They wander the streets dressed in dark or dirty clothing, carrying backpacks, pushing baby strollers or grocery carts filled with all their earthly possessions. They look for the next meal, a place to sit out of the weather, a warm bed where they can close their eyes and feel safe. This is reality for those experiencing homelessness in Lewis County.
No matter why they’re on the streets – unemployment, addiction, illness – their needs are the same as everyone else. They just need help attaining them. Fortunately there are people willing to help.
A year ago Pam Arledge, an employee at St. Peter’s Hospital in Olympia, saw an article in Catholic Health World about recycling the tarp-like material used to cover sterilized instruments prepared for surgery. Instead of throwing the cloth away, it was turned into a mat for people without homes.
The article ended up on the desk of Pam Lamprecht, a surgery scheduler at Centralia Providence Hospital. For the past eight years, she has saved these coverings after surgery and donated the sheets to the Lewis County Animal Shelter for lining cages. There was still lots of material left over, so when Lamprecht’s boss asked if she was willing to take on the new project, she said, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.”
With the help of flyers, posters and word of mouth, a small group of women were recruited to assemble the mats. They meet on the third Thursday of the month from 5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the Sister Joseph classroom downstairs near the north entrance to the hospital.
Some women chose to complete the mats in their own homes. Kirsten Klein, a very involved community member, picks up pinned mats from Lamprecht and sews them together when she finds the time. She drops the completed mats at the Lewis County Gospel Mission across the street from Thorbeckes in Chehalis or keeps some in her car in case she sees someone who needs one.
“I think it’s wonderful to re-purpose something that would end up in a landfill,” Klein says. Since September, she has completed about 100 mats.
Tina Mintyala, a volunteer and project manager at the Centralia Providence Hospital, echoes Klein’s sentiments. In her youth, Mintyala’s father owned a landfill. She says, “Keeping things from going into the landfill is a wonderful thing.”
Mat assembly is relatively easy. When the material is sterilized in an autoclave, the pores in the weave close and make it virtually waterproof. Two pieces are folded together and the edges are stapled to keep them from slipping. A sewing machine then stitches around all four sides. Strips of elastic are stapled onto the short edges of the mat to hold it together like a bedroll. Other staples are removed before it is used.
The finished product is about the size of a yoga mat. It’s not full-length, but “it keeps them off the cold ground and gives them a little bit of comfort,” Lamprecht said. Sleeping bags and blankets can be layered on top to keep the cold from seeping in.
Since June of 2018 (when the project started) until the end of December, 475 mats have been assembled by Lamprecht’s group. During a recent work meeting, 54 mats were completed.
Teenagers are also involved in the project. Cheri Carr, who works in Rochester and homeschools her children, has helped her 15-year-old daughter make the mats as part of her high school community service project, a requirement for graduation. The Carrs’ 4-H group also help with the mats. Students from other high schools are welcome to join in.
Mat distribution is handled by different groups who deal directly with people experiencing homelessness, such as Gather on Main Street in Centralia, the Gospel Mission in Chehalis and the Salvation Army. “We’re the worker bees,” Lamprecht said. “We make the mats, but we don’t distribute them.”
Last August, their first batch of 50 mats went to the Project Homeless Connect picnic at the Riverside Park in Centralia. A second batch went to a gathering at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds on January 23, where a free meal, warm clothing and other services were available. A similar event was also held in Morton and every county throughout the state to gather information about the homeless population.
According to J. P. Anderson, Deputy Director of Lewis County Public Health and Social Studies, there were 132 individuals and 70 households who attended in the Twin Cities area and another 32 individuals and 15 households in Morton who were counted. These numbers are similar to last year’s figure.
The bright blue of the bedrolls was readily apparent among those in attendance at the fairground. When asked how she would use her bedroll, one woman said she would pad the console between the seats in the truck where she slept with her service dog, Kolby.
One man clutched his bedroll as he shared his efforts to get back into the system for treatment of his depression. Another man simply tied his mat to the top of his backpack and walked away.
“As long as somebody can get a use out of the mats and there’s a need for them, we’ll keep sewing,” Lamprecht said.
For more information about the mats, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-330-8505.