Volunteers use plastic bags to make mats for homeless

WKU faculty member Beverly Fulkerson holds up a ball of plastic yarn made from shopping bags that she is crocheting into a sleeping mat intended to be given to a homeless person in the community.  Fulkerson is just one of the hundreds of local volunteers who have worked on the project organized by Community Action.  “The project is spreading,” Fulkerson said.  “Whether you make the yarn or crochet the mat, people just want to be involved in helping someone in need.” DANNY GUY/HERALD

Daniel Guy

One man’s trash becomes more than another’s treasure in Bowling Green, as volunteers turn plastic grocery bags into sleeping mats for the homeless.

The mats are made of a material called “plarn,” plastic bags knotted into yarn-like string.

Homeless shelter options in Bowling Green are limited to the 54-bed-capacity Salvation Army. So, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) at Community Action of Southern Kentucky is trying to help the homeless in an unconventional way.

The project has been developing over the last year and picked up steam last summer, said Mike Hall, project director for RSVP.

The balls of plarn are given to crocheters, who make mats, usually 3-by-6 feet wide. 

Many volunteers throw “Plarn Parties,” at which they loop and knot the string, said Leslie Talley, community services program director at Community Action.

“It’s easy to be involved in some way, even if you don’t know how to crochet,” Talley said.

It takes an average of 500 to 700 plastic grocery bags — and about 80 hours — to make one plastic mat.

But the work really starts with identifying homelessness in the community.

“If people think they don’t have homelessness where they live, they do,” Talley said.

A government-sponsored count, called the Point-in-Time Count, or PIT Count, revealed more than 100 homeless, including children, in Warren County alone.

 Kentucky conducts the PIT Count once a year in January. Volunteers search areas where individuals typically seek shelter — including under bridges — during a 24-hour period. The count provides a snapshot of the homeless community in the area.

Beverly Fulkerson, a WKU faculty member who teaches music appreciation classes, heard about the project and contacted Community Action. Fulkerson loves to work with her hands and had been looking for a way to get involved in her community.

“I’ve been wanting a project that wouldn’t just be for myself, but something to feel like I was really helping somebody,” Fulkerson said.  “I’m amazed at the colors of it. It has a very mosaic look. I love seeing it all come together.”

But the value of the mats goes beyond the way they look.

Hall called the endeavor “the ultimate recycling project.”

Other benefits include water resistance, mobility and re-usability, he said.

 “If it’s wet, you just shake it off,” Hall said.

Rachel Hoge, a transfer student from Springfield, Tenn., said she spends a lot of time on self-serving activities such as checking her Facebook.

“It’s hard for me to grasp that when I went grocery shopping today, the plastic bags I threw away could’ve served as someone’s bed,” Hoge said. “That’s definitely a reality check.”

Alyssa Stephens, an intern for Community Action, has been working with RSVP. Stephens wants to use her sociology background to help write grants and carry out strategic planning for nonprofits.

Stephens said they don’t often hear back from the recipients of the mats because the homeless are so transient.

“Right now we just have to trust that they are making their lives just a little bit better,” Stephens said.

Plastic bags can be donated to Community Action at any of its RSVP sites in Allen, Barren, Warren, Logan and Simpson counties.

For more information on plarn and Community Action, call (270) 842-5735.