We all have those pesky, plastic bags laying around the house. They carry our groceries from the store to the car and into the kitchen. Once emptied, some of these bags become trash-can liners for our small waste cans or they’re crumpled up into a ball, tucked away in our drawers and closets and rarely seen again. However, there is another option for these two-handled carriers with the distinctive rustling sound once they have served their original purpose.
Worshipers at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Scranton, PA, have been collecting the grocery bags for a few years and crocheting them into valuable items that are given to the less fortunate in their communities. Called “Mats for the Homeless,” this program’s volunteers cut and crochet the pieces of plastic bags into 3-foot-by-6-foot rectangles that are then distributed by a nearby shelter to those in need. The mats provide insulation from the cold and wet ground for those who only have minimal things to keep them warm and dry.
“We’re using our talents,” said Leah Rudolph, one of the organizers of the “Mats for the Homeless” ministry at Covenant Church. “As Christ teaches us in the Bible, we should use our talents and resources for those less fortunate.”
Leah helped bring the idea of crocheting the plastic bags back to Covenant Church after hearing about it from a friend who was doing the same activity for veterans. She then saw it demonstrated while participating in the “Caring Hands” outreach at her local library.
“Others showed me how to do it,” Leah recalled. “It touched me on many levels. It’s environmentally an improvement to throwing away bags. They’re very, very insulating, so it was potentially helpful to people who needed it outside.”
The church’s women’s group “Covenant Community Connections,” looking for new outreaches in the spring of 2020, ran with the idea to make the mats. There are many different ways people at the church are contributing to this ministry. Church members and others in the community who know of the ministry collect and save the bags. This is followed by the plarn being made in the homes of those in the church group, who then hand those pieces off to others to do the crocheting.
“People want to collect the bags for you – we have thousands and thousands of bags,” Leah said. “We have a few people who are willing to create the plarn and only a couple that can crochet them. I’d like to get more crocheters involved.”
To decrease the backlog of bags, Leah has organized a work day at the church for people to come and create plarn as a group. Saturday, Feb. 12, at Covenant Church is being planned as a Super “Ball” event (time TBD). Open to everyone, all volunteers need to bring are large, sharp scissors (and an 8mm crochet hook if they know how to single crochet) to learn how to make plarn and mats. (Learn more on the Mat Makers Facebook page.)
To make the mats, the lightweight plastic bags are trimmed at the top and bottom by cutting away the handles as well as the seam, with the scraps recycled by the church. While folded, the remaining part of the bag is cut into 2 ½-inch strips, and they are looped together into a ball of plastic yarn called “plarn.” Roughly 600-700 bags are needed to create just one 3×6 mat, and it takes 20 hours to make the plarn for one mat and another 10-20 hours to crochet the strips together to form the mat.
“Yoga mats aren’t as thick,” Leah said about the possibility of using something less labor-intensive to substitute for the half-inch-thick plastic mats. “Plarn, when you make it, remains a little puffy. It makes a nice ground cover for underneath a sleeping bag or blanket. It keeps you up off the dirt, mud and cold ground.”
Leah estimated that the Covenant Community Connections group and local friends have helped her make almost 200 mats in the two-plus years she has been crocheting plastic grocery bags. It’s a needed mission that has gained the community’s support, so much so that a friend of Leah’s from her local Rotary Club purchased new socks that were given out with the mats, adding to the impact this outreach is having in the Scranton area.
“I think it’s important for the recipients to think somebody out there was thinking of them,” Leah said. “Every time I make something, be it a hat or a mat, I think some of these people never had anybody do anything for them without wanting something in return. They don’t even know who I am. I would hope that even just that would encourage somebody to know that somebody out there cares and cares enough to take the time and resources to do this.
“It’s a nice demonstration of what Jesus would want us to be doing in the world.”