YMCA’s Outreach Program

At 80 years of age, Barbara Ferguson is one of the most prolific plastic bag crocheting volunteers for Y OPAS.

If you consider plastic bags the bane of the planet and believe they should at least be recycled, you will appreciate how a handful of seniors at Y OPAS repurpose them.

From hundreds of poly bags, women who volunteer with the YMCA’s Outreach Program for Ahwatukee Seniors spend countless hours crocheting 3x6-foot mats for the downtown Phoenix Justa Center – a day resource for homeless seniors 55 and older.

The Justa Center website notes that in 2017, 13,000 homeless were 45 years and older, and of those, more than 2,000 were over 62.

For many seniors, the streets of Phoenix are now their home in heat, cold and rain.

And that’s where Y OPAS mats are most needed.

The process of turning plastic bags into colorful and comfortable mats on which to sleep – or in winter for a blanket – might sound simple.

But it is far from that, said Y OPAS Program Director Jill Sears.

“Each mat recycles over 700 bags,” said Sears, who admitted she’s amassed quite a collection of bags she regularly donates to the Y OPAS Crochet Club.

Those bags are then carefully flattened and cut into strips after slicing off the handles and bottom seam.

“It takes an estimated 40 hours of labor, depending on how fast you work of course, but it’s not a quick, easy thing to do,” said Sears.

Earlier this month, members of the Y OPAS Crochet Club ferried 20 completed crocheted mats to Justa Center at 1001 W. Jefferson St., founded in 2006.

Among them was 80-year-old Barbara Ferguson, an Ahwatukee resident who emigrated from Illinois a decade ago.

She said the experience of going to the Justa Center opened her eyes to homelessness among seniors – a revelation she, like so many, hadn’t considered as part of the homeless population.

“I looked at the wonderful people around us and thought ‘This could have been me,’” said Ferguson. “There but for the grace of God, as they say.”

Justa Center operations manager Oly Cowles  said some seniors 55 and older who make use of the day resource center were once employed, some professionally, but due to poor health or circumstances, have lost their jobs, their homes, their health insurance and ended up on the streets.

“We believe in miracles here at Justa Center, and these mats are so unique. They are good in hot weather, wet weather, even cold weather,” said Cowles, a former Arizona probation and parole officer who later went into private counseling before retiring again.  

He first heard about Justa Center in 2011, when the center’s pastor spoke at his church and he’s been volunteering there in some capacity since.

Ferguson said that although she has crocheted for many years, it was at CrossRoads Nazarene Church in Chandler where she first started crocheting with plastic strips cut from plastic bags.

“The Lord’s blessed me to be able to do this at my old age,” said Ferguson, who finds getting around difficult due to sciatica. “I wish I could have started when I was younger, but I had never heard of such a thing.”

She said people at her Sunday School and church bring her balls of plastic string cut from the bags.

Like other members of her Y OPAS Crochet Club, she then carefully weaves the mats, sometimes artfully combining different colors for stripes or other patterns.

“It takes getting used to,” she said. “You have to be careful you don’t tear it. I’m thankful I have women at church and the YMCA who cut it and roll it into balls for me. It makes it easier for me.”

She said she’s well aware of the difficulties of crocheting plastic “yarn” as she’s completed nearly 300 mats.

“The first year I started, I did over 100. I’m on 291 right now,” she smiled.

Noting how well the donations were received at Justa Center, she said she’d no idea that the crocheted mats she made regularly were so valued by those who spend days and nights on Phoenix streets.

“Several of the ladies there were so tickled to get them. One man said he thought these were done on a machine,” she recalled, adding:

“He said he was so surprised someone cared enough to do that by hand. Another man said he’d had his for two years, he kept it on the back of his bike. They can wash them and keep them clean, and I make mine with a strap on them so they can carry them over their shoulder.”

It was Ferguson’s efforts that got Ahwatukee resident Sue McCann involved - first gathering and prepping the bags, and then, eventually, crocheting mats, too.

Was it difficult to learn?

“Yes, at first,” admitted McCann, who’s crocheted for two years. “But it’s encouraging because if I can learn, so can anyone. You only have to know two stitches. Once you know how to maneuver your hook, it’s very relaxing.

“You can do it while watching TV. Barbara (Ferguson) has a very fluid action, and could probably compose a symphony while she’s crocheting a mat.”

Like others, McCann began by cutting bags into plastic strips that are rolled into balls, much like balls of yarn.

“I don’t make many mats now, but I handle a lot of bags,” said McCann, who received her five-year pin at last spring’s YMCA volunteer awards ceremony.

The Y OPAS Crochet Club meets for two hours the first Monday of each month beginning at 1 p.m. Meetings are at the Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA, 1030 E. Liberty Lane.

Y OPAS is a service of the Ahwatukee Family YMCA.

According to Sears, there are currently 177 active volunteers serving 468 senior clients.

“Our mission is to help seniors maintain their independence as long as possible. We do this by offering services like transportation, friendly visiting, phone calls, light housekeeping help with non-skilled repairs, and sorting of mail,” said Sears.

She noted that a fall-prevention program and senior social opportunities are also offered.

The most requested service offered by Y OPAS is transportation. Volunteers regularly provide up to 80 rides weekly, driving them to various appointments, food shopping and errands.

“The Y OPAS drivers take me to doctor’s appointments and the pharmacy,” said Ferguson, who is grateful for the taxi service.

A one-week notice is needed for transportation services, and a prior assessment meeting with case manager Vicki McAllister.

Y OPAS clients must be 62 or older and live in one of Ahwatukee’s three zip codes: 85044, 45 and 48.

“Last year Y OPAS volunteers completed over 8,800 appointments, driving 74,000 miles and donating slightly more than 9,000 hours to help Ahwatukee seniors maintain independence and stay connected and engaged in the community,” said Sears, in her second year as program manager.

“I often say, we have an army of the nicest people in Ahwatukee helping the sweetest people in Ahwatukee.”

The Y OPAS program is unique to the Ahwatukee YMCA said Sears, and all Y OPAS services are free to clients.

For more information on available services, becoming a volunteer or client, contact the Y OPAS office at OPAS@vosymca.org or phone 602-212-6088.

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