Column: Marine on St. Croix church helps homeless and the environment

From left are plarn mat creators Laura Meyers, Marcia Carlisle, “Pastor Hannah,” Mary Rudeen, Leigh Delisi and Jeannie Davis. Used for warmth and padding, a plarn mat is made from plastic grocery bags. (Submitted photo)


Members of Christ Lutheran Church, Marine on St. Croix and friends of its church family are busy a few hours every Wednesday creating mats from plastic bags. Plastic bags that contained groceries and other items carried home from shopping. Bags that we see blowing against fences, caught in tree branches or bouncing across the road as we travel. Waste bags that are contaminating our oceans and fields are repurposed to help the homeless.

Making mats for St. Stephen’s Human Services in Minneapolis is very popular at Christ Lutheran. Dozens of people participate in collecting, flattening and cutting the plastic into strips. Others loop the pieces together creating the plarn used by the crocheters. At least a dozen people use large crochet hooks to weave the plarn into large mats. Kids as young as 4 have cheerfully worked alongside the adults.

The first nine mats were delivered shortly after Easter. These, approximately 3-foot by 6-foot mats are waterproof, bug resistant, mildew proof, lightweight and easy to carry with the attached straps, also made from plastic bags.

Plarn mats placed on the ground under blankets or sleeping bags protect the sleeper from moisture and excessive cold. This safe, simple barrier helps keep the user a little warmer. Many of them are made larger so a parent and child can cuddle on the same mat. Plarn mats are not limited to outdoor use.

Leigh Delisi heads up the Christ Lutheran project.

The idea is not original. In January she saw a post on Facebook about a church in Tennessee making plarn mats.

“I thought it was cool and mentioned it at church the following Sunday,” she said. “The immediate response was: ‘When do we start?’”

A few Sundays later Delisi was in front of the church body holding up a plarn mat and inviting members to join in. The response was overwhelming.

Each mat uses 600 to 1,000 bags.

“It’s distressing how many bags are in the waste stream,” said Delisi. “We’re helping the environment and fighting against the social problem of homelessness at the same time.”

And that isn’t mentioning the joy that fills the church while the plarn makers and plarn crocheters chatter with each other as they work.

When the first nine mats were finished, “we blessed them and prayed that they would provide a little more comfort to those in need,” Delisi said.

Breanna Jaijairam, manager of street outreach for St. Stephen’s Human Services reported: “The people using the plarn mats really like them. They are working out great for the folks we are serving. Some folks are using them as a bed roll to sleep on top of wherever they land at night, and some folks are using them as a barrier between their tent and sleeping bag as the ground is still relatively cool at night.”

Knowing they are being used and are helpful is encouraging to the plarn mat workers.

There is a real need, because homelessness is a significant problem in Minnesota.

In its most recent one-night count (October 2015), Wilder Research counted a total of 9,312 homeless individuals in Minnesota. This did not include people who were in drug programs. (Learn more at bit.Ly/2si6UXM.)

As it makes the plarn mats, the Christ Lutheran Church group is ensuring the plastic scraps do not go into a landfill. Leftover pieces are packed in a plastic bag and placed in bins at Target.

“Target Corporation officials told me this plastic is recycled into composite decking material,” Delisi said.

As the project grows, so does the creativity of the crocheters. At first the mats were gray. There are lots of gray bags. Now the crocheters have taken the design up a notch. The mats now show different colors and patterns.

“I tease them,” Delisi said. “Someone’s going to weave a portrait of Martin Luther into a mat.”