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Detroit activist wants you to munch on potato chips to help the homeless

Darlene A. White
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit - Eradajere Oleita has an odd request: Eat potato chips to help keep the homeless warm during the winter months.

After eating the chips, the environmental activist from Detroit wants people to donate emptied, foil-lined chip bags of all brands and sizes to the Chip Bag Project, which will be used to make sleeping bags for the homeless in the city. 

“People are going to throw their chip bags in the trash anyway, so they should just give them all to me,” said Oleita, a 25-year-old Oakland University student who is a Global Studies major with a focus in environmental science.

Artist Erada Oleita of Detroit wraps ups up and secures one of the finished sleeping bags in Detroit, Michigan on February 20, 2021. The sleeping bags are made to be rolled up into a small bundle for easy carrying.

Oleita and her family moved to Michigan from Nigeria as a sophomore in high school for a better life. Environmental activism has been her focal point. She is a former AmeriCorps Green School Coordinator for the Youth Energy Squad, a program through the Detroit nonprofit Eco Works that educates youth on making their communities more sustainable. She also educates others on sustainable land and water use as a Land and Water Works Coalition Ambassador for the nonprofit Detroit Future City.

“I want to bring more consciousness on how we use things and how we view people,” Oleita said. “That is what I want people to take away from the Chip Bag Project.”

Volunteer Daniel Geanes of Detroit tests one the sleeping bags for durability in Detroit, Michigan on February 20, 2021. Geanes also does the graphics and social media content for the Chip Bags Project.

Oleita says her project raises awareness on two fronts — recycling and helping people who are less fortunate. 

“I want to reduce waste,” she said. “We can easily raise money to buy sleeping bags, and that might be easier, but we are dedicated to making an impact not only socially, but environmentally.”

Oleita came up with the idea last December when she watched a Facebook video of a woman in England who presented a tutorial for viewers on how to iron potato chips bags together to make a blanket. 

But Oleita wanted to take the blanket idea a step further.

“After watching that video, I wanted in,” she said. “The chips bags are great insulators. They reflect your own body heat. The chip sleeping bags are waterproof, light-weight, and easy to carry around. When you are dealing with fleece blankets outdoors, they tend to get wet and really can’t be used.”

The sleeping bags are not the average fuzzy blanket. They actually mimic emergency blankets. The chips bags are ironed together and lined with foam and padding from old coats to provide a cushioned, insulated sleeping bag. 

It takes 150 to 300 potato chip bags to make a single sleeping bag, and it takes about four hours to make one, said Oleita. 

The Chip Bag Project volunteers, from left, Kayla Rice, Olisa Thompson, Erada Oleito, Daniel Geanes, and Allante Steele meet at a shared work space to prepare the donated chip bags to turn into sleeping bags for the homeless in Detroit, Michigan on February 20, 2021. Also pictured is Thompson’s daughter Sage Thompson.

Before assembling the sleeping bags, she takes an entire day to sanitize all of the chip bags. 

“It’s best for me to use those really large chip bags, because it makes the process go by faster when I make them,” she said. “But I will take anything. I don’t discriminate.”

Oleita’s goal is to collect 10,000 chip bags to make 60 sleeping bags by the end of this winter. So far, she has collected almost 4,000 chip bags. 

To help Oleita with her mission, she has a team of people and a pool of 50 volunteers working with her. 

A sleeping bag made of potato chip bags for The Chip Bag Project.

“This is such a cool idea,” said Alexis Emmanuel, 21, of Detroit. “I was just talking to my mom about ways we can help the homeless this winter. It’s freezing outside you know, so I’m making sure I collect every single chip bag, Hot Cheetos bags, any bag that I can find, so I can help her out.” 

1Downey’s Potato Chips General Manager Kali Bagley of Ferndale drops off chip bag from her company to donate to the Chip Bag Project in Detroit, Michigan on February 20, 2021. Bagley’s family owns the Michigan based company.

Oleita said she is in the process of partnering with a local organization to distribute the sleeping bags around Detroit, but she is unable to disclose what organization she plans to work with until later this month. 

“The blankets will go to anyone that is in need in the city,” she said. “I’m not passing judgment. If you need one, take one.”

In addition to empty chip bags, Oleita is accepting donations of new and used sleeping bags, umbrellas, socks, shoes, hats and jackets to create “emergency packs” (new jackets will be given to those in need, and old jackets will be used to line the sleeping bags). She’s also accepting monetary donations, which go toward purchasing new items to pass out.

Lamaria Grace, 28, chief operations officer of the Chip Bag Project, says she’s excited to see the changes in Detroit. 

“I feeling optimistic, because this is a purpose-driven project,” she said. “When we distribute these bags, I’m hoping we will see a positive change in the community for the homeless and less fortunate.”

To donate to the Chip Bag Project, visit www.eradaoleita.com