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SALT LAKE CITY — It all started with a Facebook video about plastic yarn.
"It's existed since at least the 1980s. People used to use it for things like making reusable grocery bags or making mats for your back porch," Kaitlyn McLean said.
"And I saw that and I thought it was really neat. I love the environment. But I thought, 'I don't really need those things, so I'm not gonna make one probably, but that's neat.'"
A few days later, she read a local newspaper article about the number of people in Salt Lake City who freeze to death every year. "And I was, frankly, very shocked," McLean recalled.
"Because living in Salt Lake, I have lived in nine states, and living in Utah, there's such a community feeling, and there's so many people who volunteer and care and try to help. And I thought, 'Survival is the most basic need. How do we have people here, where everyone cares, who are still freezing to death?'" she said.
"And I had this realization maybe we could turn those mats that were for back porches and maybe make them into something someone could sleep on," McLean said.
"I just kind of sat in my living room and I thought this could really help a lot of people. … A way that you can help without having money."
Her mom then taught her how to crochet. The then-college student in turn taught others and turned the idea into a small, grassroots organization, Bags to Beds, which hopes to become a nonprofit.
They take thousands of used plastic grocery bags and crochet them into mats for people experiencing homelessness to sleep on.
Since 2017, the group, with help from community volunteers, has donated about 50 bed mats to people experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake City. The group has about 35 to 50 saved for their giving event this coming winter, McLean said.
It's a service activity that people can do in their own homes while watching movies, or during large service activities.
Honestly, part of it, it's something I can do. I can't just give them a house and I can't make sure that they eat every day, but I can take two hours and I can try to make it so they are a little bit safer, a little bit warmer, a little bit more comfortable.
–Aleatha Leader, Volunteer
Several people met in a Vivint Smart Home Arena room on Saturday for a "Plarn-a-Thon," tying plastic bags together into the "plarn," or plastic yarn, for others to later crochet into the colorful blanket-like mats that are meant to insulate people from the ground.
Though there weren't many people there, those who were seemed fixated on the tasks at hand.
"It's a very cool thing that they're doing in terms of, there's a big need and this is kind of helping fill that gap," volunteer Kaitlynn Morgan said as she knitted together bags that had been cut into pieces.
Janie Saviers-Steiger, working with Morgan, said she was there to support her friends' service project.
"And especially with a grassroots kind of campaign, I think that sometimes just getting people to come and getting people involved, that's just how they're growing this. They don't have a lot of big financial supporters," Saviers-Steiger explained.
Meanwhile, Aleatha Leader, who flattened bags and then cut them into folded squares before turning them into "plarn," said she's helped with the project a couple of times a semester for about a year and half.
"It's a really nice opportunity for starving students to be able to help people out," Leader said. "It helps a little, even if you can't fix everything."
"It's not something that you have to devote a long time to, you can do a little bit, a few hours, couple times a semester," she explained. "Honestly, part of it, it's something I can do. I can't just give them a house and I can't make sure that they eat every day, but I can take two hours and I can try to make it so they are a little bit safer, a little bit warmer, a little bit more comfortable."
The response when giving out the mats is "incredible," according to McLean.
"The most heartwarming response I've received was the understanding that you can tell just looking at the mat that someone made it by hand for you. And someone expressing to me that being given this was a sign that somebody out there cared enough to take the time and the energy to make that," McLean recalled.
They're lightweight, quicker to dry, easy to clean and easy to fix if they break.
It takes anywhere from 10 to 40 hours to make one mat, depending on the creator's experience level with crochet. Each mat takes 300 to 500 plastic bags. Volunteers collect the bags themselves before a project.
The group often holds the service projects with youth groups, companies and sports teams. Some volunteers also work on their own.
The group's goal is to make 100 beds by this winter and they need volunteers to help them reach it, McLean said. For more information, visit the organization's website, bagstobeds.org.
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