News Local

Michael's mats meet domestic needs

Cecilia Nasmith

By Cecilia Nasmith, Northumberland Today

Terry Fox Public School student Michael Perry shows some of the items he has been helping to distribute to the homeless, in Toronto's streets and at a Kingston shelter. Among the inventory is the sleeping mats he has made (and previously distributed overseas).

Terry Fox Public School student Michael Perry shows some of the items he has been helping to distribute to the homeless, in Toronto's streets and at a Kingston shelter. Among the inventory is the sleeping mats he has made (and previously distributed overseas).

COBOURG - 

Giving donations for people in need far away is important.

But for Cobourg resident Michael Perry, it has been a meaningful experience to help people on a personal level, closer to home.

The Grade 4 student at Terry Fox Public School is also discovering how teamwork can make these efforts even more significant.

Michael’s work collecting milk bags that can be repurposed into sturdy sleeping mats began almost four years ago, and his mother Julie has posted the story on the website they have prepared to document his work (www.michaelsmilkbags.webs.com).

At that time, inspired by a presentation in his Sunday-school class at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Michael just collected the milk bags, because he didn’t know how to crochet them into their final shape.

Now, his mother said in a recent interview, Michael has acquired looms on which he can weave the mats. And he has begun making his own first forays to give them to homeless people who may be desperately scrambling for ways to cope with the oncoming winter.

Making presentations in the community (winning a YMCA Peace Medal in the process), he has addressed students at Baltimore Public School and Ganaraska Public School in Port Hope — along with his friends at Terry Fox, those schools are also collecting milk bags for him. Northumberland Probus Club members are also collecting, and Debbie Harvey of Nirvana Hair Studio and Spa has set up a drop-off location at her Port Hope business.

Michael had a volunteer to cut them the bags up into strips for weaving, but she has since had to give it up. They have a roll cutter available for use by anyone who could volunteer the time, his mother said.

Julie said they have three different-size looms — youth size, adult size and square.

Michael finds two advantages to woven bed mats over crocheted ones. The woven mats are thicker and softer, and he can weave them himself in about three to four hours.

Michael actually gave out some of the square mats in Toronto (one as a dog bed for a homeless person who had a pet). And if they accumulate six of the squares, Rob and Erin Rollings will sew them into one big mat.

Dr. Simone and Canadian Food For Children had been leaving space for these mats on their containers shipped abroad.

Last year, Michael also acquired a small inventory of beds on which to lay the mats, constructed of recycled wood pallets donated by the Canada Pallet company in Cobourg. Jason Roberts and Joel Kightley had students in the construction-tech class at St. Mary Secondary School make the beds, and Michael joined his parents, Julie and Michael, in sanding off the rough edges.

Michael had wanted to ship the beds to Nicaragua, but unsettled conditions made that imprudent. Now he hopes to get them to Thunder Bay through a partnership with a school attended by 200 students, many of them in need.

“They only eat once a day, at school. They sleep in the same beds and share head lice. They have absolutely nothing,” Julie said.

Demonstrating on one of the beds the St. Mary students made, Michael lay crosswise at its foot to demonstrate how multiple family members must crowd into a single bed.

For now, Michael’s dad has beds stored at two offices at the ReMax agency, and Shane Jarvis is storing five at his Lakeland Multi-trade plant.

They have no money for shipping, but hold out hope that someone might be heading that way (to visit family members or some other reason) driving a vehicle big enough to help get some of the beds, mats and other items there.

Shipping containers to other countries were always subject to geopolitical and economical considerations, but taking the Go train to Toronto on a recent Saturday was very doable. Michael and his mother put in an 11 a.m.-to-8 p.m. day last weekend with Rosemary Wilton, distributing sleeping mats and other items in addition to Wilton’s comfort kits and a supply of hats, gloves and T-shirts.

Wilton has specially made-up kits for men and women with personal-hygiene supplies and some fresh socks. The Perrys brought along their own supply of granola and cereal bars and bottled water to hand out as well.

Michael would get down on his hands and knees to give away these treasures, to speak with the people, shake their hands, exchange a few words.

His mother recalled a man who showed him fingers blackened from frostbite, telling him he must stay in school.

Michael found they are very honest people, and very grateful. If he heard “God bless you” once, he said, he heard it 40 times.

He was struck by the man near Union Station, who quickly spread the mat over his cold legs like a lap blanket. He had lost everything, his home included, because he could no longer work once he was stricken with cancer.

It meant a lot to Michael to learn close-up what it is like to be homeless. He discovered that it’s really another culture.

Not everybody took a mat, he said. These people carry their possessions around with them, and some felt like the bulky mats might be too much to handle. But they all seemed to appreciate someone talking to them as if they were just anybody else.

His mother learned that many homeless people are afraid to sleep at night for fear of being attacked. They choose daylight times to sleep, sometimes opting to stay awake during the warmest part of the day.

Michael learned what one might term the etiquette of the street in such situations. When approaching a homeless person who is asleep, for example, they would not wake him. Instead, they would deposit a mat, a comfort kit and whatever else seemed to be needed close at hand where he could find them later.

Michael encountered homeless people who stayed in pairs — father-son, brother-brother or friends — and even managed to build crude shelters as a home. They would take turns going out to beg or forage, while the other stayed home to guard the shelter and whatever belongings they already had.

As a rule, his mother added, the more a homeless person keeps his possessions around him, the less attention people pay to him.

They were also told that a panhandler aggressively asking for money is more apt to be a person looking to finance a substance-abuse habit.

Coming home on the train, his mother said, Michael admitted he felt good about his day’s work — and said also that he felt very responsible.

That was their Saturday. After Michael’s hockey game Sunday, they went to a homeless shelter in Kingston. The Perrys have already received several thank-you e-mails for this visit.

Having seen the good he can do without shipping things overseas, Michael’s mother speculates that he might become more active locally.

And the partnerships make their efforts so much more effective, Julie added — people like Nancy Bailey and friends of Helping Hands Cobourg for helping collect various donations, and Wendy Brown and Nancy Thomas for taking the time to knit comfort Teddies for the kids.

And she’s always glad to hear from anyone else who can help in this work. They can be contacted through Michael’s website.

cecilia.nasmith@sunmedia.ca

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