Students Turn Shopping Bags Into Sleeping Mats for Homeless

Former President Bill Clinton launched the Clinton Global Initiative University with the next generation of innovative problem solvers in mind — problem solvers like NWU students Chelsea Johnson, Hannah Smith and Becca Brune.

The three students were selected to attend Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU), held earlier this month in St. Louis, Mo.

CGIU brings together some of the world’s top collegiate problem solves. The weekend includes workshops, speakers and networking with a focus on poverty alleviation, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, public health and education.

“It’s about finding solutions together,” said Smith, a junior Spanish and global studies major from Papillion.

The application process to CGIU requires a commitment to action. Johnson, Smith and Brune have launched “New Life for Old Bags.” The project turns plastic shopping bags into sleeping mats for the homeless. The three discovered a similar service project while in Chicago with the student organization Global Service Learning.

Approximately 500 to 700 plastic bags are used to weave a durable sleeping mat – demonstrating a concept Johnson, Smith and Brune call “upcycling.”

“It’s about taking something everybody has and doesn’t use, and turning it into something useful,” said Smith.

The students will officially kick of the project on campus during Earth Day activities. They are setting up plastic bag collection sites on campus, and will collaborate with student groups Global Service Learning and Environmental Action to see that the project continues long after the students graduate from Nebraska Wesleyan.

The project is also expanding beyond the Nebraska Wesleyan community. The group is collaborating with Tabitha Health Care, a local living community and hospice center for the elderly. 

“We’ll go to Tabitha and make mats with the residents,” said Brune, a social work major from Lincoln. “They are really excited about that, and we are too. It makes the project an even more meaningful process.”

While the project is a new endeavor, it has already received national recognition. Johnson, Smith, and Brune were among a few select groups honored at CGIU for their plan. They were honored onstage at a workshop titled “The Rise of Makeshift Innovation” and were presented an award signed by Clinton.

Johnson, a senior from Auburn, says their experiences at CGIU will help them establish New Life for Old Bags.

“CGIU is about thinking as big as you can and not doubting yourself,” she said.

“Their investment in college students and helping them promote their ideas was empowering,” Brune added. 

CGIU also reinforced the three students’ personal commitments to change.

“Human creativity and innovation is extremely powerful. You may not have an easy time of making your idea successful, but there are ways that you can change the world without having to have a broad public policy addressing the problem,” said Johnson, who will begin an internship at the USDA Department of Rural Development following graduation in May.

Brune said a quote from President Clinton’s speech at CGIU particularly resonated with them as they move forward.

“He said, ‘failure is okay when it’s a product of adventure, not a product of laziness.” 

Want to donate your plastic bags? Drop them off at the collection sites located on the first floor of our campus buildings.

This is a wonderful project,

This is a wonderful project, it could be taken to a global level. Making a difference and helping people and our environment.

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Hannah Smith, Becca Brune & Chelsea Johnson have introduced "New Life for Old Bags" to campus.
The students collect plastic shopping bags needed for their project.
A sampling of the end product: sleeping mats for the homeless.