By Mandy Catoe
March 4, 2018
“Love is not a spectator sport” is screen-printed on the back of Sherri Wilkes’ T-shirt.
Last Tuesday night, she led about a dozen people into the back room of the Lancaster County Library carrying plastic bags stuffed with plastic bags. They ranged in age from just under 6 years old to just over 70. They didn’t come to study. They came to serve.
For the next two hours, they transformed trash into treasure by cutting and crocheting the bags into sleeping mats for homeless people.
Turning trash into treasure
Wilkes, 33, spearheaded the idea about three years ago in an effort to help those in need and to keep young adults active in service. Her group, Making Mats for Homeless, began meeting monthly about two years ago to make the 3-by 6-foot mats to provide a bit of cushion for the homeless.
Completed mats from plastic shopping bags
“We are not just giving them a plastic mat, we are giving them hope. We are giving them comfort,” Wilkes said. “We are letting them know that someone somewhere wants to help them and that someone is there for them.
“It’s wonderful when you can put a mat in someone’s hands and see them tear up in gratitude, knowing they won’t sleep on the cold ground that night.”
To date, they have placed a mat in the hands of 130 homeless people across the Southeast, working through the VA Hospital in Atlanta. Churches and halfway houses in Florida and Tennessee have helped distribute their mats.
About 50 have been given to people in Lancaster County at the warming center, at Jackie’s Place, and through Kevin Lilly’s ministry, the Mobile Shower Truck for the Homeless.
“There are between 200 and 250 homeless in Lancaster who are not living in regular houses with working heat,” Wilkes said.
She partnered with Lilly to reach the locals living without basic shelter. His street ministry targets and understands homelessness and the people who find themselves in very hard situations. He has gained their trust.
For the past three years, he has been taking backpacks filled with supplies to them. His ministry began as a way to offer a warm shower to those living in tents and on the streets. He offers hygiene kits, food, clothes, baby-care items, and now the mats crocheted by Wilkes’ group.
Lilly praises the work that Wilkes and her ministry are doing.
“If I need supplies taken somewhere, Sherri will quit what she is doing, load her two children and go do whatever needs to be done,” Lilly said. “Sherri has the best heart of anybody I know. We depend on her.
“If I say we need six mats for a homeless family, she will say, ‘Let me see what I can do,’ and she will work diligently until she gets it done.”
Sherri Wilkes, 33, holds up a 3X6 foot mat ready to distribute to the homeless.
Wilkes initially began her project for the young adult group Infuse at Church of God International.
“We are getting them involved and it’s more than just keeping their butts in the seats,” she said, smiling.
For more information, visit http://infusecgi.org and click the “getting involved” tab.
The Making Mats ministry welcomes anyone willing to help by saving plastic shopping bags or coming to the crocheting circle at the library to cut, tie or crochet the plastic yarn, or plarn, as they call it.
The group, which has had as many as 25 show up for the meeting, is in need of crocheters. Right now, they have only about four who actually crochet, and they welcome the chance to pass the skill on. For more information, check out the Facebook page “Making Mats” or email Wilkes at email@example.com.
Their Facebook page has reached people many states away. One woman in Ohio sends boxes filled with bags and a college group in Massachusetts sent a supply.
The meetings held the last Tuesday of every month at 6 provide an opportunity for families to work together. Wilkes and her husband, Kyle, 33, bring their two children, Jane, 5, and Jeremiah, 12. Sherri’s mother, Joyce Mahaffey, is also a part of the group and designs creative patterns for others to crochet.
A look around the room shows a lot of cross-generational interaction. Kyle is teaching his daughter to measure and cut the bags. Another mother smiles as her daughter lies on the mat on the floor, checking it for comfort.
Jane Wilkes, 5, gets a lesson on life and measurement and cutting from her dad,Kyle Wilkes, 33.
Valerie Bartlett, 38, was attending for the first time. She just moved to Lancaster from West Virginia. She brought her two daughters, Kate Evans, 15, and Vivi Bartlett, 5, along.
“It gives us something to do, a chance to meet new people, and it feels good to help people out,” Bartlett said.
She held up a plastic blue Food Lion bag and said, “It keeps these bags out of landfills and helps the environment.”
Vivi Bartlett, 5, checks a newly crocheted mat out for comfort.
Wilkes and the ladies have improved the mats by cutting bags into 3-inch strips rather than 2-inch strips. They now use a large “Q” crocheting hook, creating a softer, more cushiony mat. And they now make pillows from the scraps and seams, creating a zero-waste product.
“These are bags that are not going into the landfill and are not blowing across the parking lot and aren’t lying in the driveway,” Wilkes said. “That is an amazing number, and every time I crunch a new number into my excel document I get excited.”
It takes about 500 bags to make a mat. The group has used almost 69,000 bags since they began.
“When Miss Joy finishes her next mat, we will hit the 69,000 bag mark,” Wilkes said as she craned her neck to look at the mat Joy Montgomery was crocheting. “She is 4 inches away from finishing.”
Joy Montgomery is four inches away from a completed mat taking the total count of bags-turned-into-mats to 69,000,
Montgomery, 65, retired from Founders three years ago. She joined the mat-making group last December. She enjoys crocheting at night while watching Netflix.
“I pray for these people the whole time I crochet,” she said. “I pray as I go because somebody will lay on this and rest, hopefully.”