Volunteers put together sleeping mats for Share

Vancouver Community Library kicks off summer of events in Make a Better World series

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith




The Council for the Homeless’ education series is from 6 to 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday in June in the community room at 2500 Main St. Upcoming topics:

 June 13: Access to homelessness help.

 June 20: The role of emergency shelter.

 June 27: The role of housing assistance.

The Make a Better World series is from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday this summer in the Klickitat Room at the Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St.

• June: Plastic sleeping mats for Share.

• July: Cat toys for the Humane Society for Southwest Washington.

• August: Prosthetic hands for Enabling the Future.

For more information about making plastic sleeping mats visit www.finecraftguild.com/craft-for-humanity-crochet-a-plastic-sleeping-mat-for-the-homeless.


How to make plastic yarn

Instructions for cutting plastic bag strips to make plarn (plastic yarn)

Image instruction by eraphernalia_vintage on Flickr

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Rebekka Shelp and her daughter Halayna Shelp-Higgins spend a lot of time in downtown Vancouver at the library and Esther Short Park. When Halayna asked her mom why a man was eating food out of a trash can, Shelp explained what homelessness is as best she could to a 4-year-old. Halayna wanted to help in some way, so they began by giving that man some snacks.

Tuesday at the library they helped a small group of people put together plastic sleeping mats that will be distributed to people experiencing homelessness. It was the first night of the library’s summerlong Make a Better World series.

Every Tuesday evening in June, people will meet in the Klickitat Room on the library’s fourth floor to construct the mats. Next month, the group will make cat toys for the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. And in August, they’ll assemble 3-D-printed prosthetic hands for Enabling the Future.

“I really want us to get involved in volunteering,” Shelp said. She moved to Vancouver from Spokane and figures events such as Make a Better World are a good way to meet people.

Jaime Bair is known as the makerspace librarian at the Vancouver Community Library and organized the event series, which is open to the public. Makerspaces are areas where people can gather to create, invent and learn.

“They’re projects that anybody can do,” Bair said. “You’re learning a new skill and it’s also something that we can give to somebody else.”

The crocheted mats are about 6 feet long and 3 feet wide. It takes about 230 plastic bags to make one mat. Bair has been collecting plastic bags since April and got donations from different groups, including a school that did a recycling drive. So, there are plenty of supplies; what’s needed is volunteers to make plarn, or plastic yarn.

How it’s done is you fold a plastic bag into a long rectangle, remove the seam at the end and then cut strips. Unfold those strips and tie them together using a slipknot. Then, that long chain of plastic strips gets balled together, forming the plarn that will be crocheted into a mat. The result: a lightweight, somewhat weather-resistant sleeping mat that provides insulation and a bit of cushion from the ground. When the mats are complete, they’ll be given to homeless service provider Share.

“We talked to Share beforehand and they thought this would be a great thing that they could have on hand and distribute,” Bair said.

She is almost done crocheting one mat and figures she’ll continue crocheting mats at the library’s Thursday evening knitting group, where people can learn how to knit or crochet.

Turning plastic bags into knit and crochet crafts has been around for a while. There is also a Facebook group called PNW Plastic Bag Mats for the Homeless that has 375 members.

Stephanie Graham helped make plarn Tuesday night. She saw the event advertised on Facebook and has gotten more interested in the recycling process. A note was recently left on her recycling bin, saying that she had put plastic items in her bin that can’t be recycled locally, so she called up the recycling plant to learn why.

“If you can’t recycle, what else is there?” Graham said.

Plastic bags and plastic wrap cannot be recycled at the curb because they get tangled in sorting equipment. They can, however, be recycled at a number of local supermarkets — or put to other good uses.

Those concerned about the issue of homelessness have a couple of options this month: Make sleeping mats or get better educated about the homeless system and how to help.

The Council for the Homeless began an education series Tuesday evening that addresses different aspects of the homeless response system. It involves different funding streams and programs, so it can be confusing, said Andy Silver, the nonprofit’s executive director. Every Tuesday evening this month he’ll be on hand, along with Deputy Director Kate Budd, to explain everything: what’s working, what’s not working, where the gaps are in the system.

“More and more community members are interested in how they can help out,” Silver said.

While the sleeping mats satisfy a short-term, immediate need for those living outside, the Council for the Homeless is also concerned with the long-term, systemic solutions to homelessness, such as housing assistance that can help people stabilize and become more independent.

The education series is 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays at 2500 Main St.