Thousands of empty plastic grocery bags filled the youth ministry offices at Grace United Methodist Church.

The brown, gray, white, red and blue bags were so numerous that it was hard for ministry staff to move around the space. But the slight inconvenience was worth a larger humanitarian effort unfolding.

The middle school youth group at Grace has gathered every Sunday night for the past few months to turn the plastic bags into pillows and mats for the homeless. Participants have turned the plastic bags into a kind of yarn that they can crochet with, then woven sturdy, weather-proof gear for those who might not have anything else to sleep on.

“It’s not hard to do. It’s recycling, and it’s helping other people,” said Jenna Newton, 13, who helped spearhead the effort at Grace United Methodist Church.

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The project grew out of a similar effort being done at Franklin Community Middle School last school year. During their study hall, a group of seventh-graders would spend time making mats and pillows, partnering with Church of the Lakes in Nineveh to distribute them to the homeless in Indianapolis.

Other students soon joined in, including Jenna and fellow classmate Gabi Sherry, 13. Both are members at Grace United Methodist Church, and thought their youth group could do something similar.

“I got to go up to Indianapolis with my class when we distributed them, and not too long after, we had meetings here at Grace just talking about and preparing us for our trip,” Jenna said. “We want to bring them up there and continue the effort on.”

The process of turning plastic bags is simple but time-consuming. The first step is folding the bags in half, then cutting the plastic into strips. Tying the strips together creates a long rope they call “plarn.” Having created the base material for the project, the youth group members start crocheting with it, Gabi said.

Leftover bags are stuffed with newspaper, wrapped with the crocheted pillowcase and used to make a soft place for people to rest their heads. The mats are woven into body-length rectangles.

“It’s something easy. Everyone has grocery bags, and wants to get rid of them somehow, so a lot of people are willing to help,” Gabi said.

As the youth group has publicized its effort among the Grace congregation, other people have volunteered to help, Gabi said. People have donated their unused plastic bags, and a number of church members who have experience with crocheting have taken balls of plarn home to work on the mats during the week.

Others have brought their children in to fold bags and make the plarn for the project.

“For some young people, it’s hard to talk to others from different generations. I know that having something to work on is a great conversation starter, and it can build into so many amazing things,” Gabi said.

With the mats and pillows that have been created, the youth group plans to distribute them during a mission trip to Providence, Rhode Island, in late June and early July. The youth group will be spending a week at Providence Rescue Mission, a ministry for the city’s homeless.

The plan is to have about 15 mats and pillowcases ready for the trip.

“It’s been so great how it’s all come together. It’s a long process, but there have been lots of people who have been interested in it,” Jenna said. “It’s brought the different generations together. We focus on building community, so this has really been good.”

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.