- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

ISLAND LAKE, Ill. (AP) — Give Betty Reckwerdt 800 plastic bags and she will give a homeless person a comfortable night of sleep.

Ms. Reckwerdt is one of dozens of women who participate in Mats for the Homeless, a loose collection of McHenry and Lake county residents who have been transforming plastic bags into mats for the homeless since 2012.

“The first year we did 189,” Ms. Reckwerdt said. “Now we have no idea. God has just taken over and said, ‘You don’t need to count anymore.’ “

The project started with Ms. Reckwerdt’s mom, Justyna Davis. Before she died in 2012, Ms. Davis would collect plastic grocery bags, cut them into strips and have her friend, Kathy Baggio, drive the deconstructed bags to a church in Arlington Heights, where a group already was creating mats.

Friends and family turned down Ms. Davis’ numerous requests for help with the project, Ms. Reckwerdt said.

After Ms. Davis died, Ms. Baggio continued driving bags to Arlington Heights until she listened to the voice in her head that had been telling her to start a mat-making operation at her church, Transfiguration Parish in Wauconda.

“I had a little room set, and next thing you know, 150 people came for the first meeting,” Ms. Baggio said. “It was set to be one time. I had a special box where people could put bags or take them home, and from there I planned to run them to the shelter. That plan didn’t work out.”

Now the old white church on the parish campus goes through a transformation of its own once a month. The women — and an occasional man — will flatten, fold and cut the ends off the bags. The ends are recycled, leaving the rest of the bag to be cut into strips. Mat makers loop the strips together to make what Ms. Reckwerdt calls “plarn,” or plastic yarn. Using crochet needles, volunteers create 6-by-3.5-feet mats with a 90-inch strap.

In the process, Ms. Reckwerdt’s Island Lake home has become a way station of sorts for plastic bags. Heaping piles of bags stacked taller than she is fill half the garage and spill over onto the porch, a site that Ms. Reckwerdt imagines amuses her mother.

“She’s probably up there laughing now,” Ms. Reckwerdt said. “Bags have taken over my life. It’s a full-time job.”

Unlike a cloth blanket, the mats don’t absorb water. They’re easy to carry and machine washable, Ms. Baggio said. They also have a knack for keeping people warm.

The mats go to different PADS sites in McHenry and Lake counties, as well as in some area police cars.

The simple yet effective project attracted Lakemoor resident Annie Rosene earlier this year. She brought the idea to the church board at Joyful Harvest Church, ELCA in Johnsburg. About six women gathered in August at the church for their first meeting, where Ms. Reckwerdt demonstrated how to make the bags.

In Ms. Rosene’s eyes, the project has two benefits. First, it provides for the homeless. Second, it keeps plastic bags out of landfills.

The women are on their way to completing their first set. When they’re done, the bags will go to the Salvation Army to be distributed in Chicago-area soup kitchens.

“We’re just going to keep doing it,” Ms. Rosene said. “I figure, even if we only did one, that’s one person that’s not just sleeping on the street.”

Information from: The (Crystal Lake) Northwest Herald, https://www.nwherald.com

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