Mary Jane Green has lived in Kankakee her entire life. The youngest of 11 children, she married in 1954 and worked as a waitress, then a cashier at a local Jewel-Osco. She moved around the country briefly, then returned home in 1992. Now at age 85, she lives at Harvest View Senior Living, where she's found another project to keep her busy.
For hours every week, Green cuts plastic bags into strips. It seems like a simple task, but then those bags go to B&J Sewing Center in Bradley, where volunteers weave them into waterproof mats for homeless veterans.
"I think it's commendable we're able to do this, and we certainly have the vets behind us," said Green. "We certainly owe them something. It's a good thing for me to do. It makes me feel good and keeps my hands strong."
Green is familiar with veteran's issues. Two of her brothers-in-law were killed and one of her brothers lost his arm fighting in World War II. Her late husband, Tom Green, served in both Vietnam and Korea.
Many of the residents at Harvest View have some affiliation with the military, and six veterans currently live there.
Activities Director Kelly Frerichs says it means a lot that residents still are able to give back.
"It brings a community together when you work for a cause," said Frerichs. "Even their families see we give back to the veterans, and it means a lot to them."
Each mat takes about 50 hours and between 1,000 and 1,200 bags to make. The VFW auxiliary distributes them at veteran's resources events across the state. The project is lead by Deborah Gard, of the Bourbonnais VFW Ladies Auxiliary, who also is the department chairman for all 12 VA hospitals in Illinois. She took the project over from her late mother.
"They are living on the streets or in the roadsides, wherever they can find shelter," Gard said of homeless veterans. "These mats let them be off the ground, above the moisture. It gives them something softer to sleep on. They can be wrapped around them to maintain heat."
While it's difficult to get definitive numbers, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted more than 39,000 homeless veterans in 2016. About 950 of them live in Illinois.
"They know where to get help when they need it, but their mental problems are a lot deeper, and some of them prefer to be homeless right now at this point in life because they can't cope with life. And it's just one more way to help those vets," said Barbara Marukaitis, a lifetime VFW member who owns the B&J, where volunteers work.
For veterans, the mats are a comfort in the cold. For Green, they're a project that keeps her hands strong and her mind busy.
When she gets tired, Green thinks of the veterans she helps. "It's good for her to know when her hands are hurting and it's the middle of the night," said Frerichs.