The Bridge Presbyterian Church Helps the Earth and Neighbors

by Nov 8, 2018Nonprofits, North Brunswick

A group of volunteers at The Bridge Presbyterian Church in Leland led  Mary Fulton Campbell, are transforming single-use plastic grocery bags into sleeping mats for the homeless.

“When that store clerk asks, ‘Paper or plastic?’ I say ‘Plastic, of course!’”

That’s Mary Fulton Campbell of Winnabow. Of course, she knows paper is better for the environment than plastic and of course she knows that those plastic bags can’t be recycled away. But she does know something that many people don’t: Those plastic grocery bags can be repurposed into something useful.

You might call Campbell a social environmentalist: helping the Earth and helping her neighbors in need, one plastic stitch at a time.

Campbell and her volunteer corps at The Bridge Presbyterian Church are turning every plastic bag found or donated — any bag they can get their hands on — into sleeping mats for the homeless. The crocheted mats are warm, resilient, easy to clean and good for sleeping on.  

Having observed the homeless population around her Winnabow community, Campbell had been searching for a way to help. “The homeless are marginalized and judged, really. People ignore them. I wondered what I could do to help,” she says.

Two years ago, Campbell, a retired banker and phlebotomist and currently an old home fixer-upper, was randomly bouncing around the internet. “Maybe the chocolate pie of the week, or dogs? I think I was looking up dogs,” says the animal lover, who also volunteers at Paws Place animal shelter. She happened upon a story about turning nonrecyclable plastic bags into sleeping mats for those in need. “I thought, ‘We can do this!’” she says.

In starting the mat program at her church, Campbell wanted to cultivate a different sort of church involvement effort — one that didn’t involve fundraising. She determined that a group could gather plastic bags, launch a crochet corps and partner with Streetreach, a faith-based organization that helps the homeless and delivers the mats to those in need, all at no cost.

After she pestered fellow parishioners for about six months, Campbell says, the effort finally took hold. Originally a troop of four, the group has grown to at least 40 volunteers involved in every step of the process, from bag gathering, to “plarn” prep (linking bags, rolling them into balls of plastic yarn), to actual crocheting. In addition to church members, the volunteer pool comes from all parts of the community, including the local senior center. “Everyone is welcome to join us!” Campbell says.

The crochet team inhabits a hallway, a closet and small break room at The Bridge Presbyterian Church every Tuesday from 10 am to noon. The team is all women now, though Campbell hopes some men might join. “We do have a group of men who just come and grab the bags, process them then bring them back by,” Campbell says. “They’re like these little fairies. Bags disappear, balls show up!” 

It takes 100 hours and roughly 1,000 bags to complete a 4-foot by 6-foot sleeping mat. And some volunteers get creative.

Longtime volunteer Sherry Lowe used colored bags for balls of plarn. She crocheted a Food Lion-blue night sky, with a black bag cat resting atop a Dollar General-yellow moon. “We’re always excited to see those Dollar General bags!” Campbell says.

When she showed some of the mats to Food Lion employees, they too got excited about the project. Not only do they save customers’ cast-offs, but also the store donates brand-new boxes of blue bags to the crochet team, who call themselves the Happy Hookers. “Our minister, Doug Cushing, just rolls his eyes at that,” Campbell says with a laugh.

While volunteers never know who exactly will curl up with their labor of love, Campbell recalls an encounter with one beneficiary. “I saw a man riding through Leland Park with a mat on his handlebars. I asked him where he got it, if he liked it . . . he said he always keeps it with him so no one will steal it.” 

Mats don’t need to colorful or patterned to make a difference, Campbell notes. Their value rests in the ability to provide warmth, comfort and some sort of rest. “One volunteer said, ‘Oh, mine doesn’t look good enough to use. It’s not pretty.’ I showed her a picture of someone rolled up in a blanket, sleeping in a ditch,” Campbell says. “I said, ‘He doesn’t care about your pattern.’”

The Bridge Presbyterian Church is getting a new building, and the mat makers can’t wait. There will be a designated mat-making room and a large storage closet to house some 20,000 donated plastic bags, including regular deliveries from donors in New Jersey and Tennessee. “The postman once said, ‘I think you just got a big box of air!’” Campbell recalls.

As the no-cost movement continues to grow its ranks, the process remains priceless.

“It’s something I could do,” Campbell says about starting the program, “and it means something to the people doing it with me. People are excited about it. It makes them feel good.”

Volunteers work on mats at home, on long road trips, even on vacation. “They’re totally dedicated,” Campbell says. “They feel like they’re making a difference in their community. And they’re helping the Earth, too!” 

The lively social environmentalist grows serious. During those initial planning stages, she’d asked Donna Phelps, founder of Streetreach, “If we start this, how long will it last?”

Donna replied, “There will never be an end to this need.”

Want to help The Bridge Presbyterian Church mat makers?

* Donate plastic bags downstairs at the church or bring plastic bags to bins at Whole Foods (Whole Foods donates bin bags to the program)

* Join the mat making team! Workdays are Tuesdays from 10 am to noon.  The Bridge Presbyterian Church is at 497 Olde Waterford Way, Suite 105, Leland. Call  (910) 604-6444 for information.



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