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It’s in the bag

Mission weaves helping others and recycling into one project: mats for the homeless

By Christie Storm

This article was published June 26, 2010 at 5:40 a.m.

— What can you do with a few hundred used plastic shopping bags? Members of New Life Church in Conway are weaving them into sleeping mats for the homeless.

Church member Dawn Warmbold heard about a congregation in Ohio using the plentiful bags to make durable, lightweight mats and it piqued her interest. A recycling advocate, Warmbold was already reusing the shopping bags, which are used in massive numbers by grocery chains, discount stores and many other retailers.

The idea of using bags destined for the landfill to alleviate suffering was appealing.

“It combined two of my passions,” Warmbold said. “Helping people in need and recycling.”

Making items out of plastic bags also has some family history.

“My great-great-grandmother used to crochet Sunshine bread bags and make them into rugs,” she said.

Warmbold began weaving mats and told others about the idea, including fellow church members. They started a small group in February known as “Sleep Mat-ters” and as word spread Warmbold got so many requests for information she made a YouTube video detailing how to make the mats. She’ has also talked with church groups, 4-H clubs and other civic groups interested in making them.

Ellen Brown is the youth minister at Asbury United Methodist Church in Little Rock. She said junior and senior high school students in her group watched Warmbold’s video and decided to try their hand at making the mats. They have been working since April and plan to finish six mats by the end of July. The got started by asking the congregation - and retailers Target and Kroger - to donate bags.

“We have bags everywhere,” Brown said.

While the raw materials are free and easy to find, the mats are labor intensive. It takes from 500 to 700 bags to make one 2 1 /2-by-6-foot mat, as well as about 12 to 15 hours of work. The finished product bears no resemblance to the plastic bags from which it’s made. The mats look as if they are made from sturdy fiber, not flimsy plastic bags.

The mat-making process goes like this: Flatten the bags to their original shape and cut the handles off, as well as the bottom seam to create a squareof plastic. Cut the square into four strips of equal size, which creates four loops of plastic. Tie the loops end to end to create a length of plarn (plastic yarn). Repeat as necessary to make a long length of yarn and begin crocheting.

Warmbold said the time it takes to make each mat can be reduced by assigning jobs to various members of a group, rather than one person trying to make a mat from start to finish. If one group cuts the bags and another loops them, that leaves another person free to focus on crocheting. Those new to crocheting can try their skills on the handles, which are easier to make than the mats.

Brown said she was surprised when she saw a completed mat.

“It’s fairly thick and it’s in-credibly durable,” she said.

She even tried one out, first lying on the floor and then on the mat.

“It does make a difference,” she said.

The youth group works on the mats every Sunday night and some members take bags home to work on, too. Brown said they first had to learn how to crochet. Some caught on quickly, while others prefer cutting or looping the bags.

“We’re very blessed to have a group that’s incredibly missions-minded,” Brown said. “Even if something is not fun, like cutting bags, they will do whatever they can to help out somebody else.”

When the project is completed in July, Brown said, the students hope to hand-deliver the mats so they can see how their work is helping others.

“Around here in Little Rock you don’t have to look too hard to find somebody who could use one, which is unfortunate. But we can hopefully help improve their quality of life,” Brown said.

Brown also hopes the students will see how fortunate they are.

“Even though the mats are fantastic, the difference between sleeping on a mat or in their bed is two totally different worlds,” she said. “[The church members] can get a get glimpse into a different side of life and it will help them open their world view a little bit. We want to really embed the mentality of helping others.”

So far, Warmbold estimates her group at New Life Church has handed out 140mats. They keep a supply at Bethlehem House in Conway to be given to those in need and also visit the homeless under the Broadway Bridge every two weeks. They also hand some out at the Salvation Army and at the railroad station.

“We try to get them into the hands of those who have nothing,” she said.

The group also puts together terry-cloth draw-string bags and fills them with toiletries to give to the homeless.

Warmbold hopes even more groups like the one at Asbury will get involved.

“It’s all about helping people,” she said. “If you look at the homeless they are all somebody’s son or daughter. This is just the least I can do.”

Religion, Pages 14 on 06/26/2010

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