Spend time with Gaye Harley, and it’s hard to imagine the ebullient nurse ever having been down on her luck. She oozes with optimism.

But when she was 13, Harley was homeless, living with her two siblings and single mom in a motel and building meals around the dented cans of food her mother, Wanda, would scrounge. “My mother must’ve had 100 recipes for beans,” recalled Harley, 57, a patient navigator at Saint Francis Healthcare Hospital in Wilmington.

“She was so strong, so positive, that she was able to lift us up on the little that we had.” Harley said. “She always told us, ‘There are always people worse off than you.’ ”

Wanda’s spirit lives on in Harley, who in late 2018 began rounding up her hospital’s operating room (OR) wraps — the oversize sheets of synthetic material in which sterilized OR instruments come packaged — and sewing them into portable mats and roomy tote bags to be distributed to people living on the streets. The mats are as useful as a barrier on the cold ground in winter as they are on overheated pavements in summer.

Tote bags and sleeping mats made from OR wraps at Saint Francis Healthcare Hospital in Wilmington.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Tote bags and sleeping mats made from OR wraps at Saint Francis Healthcare Hospital in Wilmington.

And each is tagged with a ribbon that reads “You Are Loved.”

Typically, ORs dispose of the materials. But that notion did not sit well with Harley, a passionate thrifter, former Girl Scout mom (her two children are now grown), and lifelong crafter who learned to sew at age 4. When she met with the head of the OR at Saint Francis about repurposing the wraps, she was encouraged to first get buy-in from his staff — which she promptly did.

She then put out a call to hospital colleagues for sewing help and immediately heard from Jamie Powell, Saint Francis’ informatics director and a former pediatric nurse.

“I hadn’t sewn since fifth-grade home-ec class, but as a father of two now, I really try to make sure my kids understand that we’re very fortunate, and there may be a time when we’re not,” he said. “It reinforces the idea of being appreciative of what you have. So when Gaye reached out, it was like, OK, ‘I don’t know what’s involved, but I’ll see what I can do.’ ”

Gaye Harley (left) and Jamie Powell talk about the sleeping mats and tote bags they're creating for Saint Francis Healthcare Hospital's "You Are Loved" project.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Gaye Harley (left) and Jamie Powell talk about the sleeping mats and tote bags they're creating for Saint Francis Healthcare Hospital's "You Are Loved" project.

To date, Harley and Powell have distributed about 100 mats via the people who most often interact with those on Wilmington’s streets, from hospital security guards and social workers to EMTs and those who deliver care through the Saint Clare Medical Outreach Van. They create mats in two different sizes as well as tote bags, into which they place one of the 1,500 pairs of socks Harley arranged to have donated from Bombas, the mission-driven footwear company.

Their project is more than a cuddly notion: Some figures estimate that repurposing hospital materials saves millions of dollars in the health-care industry (which produces more than 4.67 million tons of waste every year). From a sustainability perspective, efforts like You Are Loved reroute the OR materials, which are nonrecyclable, from landfills.

Saint Francis isn’t the only hospital using its OR wraps to help those in need. Indeed, Harley first learned about the activity after reading that Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden was doing it.

“At that time, one of our local shelters was closing. I thought about the influx of people who would be sleeping on the streets and said, ‘Why can’t we take this program and give others comfort?' ” Harley said. “If Camden can do it, why can’t Wilmington?”

When she contacted Lourdes staffers for pointers about how to get started, they directed her to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, Calif., which had been the Camden team’s inspiration.

Staff from Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital display mats for the homeless that they created from discarded operating room materials.
Virtua Health System Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital
Staff from Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital display mats for the homeless that they created from discarded operating room materials.

In the future, Harley and Powell hope to include additional toiletries and hygiene items in the totes, and to possibly reconfigure the mats to have a pillow-like headrest.

They’re also expanding their small team and have just convened a group that includes workers from the hospital’s mobile medical unit and even hospital COO Brandon Harvath. “One day he contacted me and said, ‘I want to do something because this is good stuff’ — now he’s on the team!” Harley said. She’s also particularly grateful to her fellow patient navigator, Joanne Strong, who helps lug the heavy bags of fabric from the OR up five flights of stairs.

On a recent afternoon at the hospital, as she demonstrated how she produces the satin-like “You Are Loved” ribbons on her label-maker, Harley summarized the mission she and Powell are so lovingly executing.

“No matter what stage we are in — repair, disrepair — I think we all need that boost sometimes," she said, "for someone to just say it’s all right, I’ve got your back, you are loved.”

To request help, or to donate time, funds, or materials, contact Gaye Harley at Saint Francis Healthcare at 302-421-4100.

Jessica Press is writer-at-large at The Philadelphia Citizen.