Nursing team make sleeping mats and tote bags for the homeless out of discarded operating room fabric.

Spend time with Gaye Harley, and it’s hard to imagine the ebullient nurse ever having been down on her luck. She oozes with optimism. But when she was 13, Harley was homeless, living with her two siblings and single mom in a motel and building meals around the dented cans of food her mother, Wanda, would scrounge. “My mother must’ve had 100 recipes for beans,” recalled Harley, 57, a patient navigator at Saint Francis Healthcare Hospital in Wilmington, USA.

“She was so strong, so positive, that she was able to lift us up on the little that we had.” Harley said. “She always told us, ‘There are always people worse off than you.’ ”

Wanda’s spirit lives on in Harley, who in late 2018 began rounding up her hospital’s operating room (OR) wraps — the oversize sheets of synthetic material in which sterilized OR instruments come packaged — and sewing them into portable mats and roomy tote bags to be distributed to people living on the streets. The mats are as useful as a barrier on the cold ground in winter as they are on overheated pavements in summer. And each is tagged with a ribbon that reads “You Are Loved.”

When she met with the head of the OR at Saint Francis about repurposing the wraps, she was encouraged to first get buy-in from his staff — which she promptly did. She then put out a call to hospital colleagues for sewing help and immediately heard from Jamie Powell, Saint Francis’ informatics director and a former pediatric nurse.

To date, Harley and Powell have distributed about 100 mats via the people who most often interact with those on Wilmington’s streets, from hospital security guards and social workers to EMTs and those who deliver care through the Saint Clare Medical Outreach Van. They create mats in two different sizes as well as tote bags, into which they place one of the 1,500 pairs of socks Harley arranged to have donated from a mission-driven footwear company.

Their project is more than a cuddly notion: Some figures estimate that repurposing hospital materials saves millions of dollars in the health-care industry (which produces more than 4.67 million tons of waste every year). From a sustainability perspective, efforts like You Are Loved reroute the OR materials, which are nonrecyclable, from landfills.

This article was originally published on The Philadelphia Inquirer on on 22/8/19 by Jessica Press.