A recent drop in temperatures is a reminder that for the homeless and marginalized, cold weather can be a real threat.
A pair of dedicated volunteers with Catholic Charities of Tennessee's Loaves and Fishes program are addressing the problem with shopping bags.
Actually, sleeping mats made with recycled plastic grocery bags, and they could use more helping hands.
"I believe that Betty Krogman and Margaret McCutcheon gave out the first sleeping mat in either September or October - and they are very light and comfortable," said Wendy Overlock, who manages Catholic Charities of Tennessee's Loaves and Fishes program.
Loaves and Fishes serves breakfast and lunch to the homeless and the hungry three days a week at Holy Name Church's Strobel Hall in East Nashville.
Many of the program's guests have benefitted from these crocheted creations, which are very lightweight and can be rolled up and carried with a shoulder strap."
"I got the idea a year ago after talking to one of the guests," said Krogman, who, like McCutcheon, is a parishioner at St. Henry Church in Nashville.
"I also visited YouTube and saw a project where people take plastic bags, crochet them, and turn the finished product into a useable portable, sleeping mat," said Krogman.
Beginning with its first one last fall, the program has given away 17 sleeping mats to date, and volunteers are needed to help with the crocheting. Anywhere from 400 to 500 grocery bags may go into the creation of just one sleeping mat.
Kelsey Bryant, left, and Christine Smyth of Ashland University's Catholic Campus Ministry work on making plastic yarn for the sleeping mats.
Making the sleeping mats is more complicated than a brief description suggests.
"We've gotten a system going to where we start cutting the bags at (Loaves and Fishes), then take them home where we flatten them, cut off the handles, the seams, put one bag inside the other, then continually loop, loop and loop," said Krogman.
The pieces of plastic are tied together to make a long strand of plastic yarn, which McCutcheon then takes home and crochets into the mat.
McCutcheon said her secret was as simple as "Googling how to make a sleeping bag for the homeless, or how to crochet sleeping bags."
What is not simple, though, is the actual making of the bags.
"I put at least 20 hours of crocheting into producing just one bag, which involves taking the ‘plarn' (a name for plastic yarn) home, then crocheting the plarn into a sleeping mat," said McCutcheon.
Women at the Bellevue YMCA also make the plarn, and McCutcheon noted that "we are trying to teach them the hands-on process, which of course, would help us increase production."
The sleeping mats are a great help to the homeless, who place it under their sleeping bags. That layer of plastic provides a barrier against the cold ground, explained Belle, a guest at Loaves and Fishes who recently helped string , strips of plastic into a strand of plarn.
"Once our guests start seeing the work in progress ... they start coming over to help us, and many of them are transient. They sit and talk to us, and tell their stories," said Krogman.
"Sometimes one person helps us, or two or three, and the benefit for us is that we are out there helping these people who are on the margins," said Krogman.
If a Loaves and Fishes guest helps with making the sleeping mats, they receive the next available one, Overlock said. "We want it to be participatory."
When Belle received her sleeping mat, she gave it to her husband as a Valentine's Day gift, she said.
McCutcheon makes about one a week, but they are in high demand among the guests, Overlock said.
"I enjoy doing this," McCutcheon said. "It's very worthwhile and a way to connect with the homeless while also providing them a little bit of comfort."
For both McCutcheon and Krogman, "follow-through is the biggest problem; we see a lot of them (the guests) once, or for many weeks in a row, then they are gone," said Krogman.
With more help, the two women could produce more sleeping mats and help more people, they pointed out. Besides volunteers, they also need donations of plastic bags.
Anyone who wishes to donate their time, materials or both may contact Krogman and McCutcheon through Holy Name Church at 615-254-8847 or leave a message at the number for Loaves and Fishes, 615-256-7256.
Loaves and Fishes' serving hours for breakfast are 8:30-9 a.m., Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, with lunch served on those days from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. A produce truck is available in the church parking lot 8:30-9:30 a.m. Saturdays.