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Hit the road, Desert Companion readers! And while you're at it, have a look around. This issue invites you to not only escape to the outdoors, but also to think about the environmental issues affecting our pursuits and our world.

Sleeper Agent

Merri Medley holding one of her finished mats as volunteers work in the background
Jeff Scheid
Jeff Scheid Photography

The Mats Project turns plastic bags into a little comfort for the unhoused

"Make a mat and make a difference” is one of many quips Merri Medley uses to describe her work with The Mats Project, a nonprofit program that creates sleeping mats out of unused plastic bags and gives them to unhoused Las Vegans. Since plastic is bedbug resistant, lightweight, and insulates body heat, it makes an ideal material for sleeping mats.

Medley, the project’s founder and a lifelong crocheter herself, knew that starting the program would require many helping hands. So, she began recruiting volunteers through word of mouth. Tanya Rodriguez, a volunteer in Medley’s founder’s team, recalls how quickly excitement about the project spread.

“I told my Bible study about it,” she says, “and we actually formed groups, and we would help cut the bags. So that way when you’d come in on Wednesday (to The Mats Project), we could bring the (materials) in and start crocheting, because a lot of ladies wanted to learn how to crochet. So, Susan invited Gisela, Gisela invited Rita, and on and on — that’s how it went.”

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Today, it’s clear that these recruitment efforts have borne fruit, even on chilly, early spring nights: About 20 men and women cut, tie, and crochet in a classroom at the Durango Hills YMCA, which is one of five locations around the valley where the Mats Project meets.

But beyond volunteers, Medley also realized she needed community partners. Her biggest breakthrough came from Advance Polybag, a Las Vegas-based shopping bag manufacturer. Its most recent donation was 200,000 bags, many of which have some defect that would prevent them from being used by consumers.

Since the project’s beginning in April 2023, Medley has donated 70 mats to Shine a Light, a local outreach organization that distributes food and supplies to people living in tunnels under the city. This April, The Mats Project plans to give Shine a Light 40 more.

This is a feat, considering that the creation of one mat takes 14 hours of cutting the bags into horizontal strips and looping them together to create what’s known as “plarn,” and another eight hours to crochet the ball of plarn into a finished mat. That timeline, however, is broken up into an assembly line process, based on volunteers’ skills and interests.

Though 24 hours might seem like a long time to create one mat, this is on the lower end of the time spectrum when compared to similar groups, thanks to Medley’s self-drafted pattern and chunky plarn. “(Crocheting mats) has been going on across the country for decades,” Medley says. “But what they usually did was they cut the loops thinner and used a regular sized crochet hook. So, it would take approximately a year or six months to make one mat.”

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More mats equals more people helped, which, Medley says, is the goal for all the volunteers who attend her weekly open-to-the-public gatherings. “It’s so rewarding,” Medley says. “To remind (the unhoused) that they do matter. They are loved. And someone cares.”

Find more information about The Mats Project, including how you can volunteer, at