Central New York church ministry makes, donates sleeping bags for people who are homeless

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Mar 12, 2024

Volunteers at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Endicott, New York, meet the second Thursday of every month to make sleeping bags for people who are homeless across Broome County. Photo: Courtesy of Deborah Wirag

[Episcopal News Service] Since 2017, volunteers at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Endicott, New York, have been meeting the second Thursday of every month to make sleeping bags for people who are homeless across Broome County.

“This can make a difference. It’s a great way to give back to the community,” Deborah Wirag, coordinator of St. Paul’s sleeping bag ministry, told Episcopal News Service. “And we have built a relationship [with the recipients] while making sleeping bags.”

The sleeping bags are made by cutting sheets of fabric into 7-foot squares, then joining three of them together with minimum sewing. Each piece of fabric is one layer of the sleeping bag, with a flat sheet in the middle. A portion of the sleeping bag is stuffed with a lightweight filling before the layers are tied together with knots. Wirag said the pattern comes from the Sleeping Bag Project, a national initiative that started in 1985 to help minimize discomfort for homeless people, especially during colder months.

“You don’t have to be a quilter or a seamstress; you just have to be someone who loves to help those in need,” Dorothy Bachman, a regular volunteer, told ENS. “This is something I look forward to every month.

The volunteers have collectively made about 50 sleeping bags to date. Wirag said they were unable to make many sleeping bags during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’re now operating normally.

Instructions on how to make a sleeping bag by hand. Photo: The Sleeping Bag Project

Wirag and Bachman said the ministry gets its materials through donations dropped off at St. Paul’s office. The ministry accepts flat sheets, blankets, comforters and quilts.

Once completed, the sleeping bags are donated to nearby shelters, churches and agencies, such as the Volunteers of America office in Binghamton. Volunteers will sometimes put small toiletries inside the sleeping bags before donating them.

Sometimes, agencies will contact St. Paul’s asking if any sleeping bags are available for immediate donation. In one of those instances, the ministry was able to provide sleeping bags for a family of seven whose possessions were burned in a fire underneath a bridge where they were encamped.

The Rev. John Martinichio, rector of St. Paul’s, called it a “labor of love” for the congregation.  “Everybody deserves dignity and respect. We can share the love God has given us by our acts of kindness,” Martinichio told ENS.

Homelessness is a growing concern in Broome County, especially in Binghamton, the county seat. In November 2023, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the grand opening of 27 recently renovated apartments throughout Binghamton that will provide housing for formerly homeless people. The state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s Homeless Housing and Assistance Program funded the $8.1 million development.

Martinichio said his congregation’s ministry also gives the volunteers, who are mostly older women, an opportunity to socialize and give back to their community. 

“It gives them a purpose, doing something good for somebody,” he said.

Once a sleeping bag is completed and rolled up and ready to be donated, the volunteers say a prayer. They also tuck a written prayer inside each sleeping bag.

“We need to let people know, even if they don’t know us personally, that we are there and we are a church there for others,” Wirag said.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.