When the world seems crazy and mean, do the opposite and spread a little kindness.
That’s what two sisters – one in Atlanta and the other in New Jersey – challenged each other to do following a contentious presidential election and all of the distresses of the pandemic.
“We were talking about how overwhelmingly negative it was, even after the election – just a negative haze,” said Janis Sims of DeKalb County.
Her sister Kris Buono told her to do something positive in the community for someone in need. They would both do a project. Buono decided to hold a one-time food drive among her neighbors, while Sims was thinking about something a little more involved.
Sims has always liked upcycling and recycling and had seen videos on YouTube about turning plastic bags into mats for the homeless. After asking around to gauge interest, she found out there was a significant need for these mats in the Tucker area if someone wanted to take on the project.
She started Bags2Blankets in the spring, and almost immediately it morphed into a community-wide effort in Tucker, with neighbors volunteering to help and a local church providing meeting and storage spaces.
Bags2Blankets volunteers create colorful 3-by-6 mats by crocheting plastic grocery bags that have been cut into strips. The mats can be folded in half and rolled up, and have a shoulder strap. They are lightweight and can be used as a blanket or a sleeping pad. Networks Cooperative Ministry, a food bank in Tucker, and the Tucker City Police distribute them to people experiencing homelessness.
David Fisher, Networks executive director, said the food bank has mats available and also gives them to Tucker community police officers who are proactive about going into homeless encampments.
“This is a really inexpensive way to provide something comfortable,” Fisher said.
Sims began her project by posting a request for grocery bags on the Nextdoor app and received an overwhelming response. “People started flooding my house with these plastic bags,” she said.
With the bags in hand, she asked for volunteers. Her group – all strangers when they started – meets on the fourth Thursday of each month from 10 a.m. until noon at the Tucker First United Methodist Church. The church is supportive of the project, and many of its members are involved.
Rev. Gerald Varner, the executive pastor, said Bags2Blankets fits with the church’s existing homeless ministry and overall philosophy of serving the community.
Every year, the church activities building, with bathroom and kitchen, is opened as a shelter during cold weather. A meal is provided, and Varner said local restaurants such as Matthews Cafeteria and the Magnolia Room, routinely donate the food.
“We love being able to expand on what we’re already doing,” the pastor said.
During the Bags2Blankets workday, each bag is cut into four strips and weaved into a ball of plastic yarn or plarn. Volunteers take the balls home and put the mats together on their own.
It takes 500 to 700 bags and 15-20 hours of crocheting to make one mat, depending on the volunteer’s skill. Crocheting the plarn requires a large size Q hook because of the bulky material.
“It’s not like crocheting yarn which is smooth and easy to work with; this is a bit of a struggle,” Sims said.
Deb Carrier, who also lives near Tucker, is an expert in creating the mats, having volunteered for a similar group in Atlanta for about five years. A self-taught crocheter, she also taught herself how to make the mats by watching a YouTube video.
“They’re not hard to do, but you do have to have hand strength,” she said. Carrier usually completes three to four mats a month just sitting around in the evenings watching TV or reading a book.
“It’s been only 10 years ago I was just a paycheck away from being homeless. This is something I can do just to give a little back,” Carrier said.
Sims keeps mats in her car just in case. Once, she offered a mat to a woman sleeping during the day on a wooden bench.
During cold weather, the Bags2Blankets will give out camouflage emergency blankets, a donation from a Bible study group at the Tucker First United Methodist Church.
The blankets will offer people experiencing homelessness a little more protection from the weather and help maintain their privacy, Sims said.
Meets every fourth Thursday, 10 a.m. to noon, at Tucker First United Methodist Church, 5095 Lavista Road, Tucker.