‘The Bag Lady’ helps keep homeless people warm with winter jackets | News
KALISPELL, Mont. – Barbara St. John is called “The Bag Lady”. She has a light approach to a serious business: providing jackets that turn into sleeping bags for the homeless population of Kalispell.
“My mission is that no one freeze in the cold,” she said.
Since 2017, it has equipped around 150 people with specially made coats. They are high quality and functional, made from materials donated by Carhartt and Patagonia.
Insulation is provided by General Motors, and they are made from recycled plastic bottles.
They can fit a person 6ft 4in or less, and when not worn they fold up into a lightweight fanny pack. The lower part, which doubles as a sleeping bag, serves as a space to store personal items.
It’s a versatile design that delighted St. John when she first discovered the product.
“I went crazy about it,” recalls St. John, thinking back to the first time she heard about the jackets.
It was around 2012, when she lived in a small farming community near Detroit, Michigan.
Design student Veronika Scott created the jackets in 2011. In 2012 Scott started The Empowerment Plan, a non-profit organization that employs homeless people to make the jackets.
The operation started small and when St. John moved to Montana, The Empowerment Plan did not have the capacity to send jackets out of state.
But as the years passed and St. John experienced the brutality of winter in Flathead, she felt compelled to try again.
She was particularly moved one day in 2017 when she walked past a bus stop near her home in Kalispell and saw people stand out in temperatures 15 degrees below zero.
“It broke my heart,” said St. John, heartbreaking at the memory.
She contacted The Empowerment Plan again and learned that the organization had expanded to all but six states. Montana was one of the few not represented.
St. John ordered his first set of jackets, raising funds in his church and in the city to cover the costs. Nowadays, a bag costs around $ 125.
With his first bags in hand, St. John went to local parks and introduced the concept to homeless people.
Since then, she has distributed them to people in need.
“He flew a lot of time,” said St. John.
Once you know how to spot the bags, said St. John, you start to notice them all over town.
When handing them out, she stresses the need to take care of and hang on to each bag, and she said most recipients are responsible for theirs.
Sometimes someone will bring a bag back to St. John because his situation has improved and he no longer needs a way to stay warm while he sleeps outside.
When this happens, St. John said she feels blessed to have the opportunity to help someone change their life.
Currently, The Bag Lady is a one-man business, but St. John hopes to expand the project. She has a woman lined up to join her soon, and she intends to go beyond Kalispell to serve the rest of the valley.
“I’m really hoping to pick up the pace,” said St. John. “There are a lot of cold people.
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