Story, photos, and video by SPENCER K. GREGORY
A local student has created a service project that has impacted the homeless community in Salt Lake City.
Kaitlin McLean, a fifth-year student at the University of Utah, has created a system in which the participant recycles plastic bags, creates plastic yarn, and produces mats that she said can then be used to “help our homeless neighbors.” This service project has been referred to as Bags to Beds.
“Bags to Beds is a community service project that’s looking to reduce waste for our community by breaking down plastic bags that can’t be recycled,” McLean said.
She organized this student-directed service project through the Bennion Center. The Bennion Center is a nonprofit organization on the U’s campus that serves the local community.
Since then, McLean is now the director of the program and has made a tremendous impact upon sustainability within the Salt Lake Valley.
She said that it averages about 40-50 hours of service per mat.
Students can get involved with however much time they want to spend.
One U student, Megan Peterson, said, “The project itself was really easy, and not hard to understand.”
Peterson is currently a third-year student who is studying communication with an emphasis in strategic communication. She specifically loves to help out the Bennion Center Scholars program.
Peterson mentions how she was first introduced to Bags to Beds at a Scholars social where they just ate pizza. In the meeting they casually discussed goal setting with students pursuing their work for their personal engagement within the community.
Afterward, the Scholars were unified in their efforts to cut plastic bags into objects that would later be used into “plarn.”
“Plarn” is the term that Bags to Beds has adopted to describe the unique process of creating the service phenomenon.
Bryan Luu offers insight as to the process and functionality of plarn making. He said, “Plarn is a form of plastic yarn. It’s what wove together these giant mats. All of it’s made from plastic bags that have just been cut into strips and tied together to resemble the yarn.”
Once the mats are made from the plarn, they are immediately distributed to a local resource center or to Project Homeless Connect.
Homeless Connect is a one-day event that helps provide services and outlets for those who are homeless. People can learn how to get involved in this project by visiting the website.
The program has a tremendous connection to the Project Homeless Connect happening in downtown Salt Lake City. “We’ll have all the mats we’ve finished throughout the year for those that are anticipating they’ll be outside this year,” McLean said.
McLean said they expect to help more than 600 individuals during 2018.
“It also gives us an opportunity to work with other people who work with this population, and also get to know the people we are serving,” she said.
This program has made a great impact upon a tremendous social issue.
Peterson said, “Even though homelessness itself is such a huge issue, they’re just trying to help a little bit by taking waste that can’t even be recycled, and then re-using them for something useful.”
Peterson added, “It also helped me focus in on an issue that I’m not thinking about all the time.”
Luu, a fifth-year student at the U studying civil engineering and urban ecology, said, “My time with Bags to Beds really has shaped a lot of my community involvement because I feel as if I can continue making a difference. Just having that knowledge, is just really important. Then I can be able to still give back to my community.”
Students or other patrons can visit Bags to Beds to get actively involved. Visitors can then fill out a volunteer interest form.
Bags to Beds has trained organizations and individuals to work independently on the service project at the Bennion Center or even at home.
So if you’re a community member, student, or local citizen in the community there are many ways for you to get engaged in this great organization. According to McLean, Bags to Beds can even personally deliver plarn right at your door.
Peterson said it’s an “easy way to get involved.”
Paige Remington, another student at the U, said, “Although I am not directly helping people who are experiencing homelessness, I am using my hands and my time to create something that will hopefully alleviate a small amount of suffering.”
Debbie Hair is the administrative assistant for the Bennion Center. She has helped the founder of Bags to Beds from the beginning. She said, “This project went off miraculously with a lot of attention.”
Hair added, “There’s a couple of different reaches this program has, one is environment. We’re not just reaching out to the homeless to give them comfort, but we’re also repurposing those bags.”
According to Bags to Beds, the program has collected over 12,000 plastic bags for active sustainable use in the community.
Bags to Beds has a plan to prepare a model that is sustainable moving forward. McLean said, “The project will continue to flourish no matter how many students there are.”
Students through the Bennion Center and community members in the Salt Lake Valley have been the main community engagement resource, providing service hours for the program. However, the organization plans to spread to other cities.
Since the early years of the program, it has now officially become an incorporated business outside of the Bennion Center.
McLean said, “Bags to Beds is now in the process of becoming a tax-deductible nonprofit organization.” Bags to Beds has made a tremendous impact upon the homeless society in the Salt Lake Valley and will continue to change countless future lives.