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Day of service: Volunteers in Missoula turn surgical wraps into sleeping bags for homeless

Day of service: Volunteers in Missoula turn surgical wraps into sleeping bags for homeless

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The buzzing of sewing machines filled a back room at The Confident Stitch on an otherwise quiet Monday in downtown Missoula where volunteers made dozens of sleeping bags for people who are homeless. 

The Martin Luther King Jr. Day project not only helps those in need, it also upcycles sterile surgical wraps from Providence St. Patrick Hospital. The wraps are used to cover sterilized instruments as they are carried to the operating room and are normally incinerated after a single use, according to the owner of The Confident Stitch. However, the synthetic fabric is ideal for sleeping bags because it stores heat, is lightweight but durable, and is relatively waterproof.

"I love the idea that these pads are being turned into something that's really useful," said Jeremy Drake, a volunteer who works at Home ReSource, on Monday. "I think it's just a great combination of community resources, and it's got such an altruistic purpose."

Drake was among hundreds of thousands of Americans who donated their time for a day of service on Monday to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the day of service celebrating the civil rights leader’s life and legacy. In 1983, legislation made Dr. King's birthday a federal holiday, which Americans began observing in 1986. In 1994, Congress designated the holiday as a national day of service.

Kate McIvor, owner of The Confident Stitch, said her customers have volunteered for various service day projects she has organized in the past to benefit nonprofits. Confident Stitch sells fabrics and sewing materials and offers a variety of classes with the mission to empower women through sewing.

This is the first year volunteers have made sleeping bags, but previous projects have included heart-shaped pillows to assist women recovering from reconstructive surgery for breast cancer, dog beds for the Humane Society of Western Montana and quilts for children. 

McIvor decided to make sleeping bags after Gavin Wisdom, of the Poverello Center, approached her with the idea. Wisdom heard of other communities using surgical wraps to make the sleeping bags and wanted to bring the project to Missoula, which has the highest percentage of people without stable housing in Montana. The 2019 Montana Homeless Point in Time Survey reported 260 homeless individuals in Missoula, 26% of the total 1,009 Montanans who are homeless as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"The need is high and resources are few during these cold winter months," Wisdom said. "There are a lot of individuals who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not want to stay at the Poverello, and having something like this to distribute is huge."

The volunteers folded, cut and sewed the sheets of fabric to match a pattern drawn on an oversized sheet of paper that hung on the wall. Although they never come into contact with unsterilized tools due to strict hospital standards, McIvor said the hospital incinerates hundreds of wraps each day, but just four of them can make a spacious, comfortable sleeping sack.

McIvor aimed to make 20 sleeping bags on Monday, which turned out to be an easy goal to surpass with a half dozen volunteers on hand who arrived that morning. 

"This year has been the best turnout," McIvor said. "In the past, we've had one or two volunteers at a time, but this is great."

Kathi Way drove from Hamilton to volunteer on her day off work. She said she was interested in the project because she loves sewing and has wanted to do more volunteer work. 

"I think it has potential to bring the community together, and I'd love to see more people get involved," Way said. 

McIvor hopes to keep the project going through the winter based on the need. She said it's easy for people to make the sleeping bags at home after they learn the basic pattern, and that people would be welcome to work on them at the shop. 

"The nurses said, 'Just tell us how many you want, and you can come get them,'" McIvor said. "I'm excited that there's a never-ending supply of this fabric, and I'm also really excited for a business to work with the Poverello Center so we can better serve our neighbors and people who are struggling."

The winter is a time of need for the Poverello Center, according to Wisdom, who said the local soup kitchen and shelter is always accepting donated sleeping bags, winter weather gear and socks. Although it might sound odd, he said the shelter is also in need of spoons and forks.

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