HASTINGS, Iowa — Those hookers over at Hastings United Methodist Church sure are busy these days.
“I do it every day,” joked Gay Courtier. “Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and do it.”
Don't get the wrong idea. These “hookers” — OK, crocheters — are all about service to others. With help from "bag ladies," "strippers" and "holy rollers," the Happy Hookers of Hastings, Iowa, are hooking 100 sleeping mats for homeless veterans.
“This is our chance to give to others,” said Roxanne Boverhuis, the church's pastor.
Hastings resident Marjean Sargent challenged the group to make the mats for veterans. She volunteers each year at Omaha's Stand Down for Veterans. The mats, made with crochet hooks from plastic bags, are great for homeless vets because they wick water away and are easily cleaned. Sargent called the mats “indestructible.”
While caring for others, the Happy Hookers care for the environment, too. The mats repurpose those ubiquitous plastic grocery bags.
“It makes me humble to think that people would be so grateful to get something that would otherwise go to the landfill,” said hooker Barbara Richards.
The idea to create sleeping mats from plastic bags came about two years ago from church pianist Rachel Darby, who read about a similar project at a church in northern Iowa. Darby enlisted Courtier and then Boverhuis in the craft. Soon other folks joined, even some who didn't attend the church. Businesses all over southwest Iowa began to collect used bags for the Happy Hookers. Nursing home residents and senior citizen groups began to help too.
Courtier has become a roving ambassador for the craft. She's taught church groups, 4-H members, senior citizen groups and folks in nursing homes to crochet with plastic bag material, or “plarn.” Her next project: teaching an autistic teen-age boy how to work with it.
The Happy Hookers meet every Wednesday around noon at the church. Perched on a rise in the center of town, Hastings UMC is a square, white wooden building that dates back to 1870. Inside, through the kitchen, down a narrow staircase and a dimly lit hall, is the Happy Hookers workroom. A long folding table, a collection of mismatched chairs and an old dining room chandelier serve as a work area. Part of the room is creatively lit with strings of Christmas lights. A pair of church cats solved a church mice problem.
The project's bag ladies refill the Happy Hookers “stash,” thousands of bags that are kept in a storeroom in the basement. Strippers fold the bags and then cut them into long strips. Holy rollers roll the strips into balls of plarn. Hookers crochet the plarn into the mats. It takes between 1,200 and 1,500 bags to make a mat nine feet long and four feet wide. When they are finished, the mats are thick, washable and waterproof.
The hookers have discovered that the mats are warm, too.
“It gets real hot under it,” said Julie Crouse, who held a mat on her lap as she worked on it.
A homeless shelter and feeding center in Council Bluffs, Messengers of Hope Ministries, or MOHM's Place, received 13 mats from the Happy Hookers a few months ago.
Brandy Wallar, the shelter's clinical director, said the ministry could use more mats. They are used every night in the shelter's overflow sleeping area in the dining room. The mats are comfortable, washable and sturdy.
“They've been working out great for us,” Wallar said.
The hookers have plans to expand. Some members want to crochet handbags to sell, with profits going to buy socks and undergarments for the homeless.
And, in true church group form, the Happy Hookers also have a cookbook in the works, tentatively titled “From Hookin' to Cookin'.”