Gerry Stark stood in the center of the East Baton Rouge Library at Jones Creek on Feb. 4, surrounded by women and piles of plastic bags.
Spread out at tables, these women, who make up just a small part of the larger Crochet Compassion, worked at sorting, stacking, cutting and crocheting strips of plastic shopping bags into fluffy, plastic mats that measure 3.5 feet by 6 feet. The fruits of their labor go to the homeless population of Baton Rouge through the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless and Open Air Ministries, Stark said, and though they’ve only been in existence for about four years, the program has grown exponentially.
“I look around, and I see a group of people whose hearts are so big, they come faithfully throughout the year,” Stark said, adding that one of the sessions was so close to Christmas she probably would have postponed it, had she paid attention to the calendar. “But people came, anyway.” They come despite their own personal issues, and probably not just because they believe in helping their community where they can.
“Though they do,” Stark said, “we come and drink coffee and talk while we work. We have become a kind of family.”
When she looks around at where they are now, she said it’s hard to believe how far they’ve come.
Stark first got the inspiration to do something to help the homeless at The Red Shoes, when the Compassion in Action book study group discussed the book “Same Kind of Different as Me,” a biography of Denver Moore, a homeless man who left his life as a sharecropper in north Louisiana to wander the United States.
It made Stark more aware of the issues the homeless have to face, she said, and came across the idea of creating the plastic mats from a local news story about a church group saving bags to create the mats.
“It turned out that a lady in the Compassion in Action group knew one of the ladies — Kathleen Carroll at First Baptist Church. I asked her to teach me, and it just took off from there,” Stark said. She also got training from Dina Dias.
The project works, she said, because it’s easy to do in your spare time, and it’s practical for the intended recipient.
“It’s a mat made out of plastic shopping bags,” Stark said. “As you can see, it has a little bit of cushion that can make sleeping on a hard surface more comfortable, and it’s waterproof, so it can help keep your clothes dry if you’re sleeping outside,” she said. In addition to that, it’s lightweight, rolls up to a compact bundle that can be transported easily from place to place, and it’s fairly sturdy.
“We added a carrying strap to make it more convenient,” she said.
While their group started as a branch of the First Baptist group, Stark said they quickly became a hub with several more branches.
“We are never in need of bags. We have a lot of people collecting and donating them to us. We have people who collect their own bags to make yarn, and bring us bags of yarn bundles,” Stark said.
Several school groups have taken on one or more portions of the process as a service project, Stark said, and the number of mats they have been able to produce has ballooned.
“It’s really great to see how all of this has come together,” Stark said, adding that other than the Baton Rouge Crochet Compassion groups meeting at Jones Creek, Greenwell Springs and Main branches of the library, Stark fields a fairly steady stream of requests to conduct how-to workshops on making the mats.
“It could easily become a full-time job,” she said.
For all those who want to learn, resources and instructional videos are easily available on the Internet, Stark said, and for those who need a hands-on demonstration, they can come learn at the library.
The next group meeting times are 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 18 at Jones Creek, 6222 Jones Creek Road, and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 28 at the main branch, 7711 Goodwood Blvd.
Find Crochet Compassion on Facebook at www.facebook.com/crochet.comp assion.