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Bethlehem Woods Residents Weave Plastic Bags into Mats for Homeless Vets

The "plarn" mats are actually quite soft and in high demand; some residents have taken to the weaving as a permanent hobby.

Plastic grocery bags can serve a variety of inventive purposes—small trash-can liners, dog clean-up, quick storage solution—but one that might not immediately occur is soft, portable bedding.

That’s how residents at Bethlehem Woods Retirement Community in La Grange Park have been using them this fall, though—not for themselves, but for homeless veterans. The bags are sliced and twisted into “plarn” (plastic yarn,) then woven together to make a surprisingly comfortable sleeping mat.

Not only does the project make good recycling of those plastic bags, and for a good cause, but the finished cushiony mats are impervious to weather and bugs; they are extremely popular among those who have received them, organizers said.

“This is a project that has really kind of taken off, and people really like,” said Mary Jester, executive director at Bethlehem Woods.  ““Our residents are always looking for things that they can do that have meaning… They’re all about wanting to do something to give back, and this has been a great project for them.

“There’s no shortage of people wanting [the mats.]”

As part of their faith-based mission—and to stay social and active—Bethlehem Woods residents frequently craft gifts for the underprivileged, like blankets or baby hats. The plarn mats idea arose as a part of that outreach effort. A total of eight mats have been donated through Kiwanis, with two others completed and more under construction.

While the project has been too physically taxing for some of the elderly residents to continue (it takes about 60 man-hours to make one mat), a couple of others have found a hobby for the rest of their lives. In fact, these residents have even begun asking for higher quantities of certain colors of bags in order to make designs and patterns.

Bethlehem Woods even improved on the template, adding an bonus to the design: a plarn-rope sling that allows an owner on the move to bind and carry the mat more easily.

Resident Margaret Cukale, one of the organizers of the plarn-mat project, said that like many of the community’s projects, it gave residents something better to do than sitting in their rooms watching “boob tube.”

“We try to get the people out,” Cukale said. “This is a wonderful thing to do. It gives us a chance to be together. We have a lot of fun; we talk, we joke, and I think that’s the best therapy of all.”

And some soul gets a small gift to keep him or her a little more comfortable.

“I can’t imagine that people have to live like that, but they do, on the street,” said Cukale. “I used to think this [plarn mat] was very thin, but it’s better than being on the bare floor.”

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Alana Waters-Piper December 11, 2012 at 02:14 PM
What a lovely, wonderful idea. Good for everyone involved.
John O'Laughlin December 14, 2012 at 07:01 PM
Is there something we can do to help with this project? I'm thinking mainly of materials, but it could be something else too.

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