A group of women known as "The Bag Ladies" at Trinity Lutheran Church in Coal Valley are weaving plastic bags into a ministry for the homeless.
"Care Share Fellowship" members at the church learned of the project about two years ago when women from the church noticed a "plarn mat" while visiting people in their neighborhoods to spread the fellowship of the Christian word, according to member Pat Faucon.
With the help of church member Nancy Roberts, Faucon launched the group's plarn mat project.
“It was announced at several church gatherings that our group was collecting donated used plastic bags, the kind you get at grocery and/or department stores,” church member Vera McCreery said, adding that the congregation has been very generous in giving bags.
Trinity Church donates time and care to homeless shelter outreach programs, nursing homes, food pantries and soup kitchens, she said. About 15 people attended that first plarn mat meeting.
"We had a great time cutting plastic bags into circular strips or slips, McCreery said. "The slips are connected, like a person would connect rubber bands, and the strips or slips are crocheted like using yarn. That is why it is called 'plarn,' or "plastic yarn.'"
About five women crochet the strips, completing about two dozen 3-by-7-foot mats with an attached 6-foot strap. It takes about 1,500 plastic bags to make one mat.
"Time allotment would be about five to seven days," McCreery said.
The mats can be rolled up, like a bed roll. The attached strap wraps around the mat, letting people carry them over their shoulders.
Last fall, the "Care Share Fellowship" members added tote bags to their plarn project after visiting with a policeman working near a homeless facility.
“He was asked what he thought the homeless people needed most, a mat or a tote bag,” McCreery said. “He said both. But he put more emphasis on the tote bags and said the people would be able to carry their personal possession in the tote bags. The thin plastic bags that most of the homeless people use to carry their items split so easily and spill their personal items to the ground."
The tote bags measure 16-by-21-by-4 inches, with two 2-foot shoulder straps. About 300 to 450 plastic bags go into making one tote bag.
“We have crocheted nine tote bags so far, with more tote bags in the works,” McCreery said.
Maintenance of the mats and tote bags is simple, she said.
"Find a water source and rinse the dirt off," McCreery said. "Shake the mats and bags rigorously and toss them over a bush or fence to air dry in the sun. Bugs, lice and ants don’t like the mats or tote bags.”
When the women delivered the mats and tote bags to homeless shelters before Christmas, they filled the tote bags with small personal items, including a rolled fleece blanket, socks, a stocking hat, gloves, a wash cloth, a bar of soap, shampoo, toothpaste and a toothbrush.
Many Trinity members participate in the plarn project by taking donated bags home to be cut and connected.
“One lady — Noreen Warner — is such a big helper,” McCreery said. “Due to Noreen’s health issues, she is considered a shut-in, and she occupies her time by cutting and connecting the plastic bags into strips for the plarn.
"When she creates a large group of tall trash bags stuffed full of the attached plarn, she calls a church member and they pick them up from her and take them to church or to my house.”
The church group takes artistic pride in their mats and tote bags, creatively mixing the colors from different bags. McCreery says she often shares stories of the group's plarn project with store managers.
"I show them pictures of our work with their plastic bags,” she said. “There are so many businesses that have given us boxes full or large quantities of unused plastic bags.
"The 'Plarn Mat and Tote Bag' project fills a need that weighs heavily on our minds," she said. "If only these mats and tote bags would give someone some comfort. They will last a long, long time as they are very durable and rugged.
"The mats work great as a shield between the body and the cold or wet surface of the ground," she said. "They can also be used as a blanket for warmth as they keep the heat close to the body.
“I know there are people out there who have no place to lay their tired bodies,” McCreery said. “Many need food, clean warm clothes, coats, hats, gloves, shoes, boots, a safe place to take a shower and to sleep with warmth and comfort. But instead, many lie on the cold damp ground, in a cardboard box, on a bench or on a highway overpass.”
McCreery is a former administrative assistant who retired to care for her mother who has since died. She said that, after knee replacement surgery last year, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 terminal breast cancer.
"I have received 11 doses/weeks of chemo treatment and I am receiving hormonal infusion treatment every three weeks. And I will continue this for the rest of my life," she said. "God bless the people who discovered this formula and the doctor with his staff for administering it for lengthening my life span. For without that formula, I had an end date for my life."
With her body so compromised, McCreery said she enjoys spending quiet time crocheting.
"I have met some wonderful people who work with me on the ‘Plarn Project,’ and I feel that I am contributing to helping the homeless people to live a little bit more comfortable," she said.