JMU’s Social Work Organization (SWO) has been doing something a little unconventional to help out the Harrisonburg homeless community: collecting plastic bags to recycle into sleeping mats.

The project, New Life for Old Bags, helps the student organization focus on reaching outside of the JMU community to make a difference. SWO is one of the three organizations within the social work major and is relatively small, with about 10 consistent core members.

It takes about 50 hours to crochet grocery bags into the mats from the project are made by crocheting plastic grocery bags, and take an estimated 50 hours to make into a 3.5 by 5.5 foot rectangle that those in need can use to lay on.

Each mat uses about 500 bags, which are cut into strips and then fashioned into a “yarn.” The “yarn” is then crocheted by volunteers, as one would normally do with string, to make a tight, sturdy mat.

The idea was first brought to light when junior social work major Emily Mclaughlin took a trip to Chicago.

“Over the summer, I volunteered with a woman who has been making the mats for several years and has made about 1,200,” Mclaughlin said. “I saw that it was simple and easy, and thought it would be a good idea for us to do.”

Mclaughlin then brought the idea to Brenna Neimanis, a junior social work major and the president of SWO.

“I had never heard of anything like it before and thought it was a great, creative idea,” Neimanis said. “This whole project can go to a good cause in the community and bring people together that wouldn’t normally meet.”

SWO will be holding its first event for the project tomorrow. Leaders are asking anyone willing to help participate in making the “yarn” for the mats to meet in ISAT 159 at 7 p.m.

SWO is well on its way to making that vision a reality. Boxes for plastic bag donations are located in JMU’s social work department, and JMU has also become involved with the project by donating bags and agreeing to recycle all of the plastic bag scraps created from the event.

SWO has also applied for the Innovative Diversity Efforts Award (IDEA) grant to help fund the project, which they will soon hear back from.

After the mats are made, they will be given to Our Community Place (OCP) in downtown Harrisonburg to be handed out to the homeless population in the area.

Philip Fisher Rhodes, executive director of OCP, was supportive of the idea and even wrote a letter to help SWO apply for the IDEA grant.

“I had read about a similar project taking place in Chicago, and so was immediately intrigued by the possibility that the project could happen here in Harrisonburg and enhance the lives of my friends who are homeless,” Rhodes said.

Now the executive director for over two years, Rhodes was with OCP when it was formerly the Little Grill soup kitchen.

“I believe that our responsibility should extend especially to folks who live with significant life struggles and limited opportunities, whether homeless or otherwise,” Rhodes said.

Both Mclaughlin and Neimanis, who have previously worked with OCP, also feel strongly about the project.

“This is our community,” Neimanis said. “Yes, we’re in the JMU community, but the broader area is also something we’re responsible for.”

The project provides more opportunities for college students to become involved.

“It’s also a very hands-on practical project that isn’t just giving money,” Mclaughlin said. “College students that don’t have that money to give can offer their time and it’s easy to see the fruits from the work.”

Contact Mollie Jones at