In August, 2017, Kaitlin McLean’s mom sent her a Facebook video about crocheting plastic yarn. McLean had been avoiding her mom’s hobby for years, but after reading an article about the number of deaths in Salt Lake City every winter due to cold temperatures, she thought she’d try it out. That month, McLean began crocheting plastic yarn into sleeping mats.
“I started working on my own mat just with the bags I got from shopping, and in about a foot into my own mat, I knew I wanted to make it a lot bigger,” McLean said. “I realized that if I taught two other people, then we would have triple the impact: three mats instead of one. I decided I’d teach my friends and see how it went.”
Balancing degrees in biomedical physics and psychology, McLean introduced the mat idea to the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, and they jumped on it. That day, they set up a collection bin for plastic bags in the building, and a week later, the U’s athletic department connected with Kaitlin. She taught more than 50 athletes how to cut up the bags into plastic yarn and weave it into mats. Since then, the organization has boomed into a non-profit with a board of four students and a faculty advisor.
The organization hosts events at the Bennion Center on occasion, but mostly, McLean said, groups contact her to teach them how to make mats. She’s worked with Fit to Recover, Maud’s Cafe and several University of Utah departments to crochet these mats.
“Making sleeping mats out of plastic bags is not an original idea, but making a non-profit out of it and a long-term, sustained goal in the valley has never been done before,” McLean said. “It’s all about increasing impact for me. I want the valley to realize that we as students care, and while we don’t have money to give we do have time and plastic bags. I think this is a great way for people to be exposed to community service in a way that is approachable from a lot of different angles.”
As of February 2018, the effort had completed four mats and have 25 in progress. McLean hopes to have 100 done by next winter and to drop them off all at once at the homeless shelters downtown.
Find this article and a lot more in the 2018 “Student Innovation @ the U” report. The publication is presented by the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute to celebrate student innovators, change-makers and entrepreneurs.