From trash to treasure

From trash to treasure: ‘drawn into this Gospel work of mercy’

By Kathy Roberg, FSPA

To be sleepless in Spokane, Washington, the time-change effect of my five-week trip to Europe was a blessing in disguise. It was at 3 a.m. upon returning home that a new seed for my passion to serve the homeless was sown, germinating into a wonderful harvest of good. I had read an article about sleeping mats for those without beds, crocheted from plastic bags by a group of retired sisters in St. Louis, Missouri. Musing over this idea and the world’s over-abundance of plastic bags in those wakeful moments became the source of a ministry that has mushroomed far beyond my expectations.

Sister Kathy delights in displaying the very first sleeping mat she made from plastic bags, “Items that would otherwise clog up Mother Earth,” she says. Photo courtesy of Sister Betty Bradley

Recycling had taken hold of me long ago, so why not try this project? Bags of all sorts, sizes and colors (found free of charge) and a crochet hook (inexpensive, from the fabric store) were all I needed to get started. In no time at all people began donating a plethora of bags – items that would otherwise clog up Mother Earth. One contributor, Brian, learned of my project and set up bag donation receptacles in two Catholic churches. He delivers them to me, visits, shares his love for Saints Francis and Clare and is now undertaking the process of becoming an FSPA affiliate. The ways of the Spirit are mysterious!

Then the tedious prep process begins: flatten and fold the bags, cut them into looped strips and slip-knot these loops into balls of “plarn” – plastic yarn. Balls and balls of plarn: about 14 (300 bags) are required to finish one 6 feet long by 3.5 feet wide mat. I’ve recently completed my 100th mat and have personally distributed more than 100 (some made by others) to the folks in our city. Now, calculate how many plastic bags have been transformed into something useable.

One cold, rainy night in October I drove to the grocery store, just happening to have two mats in my car. A young fellow clad in a ragged, wet jacket and a bedroll over his shoulder was standing outside and I remember praying “God, I know this man could use one of those mats.” I asked him if he was sleeping outside and he replied, “Yes, ma’am.” I ran back to my car to get one and ended up personally delivering my first mat. His sincere smile and big “Thank you” brought tears to my eyes and my heart, and I was securely drawn into this Gospel work of mercy.

In my spare time I sit and crochet mats and, as the stitches grow, let my heart and mind wander in prayer for the folks who will be sleeping on them. During the winter these mats include an added amenity such as a knitted or crocheted scarf, cap, mittens or socks with a dollar bill rolled up inside them. When folks receive a mat they never know what they’ll find tucked away. Stepping out of the car every Tuesday at the House of Charity (our house for the homeless here in Spokane) with four rolled-up sleeping mats in my arms I hear, “Ma’am, can I have one of those?” “We love those mats.” “Do you make them?” Receiving a mat, these men and women thank and hug me in return.

It touches my heart as I see these mats around town, bundled up with sole possessions; I know they’ve kept many people warm and dry at night and given a good rest somewhere out in God’s nature.

Pope Francis encourages us to be people of mercy. Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a cup of cold water. These folks ask me for sleeping mats. I look into their eyes that shine out their thanks, greet them by name and pray that the seeds of their dignity will be nourished and grow into an abundance of good.

“Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a cup of cold water,” says Kathy Roberg, FSPA, “These folks ask me for sleeping mats.”

Sister Kathy is speaking to her “trash-to-treasure ministry” in Spokane, Washington. After upcycling plastic bags by crocheting them into tote bags for many years she woke at 3 a.m. with a “new seed for my passion of serving the homeless” fresh in her mind — putting the practice to work for make sleeping mats.

Now, not only has Sister Kathy created and given more than 100 mats to Spokane’s homeless, she’s kept thousands of bags from “clogging up Mother Earth” and inspired a man who’s helped distribute the items to consider FSPA affiliation. “The ways of the Spirit are mysterious!” she says.

Many have inquired about Sister Kathy’s method — means to her ministry. All you need to get started, she says, is an ample supply of plastic bags, a size Q crochet hook and a good pair of scissors. Then:

  • To make plastic yarn, or plarn, tuck in and smooth the folded ends and then fold the bag in half. Cut off the seamed end and handles, then cut across the bags (strips about 2 inches wide which, when opened, up turn into loops).
  • Loop the bags with slip knotting to make your plarn.
  • Start crocheting (USING A Q SIZE HOOK) with a chain stitch to make a chain (of about 45 stitches) about 40 inches long. Turn your chain and crochet in the second stitch from the hook and single crochet all the way on that chain.
  • At the end of the chain, slip the hook into one stitch below the last stitch to make it firm, and then crochet two chains.
  • Turn your work and continue to single crochet all the way across.
  •  I make the mats about 5 feet 6 inches and then make two straps (easier for carrying over the shoulder).
  •  Fold them in half (so as to not be so cumbersome) and then attach the straps, which can be poked into a hole about 6 inches from the top. Next, poke through a top hole (about 3 inches from the edge), poke strap a bit above the first hole, then poke the strap into the first hole, pull it tight, wrap the strap around the rolled up mat, and slip the strap that has been wrapped around through the loop at the edge of the mat.

Sister Kathy recommends internet tutorials to help get you started. 

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