COVINGTON, Ky. -- Marlene Meyers knows which stores you’ve visited based on the color of bags you’re carrying.
The Fort Mitchell grandmother isn’t a shopaholic. She’s a crocheter, and those plastic bags she knows so well provide the durable material she uses to create unique, portable sleeping mats for the homeless.
Meyers is part of a small army of local volunteers involved in Catholic Charities, Diocese of Covington’s Mercy Mats Volunteer Ministry. Each handmade sleeping mat takes hundreds of plastic bags and about 12 hours of crocheting time, she said.
But it’s a labor of love.
The fruit of all that labor? A cushioned, pest-resistant sleeping mat that provides a protective barrier against wet and cold surfaces. The mats are easily cleaned, lightweight and designed to be rolled up for maximum portability, Meyer said.
“Most are white or grey, but we get some yellow and blue bags that give the mats a little pop of color,” she said. “It takes a lot of time, but they really turn out beautiful.”
The group is relatively new and has created and distributed a couple dozen mats since it began early this year. It’s a growing ministry, partly because just about anyone can help out with the project, said Lesley Duggan, Catholic Charities’ volunteer coordinator.
“The ministry is in its infancy, but it’s growing rapidly,” Duggan said. “People see the need for them in our community and want to help out.”
The group has volunteers ranging from school children to senior adults, Duggan said. They gather once a month, and some volunteer groups work on mats on their own throughout the month.
The work is fairly simple, but it’s time-consuming. Bags have to be sorted, and there’s a lot of cutting and other prep work required to create the “plarn,” she said. The small network of crocheters takes it from there and finishes the sleeping mats.
Most of the mats are distributed through Parish Kitchen, a Covington-based ministry of Catholic Charities that serves a hot lunch to the needy every day of the year.
Parish Kitchen has hundreds of guests, and some are homeless. The staff doesn’t know exact numbers, because guests aren’t required to share any information, said director Troy Garrard.
They distribute the Mercy Mats to those who express a need.
“Our guests love them. They’re durable and hold up to the elements,” Garrard said. “We’re starting to have more people come up and ask if we have any available.”
Mercy Mat volunteers deliver a few at a time. They’re always gone by the next day, he said.
The volunteers have also connected with other volunteer groups and shared the process. One such group supports an orphanage in Jamaica and has started providing mats for the children to use as mattresses, Duggan said.
“It’s amazing to see how it has spread,” she said.
Meyers, who is also part of Catholic Charities’ volunteer cooking team, got the ball rolling initially. She said she read about using recycled, plastic grocery bags to create sleeping mats a few years ago. Duggan noticed all the bags she was collecting at the nonprofit, inquired about them, and the pair started the ministry.
It launched in February, and monthly gatherings have been getting more crowded since. Catholic Charities may start hosting a second during evening hours to allow more people to participate, she said.
They need more help, especially more crocheters. And they always need bags.
“We have mountains of them,” Meyers said. “We’re running out of places to store them.”
Finding enough space for the plastic bags is a good problem to have, however. Meyer said it will result in even more sleeping mats.
“I loved the idea when I first heard of it, and I’m thrilled to see how many people are getting involved,” she said. “I’m limited because of the arthritis in my hands. I love to crochet, but I can only do a little at a time.”
Now that lots of hands are involved, and the group has the process down, more mats are making their way into the hands of some of the neediest members of the Northern Kentucky community.
“Homelessness is a real problem here. You can see it every day,” Meyers said. “There are people who have nothing.”
The Mercy Mats are giving Northern Kentucky’s homeless more than a just a clean, dry place to sleep at night, according to Garrard.
“It feels good to provide them to our guests,” he said. “We explain how much time goes into each one, and it shows that there are people out there who care.”
Catholic Charities, Diocese of Covington's Mercy Mats Volunteer Ministry gathers on the third Thursday of each month from 9-11:30 a.m.