Charity Meets Sustainability

By Brittni Meservy

When Kaitlin McLean, a Lowell Bennion Community Service Center student volunteer at the University of Utah, received a video on Facebook from her mom of plastic yarn (plarn) with the message, “Maybe now you’ll finally crochet,” she didn’t think much of it at first. Taking grocery bags, cutting them up and then tying and crocheting those strips to design things like purses, hats or mats was something she felt she didn’t have enough time to do. That quickly changed.

Two weeks later, McLean learned about the controversy surrounding the homeless shelters — she learned that homeless individuals were passing away after freezing to death. After hearing of this, the plarn video popped into her head, and she knew what she needed to.

Working with a non-profit organization that follows the state legislature closely, McLean learned that there were beds for homeless individuals that had been defunded — meaning there would be fewer beds this winter than this past one.

“When I read that and I combined that with the fact that we already had people freezing to death, which is horrible, that meant there’s even greater need,” McLean said. “So I said, ‘We have got to do something.’”

McLean got in touch with homeless shelters to see if making plarn mats is even worth it or if she should do something else to help those who are less fortunate. She said the shelters had heard of the idea, but they didn’t want to make them, however, they said they would help her hand them out if she put them together.

So at the beginning of summer, McLean starting collecting grocery bags, broke out a hook and learned how to crochet with help from the video and her mom.

The need for these mats drove McLean to find a way to get more hands working on them because the amount of time it requires to make just one takes hours. It wasn’t until McLean showed up at the Bennion Center one day — where she saw hundreds of people there doing service — that she was influenced to pitch her idea of using plarn to make mats for the homeless to those at the Bennion Center.

The same day she threw her idea out there, Utah Athletics reached out to the Bennion Center looking for a project that student-athletes could help with. Jennifer Jones, the Bennion Center communications director, turned to McLean and said, “This is perfect.”

McLean presented her idea to members of the student-athlete council, and they were thrilled with the project. To have athletics partner up with other students on campus to help raise awareness of this issue was an opportunity that Crimson Council president Maddy Stover, member of the Red Rocks, didn’t want to pass up.

“A lot of what I’ve tried to do with this council is really get athletes integrated into the community and to the campus and get that face-to-face interaction and hands on work — that essence of just giving back,” Stover said. “So it has been a really cool experience.”

A handful of student-athletes got together in November where McLean taught them how to make these mats. The teams had collected garbage bags full of grocery bags in less than a week and a half. The athletes focused on cutting the bags into strips, but some of them even took it upon themselves to learn how to crochet. The athletes will continue to work together with the Bennion Center on this service project through the spring with the goal to have a few final products to show.

Despite the busy schedules that athletes have to manage, Stover believes it’s important to help others along the way.

“Especially as being athletes, we’re role models on campus and to little kids that come and support us at our games,” Stover said. “So it’s extremely important for us to just give back in that essence and show that we aren’t just athletes. We’re normal people, too, and we have a love for this community and the fan support we get and just anything we can give back, we’re happy to do.”

McLean insists that anybody can help with this project. Whether it’s collecting bags, cutting, tying or crocheting, there is a job everyone can do — even when they are on the road. Anybody willing to help is invited. McLean has raised awareness of this issue by teaching not just student-athletes, but also youth and church groups about the need for these mats. There is also a service corner in the Bennion Center where a mat is laid out and people can come in, add to it and record their hours between classes.

“My idea, grand scheme, is a teach-one-do-one methodology,” McLean said.

In other words, McLean hopes that after teaching others how to do this project they will teach someone and that person will teach somebody else and so on until all her objectives are accomplished.

“My goal long term is two things,” McLean said. “One, that we run the valley out of wasted plastic bags so there [are] none left, and when we say we’ve run out of bags, we’ve taken them from everyone we know, we have none left, I say we’ve done our job. And then when there aren’t people that need them, I say we’ve done our job.”

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