Irene Borgerson, Kathryn Stirling and Dorothy Ebbens display their mats at the ETHS Recycle Fair 2012. Photos by Mary De Jong

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Sleeping on wet, cold ground is never pleasant, nor is it healthy. So Irene Borgerson, along with Dorothy Ebbens, Betty Pesek and Kathryn Stirling, decided to do something to make it more comfortable.

These women, who are residents at Presbyterian Homes in Evanston, make sleeping mats for homeless people out of plastic grocery bags. The soft, cushy mats, measuring 33-36 inches wide and 72 inches long, offer insulation from the cold or damp ground. One mat takes about 40 hours and 450-500 bags to create.

The project started when Ms. Borgerson was asked by staff at Presbyterian Homes to attend a demonstration by Ruth Werstler from Cornerstone Community Outreach in Chicago. Ms. Werstler was recruiting people to help make sleeping mats for the homeless, using plastic bags. The process originated in England. “I was asked to listen, and I was just caught. I couldn’t let go of it,” said Ms. Borgerson. “For most of us, it’s more than self-satisfaction. It’s a mission. I’ll do this until I die, or until there is no more need.” Given the statistics on homelessness in Evanston (see sidebar), the need will likely
outlast her.

Presbyterian Homes has turned over much of a large room to Ms. Borgerson and her team for the mat project. The dedicated women work three to five days a week.  To go from grocery bag to sleeping mat, the plastic bag must be transformed into plastic yarn or “plarn,” used to crochet the sleeping mat.

First Ms. Pesek carefully flattens, smoothes, and straightens each bag before handing off to Ms. Ebbens.

Next Ms. Ebbens removes the handles and bottom seam and then cuts the bag into strips. She uses different cardboard templates to adjust the size of the strip, with narrower strips for thicker-weight and wider ones for lighter-weight plastic. Cutting to size in this way ensures that when the circular strips of plastic are connected to form the plarn, the rows of stitches will be even and the sleeping mat will be a consistent thickness.

Ms. Stirling crochets from the balls of plarn held by Ms. Borgerson. Creating designs by using bags of certain colors, keeps the process interesting, the women say.

“There can never be enough bags,” says Ms. Borgerson, the project manager.  They always need clean, intact plastic grocery bags without large holes.  They cannot use plastic dry cleaning or newspaper bags.  Dry cleaning bags make a mat that is too heavy, and most newspaper bags are narrower than the necessary minimum of 10 inches or more. After the Evanston Township High School Recycle Fair in July, Ms. Borgerson sent 10 sleeping mats to Hilda’s Place, an Evanston shelter run by Connections for the Homeless.

During the day, Hilda’s Place becomes a drop-in for those without shelter, providing showers, laundry, breakfast, a bag lunch and clothing and blankets. On the day Lisa Todd, communications relations manager at Connections for the Homeless, picked up the sleeping mats from Presbyterian Homes, she said, “I didn’t even get through the lobby before two people asked if they could get one [of the mats].” She said people ask for blankets and when they see the mats, take those instead. “We just really appreciate all their hard work,” Ms. Todd said of the women from Presbyterian Homes – “that they did the research to find us and to help the homeless in Evanston.”

Ms. Borgerson will continue to supply Connections with the sleeping mats they produce. Plastic bags can be dropped off at Presbyterian Homes at the Highlands entrance, 3131 Simpson St. 

Those interested in volunteering can leave a message for Ms. Borgerson at 847-570-3382.