By SUZANNE SWEETEN
Voice correspondent

Deedra Berkemeyer is many things to many people, a neighbor to Kay Oursler, a friend to Marilyn Matzek and a hero to the small village of Uhekule, Tanzania. Berkemeyer spent three weeks in Tanzania last Christmas and New Years teaching 20 Tanzanians how to crochet plarn (plastic yarn) mats. Berekmeyer spent a recent morning discussing her trip and sharing pictures of her travels to the women responsible for making the plarn mats here in Hot Springs Village.
Matzek and Berkemeyer are long-time friends. Matzek heads up the Village Plarn Sleeping Mat Group, an assembly of people who meet regularly in the Unitarian Universalist Church recycling plastic bags by crocheting them into sleeping mats, distributing them to Jackson House, Men’s Samaritan Ministries and United Way.
Oursler is Berkemeyer’s part-time neighbor who has lived in Uhekule, Tanzania, for the past 14 years running an orphanage “I’ve been after Deedra to come visit me for years and she finally came to see me during the holidays.”
“Because I knew of Marilyn and her work and because I knew I was going to Africa, a thought just happened, Marilyn, Kay, it just clicked,” Berkemeyer who had never crocheted set about learning how to make the plarn mats.
“Everybody was just so helpful,” she said. Jackie Wolf gave me a crash course in her house and I would do a little and take it to her and she would tear it out and make me do it over again and of course, I visited the classes.”
Berkemeyer flew to Tanzania with a 40 pound suitcase full of plastic bags, rolled plarn balls and crochet hooks. “Ms. Kay Purpur put each stage of the process into a baggy for me.
“Africa is such a beautiful place with its fields and rolling hills,” Berkemeyer’s voice contained a bit of wonder.
Kay Oursler arranged a class of 15-20 people interested in learning about making plarn mats and a Swahili interpreter to help Berkemeyer teach. “Once they caught on they were gone. They learned to cut the plastic, string them, roll them into balls and then they learned to hook. I told them their options were endless.
“The Villagers could use the mats in their own home because they sleep on dirt floors and they can make them to sell in the nearby town. The women who work in the fields all day can make a mat to lay their baby on while they hoe.”
Berkemeyer went into Africa to visit an old friend and found herself in love with the entire Uhekule village.
A consummate professional, Berkemeyer lauds Matsek and the Village Plarn Sleeping Mat Group who hopefully realize how far their mission’s outreach has traveled, into Africa.  
For more information on the Village Plarn Sleeping Mat Group contact Matzek at mwilkeningm@gmail.com.