The First United Methodist Women, also known as “God’s Gals,” have discovered a way to combine helping the environment with helping the Pekin area homeless.

The women’s community outreach group, based at the church at 1315 Court St., Pekin, has been weaving mats for the homeless out of used plastic grocery bags since fall 2018.

“A friend of one of our members presented this as a project we might be interested in doing,” said Judy Richmond, First United Methodist Women president. “The homeless often sleep on the ground with no protection. Not only do they get dirty, but it’s uncomfortable. These mats provide a clean place to lie on.”

According to church administrator Jarilyn Thomas, each mat is made from 500 grocery bags. The goal was to make 18 mats. A group of about 20 people has been working on the project on Thursday mornings at the church. 

“That was the number the group agreed on,” said Thomas. “It’s takes quite a bit of time to make each one, and they still have a few more to do.”

Richmond said that mat-making could be an ongoing project for the group. They are eight mats short of the initial goal, but if their undertaking generates enough interest, they could continue making them after the goal has been met. The completed mats have been distributed to the Salvation Army, the Tazewell County Veterans Association, and the Pekin Township office, where officials there distribute them to the homeless. They not only allow homeless persons who use them to sleep cleaner, but more comfortably.

“If the Salvation Army’s shelter is overbooked, they use them as cots,” Richmond said. “They’re woven on a loom and they’re three layers thick, so they provide some cushioning between the ground and the people who need to use them.”

The group has three looms for weaving the mats. While some volunteers work the looms, others cut off the tops and bottoms of the bags to make loops, Richmond said. The project is ecologically beneficial, because recycling bags helps reduce waste, which helps reduce the release of harmful chemicals and greenhouse gases.

“Instead of going into a landfill, excess bags are getting reused and turned into something that benefits the homeless,” she said. “We only accept plastic grocery bags. We cannot use the bigger bags, like the ones used for clothing.”

Due to ongoing renovations at the church, the project is temporarily on hiatus.

If the church renovations, involving re-carpeting and repainting, take several months, the group may continue the project there before the floor is re-carpeted, Richmond said. The women’s groups are accepting donations of used plastic grocery bags. Donations may be dropped off at the foyer of the church.