DOWNERS GROVE – It takes a lot of work, but residents at the Oak Trace senior living community are turning bags that usually end up in the trash into something that can make a big difference for the homeless.
Since April, the group has been participating in the New Life for Old Bags program, which takes used plastic bags and weaves them into padded sleeping mats.
"It's not often that you hear such a win-win situation," said Oak Trace resident and volunteer Margaret Trinklein. "It's a chance to get rid of old plastic bags and help people who need it."
Volunteers start the process by cutting bags into strips. Then they tie the strips' ends together to make plastic yarn called "plarn." After that, residents like Trinklein use a large crochet needle about the thickness of a Sharpie marker to weave the mats.
The result is a surprisingly soft mat about an inch thick that keeps those sleeping outside from laying on the cold, hard ground.
"It's certainly not an air-spring mattress, but it beats sleeping on the floor or the ground," Trinklein said. "And because they're plastic, there's no moisture absorbed."
The finished product looks like a fabric blanket from a distance, and the assorted bags gives each mat a colorful, vibrant look.
Oak Trace bus driver Ken Webster heard about the New Life for Old Bags project, which started at the United in Faith Lutheran Church in Chicago, on the radio last winter. After attending the group's third anniversary celebration and work session at the church in February, he brought the program to Oak Trace.
"It's one thing to throw a bottle in the recycling bin, it doesn't t take a lot of effort," he said. "But these take about 80 hours per mat. For some of the homeless people, it might be the most valuable thing they have, because it's something that's handcrafted and it's their's.
"To get where they are, they've had rough spots. To know somebody has put in that time and effort into the mats makes a big difference."
Webster works with about 10 to 20 residents every Wednesday on the mats. Webster, Trinklein and some others even bring them home to crochet while they watch TV or a movie.
So far, they've made about 10 mats.
The New Life for Old Bags organization hopes to have 1,000 mats by Christmas, Webster said.
Webster takes the mats to the church in Chicago, which distributes them to shelters throughout the greater Chicago area, he said. Webster said he has reached out to DuPage PADS and would also provide mats to organizations in Downers Grove, if requested.
"There are people who do not deal well with shelters," Webster said. "They don't want to be inside because there are certain criteria they have to follow. There are people who could say it's not for them. That's who these mats for are for."