DUMAS – Each Wednesday for the past year or so, a small but tight-knit group rolls in to Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in Dumas with trash bags full of plastic grocery store sacks.
On two wooden-top fold-out tables, the men set to cutting the grocery sacks into neat strips, which the ladies then take and loop together into a continuous strand.
Once the strand gets long enough, they roll it into a ball, like plastic yarn. Then with their thick P-hooks, they begin the meticulous task of crocheting the plastic into a 6-by-4 mat that is durable and easy to clean.
While their craft may seem like novelty at first, for the homeless people who receive the mats, they mean staying dry, keeping warm, and sleeping just a few inches off the cold, hard ground.
Reap what you sew
The Rev. Travis DeCanter, pastor of Pleasant Ridge, first stumbled across the instructions for the mats in a Baptist magazine. Knowing several members of his congregation knew how to sew, he raised it as a possible project to the church’s mission committee.
“We’ve done foreign missions, but we’re looking for projects to do on all levels, from local to international,” DeCanter said. “Plus it looked like a great way for people who can’t go on foreign mission trips to get involved.”
The committee agreed, so DeCanter brought the idea to the congregation and asked for their help in collecting plastic bags.
Their response, he said, was overwhelming.
“They brought so many bags we had to ask them to quit bringing them,” he said. “We’ve got a whole room full of plastic bags.”
Exactly how many bags does it take to make one sleeping mat?
“It takes between 500 and 700 bags, and around 35 hours of work per mat,” DeCanter said. “But that’s if you know what you’re doing.”
One stitch at a time
Pam Dunlap was serving on the church’s mission team when DeCanter first introduced the project, and soon tapped congregation member Teen Hodges to help lead the team.
“I started crocheting since I was six or seven years old. My mom would make me a hook out of a clothes pin,” Hodges said. “I had been praying for a way to help people locally, and when [DeCanter] came with this idea, it seemed like a perfect opportunity.”
Though many in the group had some prior experience with a hook and thread, it fell to Hodges to teach many of them, like congregation member Vickie Cook.
“The hardest part is getting the first row, but once you have that, you have something to work from,” she said. “It’s tricky because you want to keep it tight so holes don’t get bigger, but you don’t want to stretch the bag so tight it breaks.”
Hodges said the effort was a labor of time and love. In the year they have been weaving the mats, they have produced only around a dozen.
“Everybody crochets different. Sometimes they turn out a little off, but we’ve always been able to fix them,” she said. “But they are perfect for sleeping mats. They are soft, spongy, easy to clean, and even warm. If I have a lot done on a mat I get hot just having it in my lap.”
An added value to helping those in need has been the relationships built within the group. Though the work is arduous, Dunlap said most of the time the ladies have each other in stitches.
“The men don’t crochet, they cut the bags for us,” she said. “Which is probably better, so they won’t have to be redone.”
The weaving club discusses everything under the sun and, of course, they enjoy plenty of home cooking with each session.
“You work with different people during the day and that’s good,” Dunlap said. “But growing closer with friends in your faith has really made these meetings feel like coming home.”
For now, the weaving club donates the mats to Tupelo’s Salvation Army to distribute to homeless citizens who prefer not to take advantage of the Army’s homeless lodge. The Army’s director of social services, Susan Gilbert, said many such people struggle with drugs, which are against lodge rules, while others prefer to live outside the system of mainstream life.
In the future, Dunlap said the weaving club would send the mats wherever they are needed, especially to places suffering the fallout of natural disaster. Meanwhile, other churches nearby have caught wind of the project, and have invited
Hodges to teach them the art of crocheting.
“It’s lots of fun,” Hodges said. “We always have a good time, and anyone is welcome to come help, whether they are part of this church or not.”