service to people who otherwise couldn't afford it, and fulfilling their mission to reduce clothing in landfills.

The group's efforts are affecting more than the environment. For the Mobile Menders, the term "mending" has many meanings. A man was brought to tears when a Mobile Menders volunteer was able to replace two missing buttons on his "Prince" shirt, a beloved possession since 1989. A woman who just completed drug treatment is now able to zip her coat as she looks for a job. For others, a friendly face while they wait for their clothing to be repaired creates the priceless feeling of dignity.

"It is profound to me that the power of something so simple has the ability to change somebody's life," Ooley said. "There's an overwhelming gratitude we feel just for being here."

A replaced zipper

The catalyst for Mobile Menders started with a well-loved Carhartt jacket and a man named Jim who was living at the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul.

Ooley had agreed to donate her sewing skills for a fix-it clinic at the mission as part of an Earth Day event in 2017.

Jim, who had never been able to zip his favorite coat, brought it to Ooley to be fixed. But Ooley couldn't fix the coat. She needed more time to find a zipper and watch a YouTube video on how to replace it.

A few weeks later, Ooley returned the repaired coat to the man. "I said, 'It's not perfect, but it zips.' " Ooley recalled.

Jim broke down crying and told Ooley it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him.

"It was one of those 'a-ha' moments," Ooley said. "All of a sudden I realized there was a need that wasn't being met."

Once word got out about what Mobile Menders was doing, homeless shelters started calling and volunteers began to sign up. Mobile Menders now does pro-bono sewing projects for 14 different organizations, including Dress for Success, Operation Glass Slipper, Ebenezer House and House of Charity.

Since June 2017, the Mobile Menders has grown to more than 150 volunteers who have mended more than 350 pounds of clothing during more than 30 events.

Ooley is working to get nonprofit status for the group. Once she has that, she wants to apply for grants to hold educational workshops in schools where sewing is no longer taught.

Ooley would eventually like to get involved with adapting clothing for people with disabilities, including Twin Cities veterans. And she's currently putting together a pilot program for Meals on Wheels where the driver can bring a meal and also pick up an article of clothing that needs to be mended.

"There is so much need out there," Ooley said. "The opportunities for this to expand are endless."

'I'm just so grateful'

During a recent Minneapolis cold snap, the Mobile Menders set up their sewing machines in a basement meeting room at the House of Charity, a nonprofit in Minneapolis' Elliot Park neighborhood that provides food and shelter, plus chemical and mental health treatment programs to people who have experienced homelessness.

"It's so important for our clients to have clothes that fit appropriately and that aren't going to make them feel like they are visibly homeless," said Kyle Lipinski, women's counselor at House of Charity. "When you feel like people are judging you, it's a lot harder to show up in the world."

House of Charity clients dropped off articles of clothing to be repaired: frayed jeans, coats with broken zippers, holey leather gloves. The Mobile Menders focus their work on minor repairs, and typically don't tackle major alterations.

Nicole Williams had a favorite pair of jeans hemmed at the last Mobile Menders event and on this day she is back to see whether the volunteers can repair the zipper on her winter coat.

The 35-year-old Minneapolis woman recently completed drug treatment, and is searching for a job. "We're trying to get our lives together and it's nice to be able to look decent again," she said. "We don't want to feel worse than we already do."

Clutching her favorite lime green sweatshirt and army green winter coat against her pregnant belly, Dominique Buffett remarked how "tremendous" it was to have a coat that zips and pockets that work.

"I'm just so grateful," she said. "There's nothing wrong with this coat anymore — it's perfect again."

Aimee Blanchette • 612-673-1715