STAPLES — Dee Lehner, imaging manager at Lakewood Health System, is always looking for community projects to sink her teeth into.

So, when her colleague, Jenny Vavra, Lakewood’s laboratory manager, proposed the idea of repurposing surgical matting as sleeping mats for the homeless, she was all ears.

It was an idea Vavra learned a handful of other health care systems across the country were doing, and the concept was quite simple. Quarter-inch, blue surgical mats are used to wrap surgical instruments for procedures at Lakewood. The mats are 100% sterile, waterproof and never touch a patient or are used in the operating room. Once the sterilized instruments are removed from the matting, it is typically disposed of and ends up in a landfill. Lehner decided Lakewood could do better.

End results: the finished sleeping mats.
End results: the finished sleeping mats. Contributed

“Throwing these mats was such a waste,” Lehner stated in a news release. “When Jenny told me about repurposing these mats for the homeless, I loved the idea. If there was something we could do to help those less fortunate than us, I felt like we needed to figure out a way to make that happen.”

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That’s when Lehner reached out to a local group of sewers from the Piecemakers Quilt Club in Staples, to see if they would be willing to help. One of those sewers was Mary Noska, a retired occupational therapist from Lakewood Health System.

“When Dee brought the idea to us, we just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Noska stated. “Our entire group felt like this was a great opportunity to have a positive impact on people’s lives, so we wanted to help.”

The effort has resulted in over 250 mats being made to date. The first mats sewed were delivered to Listening House in St. Paul. Listening House is a sanctuary from the streets where practical assistance, counsel and a friendly ear are offered to all people, according to the release. The most common visitors to Listening House are people experiencing homelessness, deep poverty and/or deep loneliness. Staff and volunteers aspire to create a sense of community and connection by promoting dignity for all. Lakewood mats help provide just that, the release stated.

“The mats were so appreciated by Listening House,” stated Lehner. “But we soon learned that the need was much larger than we could accommodate on our own.”

That’s when Lisa Kajer from the Piecemakers Quilt Club recruited a group from Faith Lutheran Church in Staples to help with the undertaking. With the additional help and hands, more mats are being produced to help keep up with the demand.

Mats are sized anywhere from 6 feet in length for adults, to 3 feet for children. They are also sewn with elastic ends to allow them to be rolled up like a bedroll and transported easily. What originally started as basic mats to provide a soft, dry place for people to lay, has quickly evolved into sleeping bag enclosures and even pockets sewn in for added convenience. There has been a request for some of these mats to be sewn as drapes to provide people in homeless communities with some separation and a sense of privacy from others.

“If we can provide people a few basic dignities and make their life just a little bit better, we are proud to do so,” Lehner stated.

Lakewood sewers Gretta Trantina, RN, surgical services scheduling supervisor, left, Tonia Dolezal, CST, Mary Noska, OT (retired) and Micki Spears, CST.
Lakewood sewers Gretta Trantina, RN, surgical services scheduling supervisor, left, Tonia Dolezal, CST, Mary Noska, OT (retired) and Micki Spears, CST. Contributed

Though this work has had an impact, Lehner says there is still more they would like to do. She is asking anyone interested in becoming a sewer for this project to contact her directly. She also said each mat takes about 15-20 minutes to sew and anyone with even basic sewing skills would be able to pick it up quickly. She is considering setting up a “how to” seminar for those individuals interested in bringing their own sewing machine and learning firsthand how to put the mats together.

“We would take as many people as are interested,” Lehner stated. “The more mats we can produce, the more people we can help and that feels pretty good.”

Those who would like to help sew mats or are interested in learning how may call 218-894-8814.