Group uses plastic bags to make mats for the homeless

Lafayette’s Bag Mat Ministry found a way to turn all those unused plastic grocery bags that many people have stuffed inside a kitchen cabinet into sleeping mats for the homeless.

Linda Wamsley said the idea for the group emerged while watching the New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl in 2010.

“I took a bunch of bags with me and was going to loop (them together) while watching the game at a Super Bowl party at my brother’s,” Wamsley said. “The men were pacing they were so nervous. I was quietly looping away, and they said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Making loops,’ and I showed them the mat. They said, ‘Show me how.’

“So, I got three guys doing it,” she laughed. “The wives came and said, ‘You know you’re the Tom Sawyer of making bag mats.’”

For the past four years, Wamsley and her group of fellow mat makers have been meeting at Grace Presbyterian Church the second Saturday of every month to put together long strings of bags that are weaved into durable sleeping mats for the local homeless population and the less fortunate in other countries, including Haiti and Honduras.

The group has made and distributed more than 500 mats, she said.

Wamsley said she first heard of using grocery bags to make sleeping mats from a news story about an Illinois group. The story came at a time when she was searching for a project she could do as an individual that would make a difference in the lives of others.

She explained each mat takes between 500 to 700 clean plastic bags — dirty ones might attract insects — and up to 35 hours of work.

At a workshop earlier this month, three young girls sat at a table flattening bags, which were then handed off to George Woodward, who used what looked like a modified pizza cutter to slice the bags into straight plastic loops.

“It feels good,” said Woodward when asked why he helped with the project. “The homeless haven’t got all the conveniences I do or anything to sleep on.”

The loops are strung together by Wamsley and other women into long strings and rolled into balls.

Then comes the hard part: hours of crocheting.

Wamsley said it can take an entire day or longer just to crochet one mat.

The monthly sessions where the bags begin to take shape usually attract from five to 20 volunteers.

Other people stop by to donate plastic bags or pick up supplies to start crocheting at home.

“We’d like more people to volunteer. We gave out about 50 mats in November and now we’re down to about this,” Wamsley said, motioning to a pile of a dozen bags.

The bag mat sessions are held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. the second Saturday of every month at Grace Presbyterian Church, 518 Roselawn Blvd.

For information, visit: www.facebook.com/pages/Bag-Mat-Ministry/ 113698108664656.