You would think residents of area retirement and assisted living communities wouldn't appreciate hearing the term "old bags" but many of them are participating in a project that gives a very positive meaning to the term.
New Life for Old Bags is a program where volunteers turn plastic grocery bags into plastic yarn -- or "plarn." It is then crocheted into sleeping mats for the homeless.
The project has taken on a life of its own with about 40 Chicago-area groups participating including retirement communities and senior day centers, schools, churches and Scouts.
Ruth Werstler, director of life enrichment at Bethesda Home and Retirement Center in Chicago, put out an e-mail about the project to 100 people after her dad got the idea on the news. Werstler got immediate responses and residents began testing the mat-making process in January and several groups officially kicked off the project in February.
At The Bethany Terrace in Morton Grove residents of all levels, from those with general medical concerns to those in
care or short-term rehabilitation, are pitching in on the project.
Beth Welch, director of Life Enrichment at The Bethany Terrace, says there is something for every ability from flattening the bags that typically come in bunched in a ball, to cutting them into strips, making loops from the strips. or crocheting the "plarn" into mats.
"We find the step in the process that is best for the resident," she says. For those with dementia who are living in the moment, Welch says they enjoy sitting around a table with other residents seeing the progress of their work in a light, social setting.
"It provides camaraderie for residents and a feeling of success in a lot of different ways," she says.
Sandra Ramsey, executive director of Cornerstone Community Outreach, a homeless shelter serving Chicago's
neighborhood, says while they have mattresses for the men, women and children they house, the mats are given to those who can't or won't come in and sleep in places like parks and loading docks.
"I thought it was such an intriguing idea," Ramsey says. "You can help the homeless while being green and giving a larger purpose to senior citizens."
Ramsey says she gives tours of the facility to groups of residents from the senior communities and explains how the mats -- that resemble a rag rug except that it is made of plastic and is the length of a twin bed -- provide a layer of padding and comfort for people in need.
She says it is fun to see the seniors get excited about receiving different color bags and being energized by how they are going to assemble them.
Welch says so many of the seniors are appreciative of the care they receive they are anxious to be able to give something back to others.
So far more than 40 mats have been made by all cooperating groups using about 29,000 bags.
Werstler says the project has created a sense of community within communities giving residents something in common to look forward to, it keeps bags out of landfills and she has heard the mats provide a sense of love and comfort to the homeless. It has started conversations on recycling and social issues such as homelessness.
"All the things [the project] has accomplished I couldn't have known about," she says. "It has exploded into this really incredible project in ways we couldn't have imagined."