It was a combined South Pasadena and neighboring agency effort as civic officials gathered at Holy Family Catholic Church on Wednesday, Aug. 7 to share water-repellent and heat-absorbing sleeping mats with those who live on the street.
The mats, made of repurposed surgical fabric stitched together, are a part of the non-profit “du cOeuR” Project, which is rapidly expanding in its mission since its 2017 inception to help comfort the homeless while recycling the durable material that would otherwise go to waste in landfills.
The du cOeuR Project was started by retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Veronica Marella. While setting up in a new career as a surgical technologist at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, she recalled memories of sadness at seeing homeless people sleeping on the street in Los Angeles with nothing in between them and the cold, dew-laden ground.
In her work setting up operating rooms, she noticed that large tray wraps were being removed from sterilized instrument trays and then thrown away. The 4-foot-square tray wraps were used to make sure the instruments remained sterile until they were in the OR and ready to use. The wraps were removed from the trays and discarded outside the room before the patient entered the room.
As a seamstress who enjoys sewing and crafting, Marella felt that the wraps could have a second life as something new. The wraps are water repellent, heat absorbent and machine washable. She ended up stitching two wraps together and added elastic pieces so the wrap could be rolled and secured as a bedroll. The project took off and she has distributed more than 3,000 mats across the country, along with her partners, Registered Nurse Fernando Ovando and Surgical Physician Assistant Navjot Kaur.
“I’m hoping what I have created will inspire others to see outside the box and use those resources they have in front of them to help the homeless in their communities,” Marella said in a newsletter by the Torrance Public Works Department.
The name “du cOeuR” comes from the French term “from the heart,” with the capitalized O and R as a nod to the wraps’ origins and her surgical colleagues in Torrance and San Pedro who helped collect them.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Altadena Station Captain Marjory Jacobs discovered Marella’s video on the du cOeuR Project while browsing through a women’s empowerment forum on Facebook for retired and current Sheriff’s Department members. She said she was intrigued by the idea and the resilience of the material.
“When I found it, I reached out to her not knowing her but just knowing that this was something that was just amazing that this young woman thought of this,” said Jacobs. “She brought me 125 within a week.”
Excited about the prospect of helping people within her district, Jacobs reached out to Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s office, knowing Barger’s commitment to finding solutions for homeless issues. She connected with Barger’s Homeless Policy Deputy, Dana Vanderford, who worked with the office’s San Gabriel Field Deputy, Sussy Nemer, to connect with South Pasadena’s Holy Family Catholic Church. Jacobs then visited with church staff to determine the best way to distribute the sleeping mats.
Director of Community Services Marlene Moore at Holy Family Church reached out to South Pasadena Police Department Sgt. Shannon Robledo, who aids the department in homeless outreach, and he said the department was on board with the idea.
“Most people do want to help and most people see that a lot of friends are out there struggling,” said Moore. “Can you imagine trying to sleep at night and being wet? They’re just trying to stay dry and stay safe.”
On Aug. 7, around 50 mats were distributed to those who wanted them after people came for showers, hygiene kits, haircuts and a hot meal at the Holy Family Giving Bank/Shower of HOPE. Helping make connections with the distribution were Jacobs, Moore, City Council Member Robert Joe, SPPD Chief Joe Ortiz, SPPD Deputy Chief Brian Solinsky and Barger’s representative, Savannah Moore.
In Robledo’s work with homeless outreach through the SPPD, he said, the mats serve as a resource that parallels the ability to provide information on how to obtain shelter, medical care and other needs while making a trusting connection.
“This is a way that we can make a connection because when people feel comfortable with you, they’re going to ask you for direction,” said Robledo. “I’ve had addicts come up to me and ask, ‘Where do I get help?’ We can point them in the right direction. This is kind of a tool to break that barrier.”
Moore wanted to grow the project so she reached out to Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena to gauge their interest. Within 24 hours, she received an enthusiastic green light, and the church is currently working to establish a procedure for pickup of the surgical mats.
“It truly is a win-win,” said Moore. “Not only are we serving our brothers and sisters, but the whole reduce, reuse, recycle aspect, we’re doing that as well.”
Moore said the sleeping mats will be available for anyone who needs them on an ongoing basis from the church’s St. Joseph Center at 1524 Fremont Ave. Sack lunches for those who live on the streets are distributed Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the Shower of HOPE is held Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon.
The church is actively looking for those who wish to aid in sewing the surgical mats together, and those interested can call the Holy Family Church’s Giving Bank office at (626) 403-6140.