When Gail Potter first heard a couple of years ago that you could repurpose plastic grocery bags into sleeping mats for the homeless, she was intrigued. She loved the idea of helping people down on their luck, as well as helping the environment.
She checked out a video of people making the mats, and soon she and some volunteers were crocheting mats. Since then, the effort has "consumed" her life. The group was incorporated into a nonprofit, and Mats for a Mission was born.
"It’s a buffer; it keeps them off the cold ground at this time of year," and the wet ground in the spring, she said. They also can be hosed off when they get dirty.
The group that will start meeting in a storefront around the corner from Paula's Donuts in Southgate Plaza, West Seneca, is one of several in the area that make the portable sleeping mats. The mats are 3 feet by 6 feet, and about ¼-inch thick – thick enough to keep most of the cold and dampness away. The group meets Wednesday evenings and Friday mornings, and has distributed 316 mats since September 2016.
"It's a shame we need that many," she said.
Potter used to help feed the hungry with Buffalo's Good Neighbors, and she helps out with Code Blue, the emergency weather, food and shelter plan for the homeless.
When volunteers get the bags, they are sorted by color, smoothed out and cut into strips that then are crocheted. The person making the mat decides what color or patterns to use. There are white, brown and gray bags from Tops Friendly Markets, Wegmans and Walmart. Yellow Dollar General bags give a burst of color, too. Department store bags cannot be used for the mats, she said.
The group usually has enough bags, because, well, "those bags, they're like bunnies, they multiply like you wouldn't believe," she said. But sometimes she puts the word out on the group's Facebook page when supplies are running low.
In addition to helping the less fortunate, Potter likes the environmental aspect of the mission. She said the effort has used close to 400,000 bags, keeping them out of the landfill. Plastic bags cannot be recycled easily. While some stores accept them for recycling, many municipalities do not. They can get caught in the sorting equipment at the recycling facility, slowing down the process.
A small portion of the bags are cut off before the crocheters take over. The scraps are taken to grocery stores for recycling.
Potter also talks to schoolchildren about the mats.
"It's teaching them about the homeless situation," she said. "It's a very educational thing to enlighten them."
She tells them it takes about 850 bags to make one mat, and each mat takes about 50 hours to complete.
It's a labor of love, but it might not be possible if plastic bags are banned. Potter said she does not think efforts to ban the single use bags by Erie County and New York State will be enacted.
"If it happens, it happens," Potter said.
For information on donating bags, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"There's always something you can do to help those less fortunate," Potter said. "We’re not the city of good neighbors for nothing."
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