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Utah student’s idea helps athletes turn plastic bags into life-saving sleeping mats for the homeless

SHARE Utah student’s idea helps athletes turn plastic bags into life-saving sleeping mats for the homeless
I didn’t realize there were so many people in need. I just wouldn’t think anyone needed this. – Mesa Weidle

SALT LAKE CITY — After a lifetime of avoiding the hobby her mother continually tried to persuade her to embrace, Kaitlin McLean finds herself patiently talking athletes through the intricacies of crocheting.

The 21-year-old never saw the value of one of her mom’s favorite hobbies until a video showed her how to turn garbage into something that could comfort and protect the homeless changed her mind.

“My mom sent me a video of how to make plarn,” she said of the tutorial that teaches how to turn plastic shopping bags into spools of plastic yarn. “I looked at it and thought, maybe if I wasn’t busy, you know, if I had time then maybe.”

Two weeks later the biomedical physics and psychology student at the University of Utah learned that people lost their lives last year in Salt Lake City as they tried to sleep outside in freezing temperatures.

“That was it,” McLean said as she talked the athletes through the process of making the plarn used to create the mats on a Monday night at the U.’s Burbidge Center. “I thought, ‘You know, I do have time.’ I have time to make one mat. So I sat down and I started making my own plarn so I could make my own mat.”

McLean was plugging away on her project in her not-so-spare time when she had an epiphany while working at the Lowell Bennion Community Center on campus.

What if she could recruit even a small percentage of the hundreds of people volunteering through the Bennion Center to help make mats for the homeless?

“I started by reaching out to the homeless shelters asking, ‘Is this a need? Will you help me distribute them? Would people use these? Or is it a waste of time?’” she said. “They said, ‘We’ve heard of them, and we think it’s a great idea. We can’t make them, but we’ll help you hand them out.’”

The Bennion Center loved her idea and connected her with a number of youth and community groups. Then a request came from the school’s athletic department that she believes will help the program accomplish some very lofty goals.

“Athletics reached out to the Bennion Center asking if they had projects athletes could work on as needed, rather than shift work,” McLean said as she guides cross country runner Mesa Weidle through a crochet lesson. “This is perfect because they can do it whenever they have time and as a team.”

Gymnast Maddy Stover, who is part of the Crimson Council, which is made up of student-athletes from each of the U’s sports, said the athlete embraced the project for a number of reasons.

“Homelessness is something you don’t want to accept as a problem,” Stover said. “We see it all the time downtown, but it’s hard to think, especially as it gets colder, that somebody would use it as a bed, as a mattress when we have this roof over our head, just doing this project.”

Weidle said she was also shocked that something so simple could be life-saving to people in need.

“I didn’t realize there were so many people in need,” she said. “I just wouldn’t think anyone needed this.” Jessica Sams, a cross country and track athlete, said the best aspect of it that the athletes can contribute, even if they only have a few minutes to spare.

“That’s what planes or busses are for,” she said laughing. “Our free time is limited, but there is power in numbers. If you run out of time, you can pass it on to your teammate and she can continue it.”

They love the flexibility of the project, the fact that they can work on it together, and that it does something to help the community that supports them in their own athletic endeavors.

McLean said she now has lofty goals for what started as a solo effort to make one mat.

“My goal is two things,” she said. “One, that we run the valley out of wasted plastic bags so there are none left. …And two, when there aren’t people that need these, then we’ve done our job.”

But even if every homeless person in Utah finds a place to live, she said these could be used in places that have suffered a disaster, like Houston after Hurricane Harvey or California after fires. Worldwide there are immigrant camps or areas devastated by earthquakes.

“The idea is to make them and teach this to other people,” she said. “So now, I’ve taught Mesa and she knows how to do it. If she knows someone who wants to help, she doesn’t have to bring them to me, she knows how to teach them, and they can help their community. Then we can take them or make them wherever people need them.”

While the athletes have embraced making the plarn and crocheting the mats, the teams have asked their fan bases to help them collect plastic bags. She said she's worked with youth groups, church groups and youth teams, on making plarn and crocheting the mats. Most recently, she taught a group of 40 young swimmers and their parents, and the response was overwhelming.

In fact, the enthusiasm with which others, especially the athletes, have embraced the idea has shown McLean that there are many ways to help solve what seem like insurmountable issues.

“There isn’t a single person who couldn’t help with this project in some capacity,” she said, as she winds up a ball of plarn, “whether it’s gathering bags, making the plarn or crocheting the mats.”