Converting  plastic bags  into beds

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Clockwise from front left, Flo Carvalho, Nancy Hollaway, Carroll Gromer, Dorothy Schneider, Electa Barlow and Dina Dias are part of a group of women at Village Woods Retirement Community who use plastic grocery bags to make sleeping mats for the homeless..
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Clockwise from front left, Flo Carvalho, Nancy Hollaway, Carroll Gromer, Dorothy Schneider, Electa Barlow and Dina Dias are part of a group of women at Village Woods Retirement Community who use plastic grocery bags to make sleeping mats for the homeless..

Women crochet sacks  into mats for homeless

What to do with those leftover grocery bags? Return them (if you remember) for recycling? Throw them away? Find a way to use them again?

Women at the Village Woods Retirement Community in Baton Rouge chose the third option as a way to help the homeless.

For all but the first Saturday each month, when the Village Woods clubhouse is otherwise occupied, a dozen or so residents start the process of turning these bags into sleeping mats that provide a slightly drier, softer and warmer place for the homeless to sleep.

It takes about 1,000 bags to produce a sleeping mat that measures 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, and the women produce about one per week.

“It’s fascinating,” Nell Meriwether, who works in the First Baptist Church of Baton Rouge homeless ministry that distributes the bags, said on March 30 as she watched the process for the first time.

The assembly line would make Henry Ford proud.

It starts with Rosemary Pratt, who sorts the bags according to color, then cuts off the handles and the bottom of the bag, leaving a plastic cylinder that she flattens. (She drops off the discarded pieces into Wal-Mart’s bag recycle bin.)

The women then fold the cylinders so that, with a few snips with scissors, they are turned into loops about 2 inches thick.

Those loops are tied together to become plastic yarn (or “plarn”) that is wound into balls about the size of a grapefruit. About 20 such balls provide enough plarn to crochet a sleeping mat.

Then, Nancy Hollaway and Dina Dias take the balls home and go to work. The finished product is about an inch thick — hardly luxurious, but much better than the ground as a place to spread a blanket and sleep.

Kathleen Carroll, a First Baptist member who doesn’t live at Village Woods, learned of the technique for making the sleeping mats 13 months ago in Mature Living, a Southern Baptist magazine.

Fellow church member Dias recruited friends at Village Woods to do the preparatory work so that Carroll could make the mats.

Then, Hollaway decided that she would try to make mats, and Dias did the same.

“When I first moved here in May, there was a craft group meeting, but I said, ‘I don’t crochet anymore. I don’t knit anymore. … What do I do? I’ll just go over there, introduce myself and just visit for a little bit,e_SSRq ” said Flo Carvalho.

Like several of those involved, she does not attend First Baptist. “They were doing this: ‘OK, here’s your job.’ I’ve been doing it ever since.”

“We’ll recruit anybody,” Dias said.

Since October, the First Baptist homeless ministry has given away one mat per week, sometimes more, to those who attend the Sunday morning Bible study. Each homeless man and woman who attends is given a number, and a drawing is held to determine who gets the sleeping mat, which are quite popular, Meriwether said.

The Village Woods group has enough bags coming in to keep producing the bags, but wouldn’t mind finding more people willing to crochet them. It’s not as easy as it sounds. There is a tutorial video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiUC0iDQtkA.

“They get kind of cumbersome,” Dias said. “The first three feet you can pretty well handle, but when you get beyond that it’s a little manhandling. … If we had more people crocheting, we would probably need more bags, but right now we don’t. But I would like to see other churches doing this.”