Often the most inspirational stories come from the most unlikely of places. Especially, when that place is the arthritis-ridden hands of a 89-year-old blind woman.
But that’s what makes Spring Valley’s Wilma Groh so inspirational. So inspirational in fact, that on Monday, Jan. 9, she was named "Greatest Person of the Day" on the Huffington Post.
For the last 18 months, Groh and her family and friends have been meeting every Tuesday at to weave together mats, which are given to homeless people as a more comfortable way to sleep on the street. Sounds altruistic enough, and it’s something that the group enjoys doing.
But upon closer inspection of the mats, one finds that they are also special –- they are made entirely of plastic grocery bags.
“It’s our main mission,” said Groh, still full of life and vigor. “We wanted it to be a project for the homeless, but it’s turned into more.” Groh said that she appreciates having learned this, as it helps her keep up the dexterity in her hands. Being legally blind in one eye, and having a degenerative condition on the other, Groh has to go on feel, as she can only see blurry shapes and colors.
The group also loves the fact that they are helping recycle the bags and keeping them out of landfills.
You may be thinking, “Wait, weaving items with plastic bags? How is that possible?”
It’s quite simple really. The plastic bags are cut into loops or rings, each about 1-2 inches wide. The loops are then tied together, end to end, to create a kind of yarn, affectionately referred to as “Plarn.” From there, it’s rolled into a ball and the process of weaving is exactly the same.
The group, which now boasts more than a dozen regular members, hears the same thing, when their mats and other highly intricate products are first seen.
“They’re amazed by it,” said Linda Wickstrom, Groh’s daughter.
“I often hear, ‘That’s plastic?’, ” said Jennifer Smith.
The group began only weaving the mats, but as demand for their projects grew, so did creativity. They began making purses, tote bags, drink coasters and cozies, ornaments, flowers, and more. They will now even take a custom order.
“If you can do it with yarn, you can do it with plarn,” said Jeremy Nikodym, who organizes a satellite Wil-Mat group for the youth group at his church, Our Redeemer Lutheran. When enough mats pile up, the youth group heads downtown to distribute them to homeless people in need of one.
Wickstrom first introduced her mother to the project in May of 2010, after having seen it online as a youth group project. She thought it would be a good thing for Groh to pick up.
Asked if she always enjoyed weaving, Groh said, “Oh yeah, I did a lot of that. Crochet, embroidery, sewing clothes. I sewed all of my girls clothes.”
Groh, who has been a three-year resident of the Monterrey Trellis Retirement Home, located behind Cali Comfort, has even introduced the plarn weaving to some of her fellow residents.
So far, the group has made about 75 mats, which are typically about the size of a yoga mat, three feet wide and six feet long. Wickstrom said that each mat uses about 400 bags worth of plarn. Amazingly, if you would lay out that much plarn end-to-end, it would stretch almost 10 miles.
About once a month, the group hosts a demonstration class at Groh’s and Wickstrom’s church near Mt. Helix. The church has even helped them distribute mats to some of the homeless people in the area.
“Wilma is fabulous,” said Theresa Erb, head of family ministries at the church. “She’s just such a bright spirit. We help her out in any way we can, including collecting bags for her here at the church.”
There is also a donation bag barrel in Cali Comfort, though, as the project has grown, inventory isn’t the biggest problem.
“Our biggest need is people to help,” said Nikodym. “We need to emphasize that you don’t need to know how to crochet to help. There’s so many steps to this process, that people who can’t do that are still so vital to this project. We have the materials, but it’s a labor-intensive process.
“But we’ll always take bags,” he said, adding that there are about 20,000 bags that have yet to be processed and cut up.
Still, all of the group members are aware that selfless service is what the project is all about. Wickstrom said that they often attend craft shows and demonstrations, and try to sell some of their items. The money raised goes to Storefront, a branch of San Diego Youth Services, which tries to get teens off of the streets.
“We’ve been able to buy socks, sweatshirts, gloves, made up snack packs, toiletry items,” things like that,” she said. “I think we’ve sold $1,000 worth of items so far. I’m not gonna complain if my wrist hurts from doing this crocheting, but talking to people and seeing that we are really helping them just gives me the fuel to keep going.”
“I’ve been told that it’s a blessed project. That’s what I hear a lot,” said Tawnie Munoz. “A lot of people can relate because they have a connection to a homeless teenager or someone. It makes me feel good, because I’m only 20 and I know some homeless people and it makes me feel good that I’m helping them out somehow since they get a more comfortable place to sleep.”
The group has a Facebook page, and earlier this summer, Groh was featured on Fox 5 news. They are in the process of doing demonstrations on making and working with plarn, so that they can create satellite groups to start doing their own projects, and being able to help more people.