Students give grocery bags new life as made-with-love mats for the homeless

By Chris Orlet

You’ve heard the old saying: “When the world hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

Students at St. Joseph Catholic School in Olney have done that one better. When the world gives you plastic grocery bags, make sleeping mats for the homeless.

As part of their study of homelessness and the affordable housing crisis, students in the sixth and eighth grades have been turning thousands of used plastic grocery bags into sleeping mats.

According to sixth grade teacher Josey Hart, the mats are soft and create a barrier between cold, damp sleeping surfaces and homeless individuals.

Hart teaches a course in academic enrichment which includes a service opportunity component. And what better opportunity to serve than a project that combines recycling, compassion and helping the least of thy brothers?

Before undertaking the sleeping mat project, the school connected with Dolores “Dee” Winkels of St. Marcelline Parish in Schaumburg through her daughter Karen Winkels of Olney.

“Dee collects ‘plarn’ or plastic yarn created from recycled plastic shopping bags,” said Principal Carol Potter. “With the plarn she crochets sleeping mats for the homeless and homeless shelters in her area.”

Making plarn is a multi-step process. Students learned to flatten and smooth the plastic bags (insuring that any receipts or trash is removed).

Then five bags are stacked and cut using a rotary cutter and mat into 2-inch-width strips. Students are able to get about six cuts from a stack of bags.

Two strips are then joined using a “lark’s head” or “cow hitch” knot. The knots are tightened and then joined with other pairs to make a chain of loops. These long pieces of knotted bag strips create the plarn. The plarn is then loosely rolled into a ball and forwarded to Dee for crocheting.

Each sleeping mat takes about 600-700 bags (or 1,800-2,100 loops).

Fortunately there is no shortage of plastic bags.

“We have an entire shed full of bags,” Potter said.

Once the students created the balls of plarn, the learning opportunity wasn’t over.

“They were asked to empathize with the people who would use the mats, to put themselves in their shoes,” said Potter. “That included trying out the mats on the cold, hard ground and imagining what it would be like to have to sleep that way.

“As a school we really try to teach deeper lessons of social justice instead of just donate money,” said Principal Carol Potter. “Of course it’s a great way to recycle too. We actually have a recycling program at the school through Walmart. They give us gift cards for recycling bags. So it was nice to find another good use for the bags.”

Students really enjoyed the hands-on experience.

“I really loved making the ‘plarn’ and helping make a homeless person’s life a little better,” said eighth grader Braden Schneider. “I want to make more at home in my free time.”

Sixth grader Asher Lambird said, “It was a fun way to help people in need.”
Hart said the sleeping mats were surprisingly cushiony and provide a good amount of comfort.

“I thought they would be flimsy, but they were really sturdy,” she said. “They were really pretty too, as well as functional.”
The mats also include a tie for rolling, storing, and carrying. And because they are plastic, they can be washed easily.

The sleeping mats are just one way students at St. Joseph are learning about social justice.

The school recently received a grant from the Diocese of Belleville’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development office to participate in CCHD’s Creating on the Margins contest. The art contest is a tool to engage young people grades 7-12 in learning about poverty in the United States, its root causes, and faith-inspired efforts to address poverty, especially through the CCHD.

The contest comes with a lesson plan called the Two Feet of Love in Action project.

Students learned about the connection between poverty and housing, learned about the crisis of affordable housing and homelessness, and participated in “The Spent Challenge,” which asked them to imagine trying to live on minimum wage or less for a month while trying to pay for health care, food, housing, gas, etc.

According to CCHD local representative Cheryl Sommer, the Two Feet of Love in Action project offers two distinct, but complementary, ways Catholics can put the Gospel into action in response to God’s love: social justice (addressing systemic, root causes of problems that affect many people) and charitable works (short-term, emergency assistance for individuals).

In addition to creating material for sleeping mats and participating in the CCHD Creating on the Margins art contest, students recently raised $2,500 through an ethical trade sale with Catholic Relief Services, which will go to fund CRS programs worldwide.