What these seniors are doing with thousands of plastic bags will warm your heart

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Residents at a West End retirement community are using their crocheting skills to help the community.

The activity room at St. Mary’s Woods is always buzzing. In fact, resident Millie Canonico said there are numerous classes, including Tai Chi and balance-focused exercises.

But during a recent visit from WTVR CBS 6 reporter Greg McQuade, bingo and puzzles were pushed aside for a new challenge that is proving helpful and handy for complete strangers.

Residents at St. Mary’s Woods hard at work using hundreds of plastic bags.

Residents at St. Mary’s Woods hard at work using hundreds of plastic bags.

The group’s specialty is helping the homeless by crocheting with a twist. They upcycle discarded grocery bags of all shapes, sizes and colors.

“We’re making plastic mats for the homeless to sleep on," resident Hester Abbott explained.

At nearly 101, Abbott said the beds and pillow provide a much-needed buffer.

"It’s a great project," Abbott said. "This is just another way to help people in another way. Especially people who are homeless.”

The idea was hatched by Sylvia Nelson, a member of a Richmond-area church.

"Every mat will be truly unique. There will not be two that will be alike," Nelson said. "My husband says, 'I think you have come into a great idea. This is your project.'”

A resident crotchets a sleeping mat at St. Mary’s Woods.

A resident crotchets a sleeping mat at St. Mary’s Woods.

The project was introduced to St. Mary’s in Henrico’s West End by the daughter of one of the residents.

Nelson said the colorful creations are then given to Commonwealth Catholic Charities, who distributes the light-weight bedding to the homeless.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or what walk of life, you can touch somebody else’s life," Nelson said.

And the task requires time and dedication since between 500 and 700 bags are needed for a single roll.

A volunteer tweaks a nearly completed mat.

A volunteer tweaks a nearly completed mat.

“It’s grown so much bigger and you need so much more hands," Nelson added.

While the production time is intensive, the efficiency of the assembly line would impress even Henry Ford.

"Yeah, I like to do something for other people," resident Ruby Wiebe said.

The volunteers said the activity keeps them sharp mentally and physically -- not to mention the bonding the crocheting brings.

“It is such a good feeling that you’re doing this," 91-year old Millie Canonico said. “To us this is family because this is where we live. It brings us closer together."

While the neighbors at St. Mary’s Woods cannot solve the plight of the homeless, they know each tapestry of comfort is softening a hard night’s sleep for a few.

Additionally, the senior citizens said what may not be seen is the love weaved into each roll.

“Oh, I think [about it] a great deal. I think maybe I hope they feel that love," Abbott said. “To know that somebody cares.”

Post your words of encouragement for the ladies on the WTVR CBS 6 Facebook page!

Greg McQuade features local heroes in a weekly “Heroes Among Us” segment. Watch Greg’s reports Thursdays on CBS News at 6 or here on WTVR.com. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured on “Heroes Among Us,” click here to email heroes@wtvr.com.