Volunteers turn trash into mats for homeless

Plastic bags have never looked as good as when willing hands turn them into crocheted mats for the homeless.

A recycler, Chuck Stuewe knew a good recycling project when he saw it.

His bridge partner, Diane Sams, got the idea for the mats after seeing her ex-husband, a doctor, use them to cushion medical equipment and supplies being sent to impoverished countries. Once at their destination the “packing material” was offered to people who had nothing more than dirt for a bed.

Stuewe saw a way to bring the idea closer to home. He found the most interest in the project at the Davis Family YMCA along Northshore Drive. A friend sent him and his idea to Pam Williams, vice president of membership. “She took right off with it,” Stuewe says.

The mats start as plastic grocery bags with the bottom and handles cut away. The rest is cut into strips 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide, looped together, knotted and rolled into big balls. That’s when the magic starts with a pair of over-sized crochet hooks. Mats are 6 feet long and wide enough for even a large person to lie on or wrap up in.

Completed mats are taken to Kim Ballard, operations director of the YMCA of East Tennessee, at the Downtown Y in Knoxville. “We have a lot of homeless people come in to take a shower, use a phone or work out. When I see a need, I distribute a mat,” she says. The Fish Food Pantry, Knoxville Area Rescue Mission and under the bridge over Broadway are places where mats are warmly received. She estimates 50 have been distributed so far. They’ve been a big hit with the homeless because they’re lightweight, waterproof and easy to roll up and carry.

Williams recalls getting a thank you note from a blind man who got off the bus and strangers helped get him something to eat, a place to sleep and a mat. He had someone write a note for him telling the people at the Davis Family Y how much he appreciated his mat.

The mats are a member-led service project of the YMCA. Projects can’t be anything that benefits the Y. This one is suited for all ages. Often on Friday afternoons at the Davis Y you can find staff personnel and members gathered around tables crocheting as fast as they can. Williams likes the project because it keeps plastic bags out of waterways, off the land and away from wildlife. “I’ve never been the creative type but I love doing this,” she said while laughing.

For Pam Stacey, an instructor at the Davis YMCA, crocheting was a new experience.

“I watched my grandmother knit and crochet but I never learned,” she said. For her first try, Stacey went all out with an alternating pattern of brown and white stripes. Mat No. 2 is in the same colors, but a more random pattern. Working on the mats at home has caused problems with her four-legged family members. “My animals are jealous when I take out the bag ball and start to crochet. The cat meows and the dog wants attention,” she says, laughing.

Vicki Karas, director of Health and Well Being for the Davis Y, has been working on a patriotic mat of red, white and blue. Donated bags are kept in a big blue barrel close to the front of the entrance and she can often be found digging through to find the proper colored bags. “They remind me of a rag rug,” she said.

For YMCA member Joyce Jen-kins they take her back to potholders at summer camp.

“My whole house looks like this,” Karas said, gesturing to a table full of plastic bags and balls. “I find little pieces of plastic all over the house. I like sitting down, getting organized and watching TV or carrying on a conversation while I do it.”

Distractions can take a toll when stitches are missed or too many added and Karas jokes you can end up with something that looks more like an apron than a mat.

She estimated that if all the snippets of time spent working on a mat are added it probably takes 80 hours and 500 bags to complete one mat. It’s a lot of prep cutting bags and tying strips.

Even some of the young men working at the Davis Y have cut bags into strips. One member didn’t want to get involved in crocheting but she cuts bags into strips and delivers them for others to use.

Karas has made a couple of trips to the Cansler YMCA in Knoxville to teach people how to make the mats.

The goal is to get all the area YMCAs involved in crocheting mats.