Unsung Heroes: Rosemary Cleaves bags our appreciation

Rosemary Cleaves was fed up with the ubiquitous plastic produce bags found in just about every market, large and small.

So, she set out to build a better bag — one that’s lightweight, washable and sturdy enough to hold a healthy serving of rutabagas or lemons or melons. Using the type of netting similar to what bridal veils are made of, she stitched up a prototype and — voilà! — an environmentally friendly, reusable produce bag was born.

That qualifies Rosemary — a retired portfolio manager who lives on the Nipomo Mesa — as an entrepreneur, to be sure.

But here’s what also makes her an unsung hero in our book: She decided to market the bags and donate the proceeds to charity.

She chose Womenade, a local, grassroots charity that serves as a support group for families in need — whether it’s providing diapers and baby clothes to a new mom or helping an out-of-work family pay dental bills.

Right now, Rosemary’s bags are available for sale, at $1.50 each, at JJ’s Market on the Mesa. Rosemary hopes to expand sales to other local markets in the future.

We hope she does — the reusable bags are a logical next step for shoppers who want more environmentally friendly products.

While plastic produce bags are recyclable, market managers suspect many of them wind up in the garbage. That’s one of the reasons that Gordie Foy, owner of JJ’s, liked the idea of offering the reusable bags.

“We try to do as much as we can to keep things out of the landfills,” said Foy, who says the bags have been selling even better than he anticipated.

Rosemary makes all the bags herself — she estimates that it takes her a couple of minutes to make a single bag. That’s impressive enough, yet that’s not all that’s on her volunteer résumé.

She continues to serve as president of a nonprofit organization, A Hand Up, that she helped found in Hartford, Conn. She worked there in the insurance industry for many years, and wanted to do something to help the large homeless population in Hartford.

A Hand Up supplies basic necessities — furniture, pots and pans, bedding and towels, dishes and silverware — to homeless families that succeed in finding a place to live, but often lack the essentials to outfit their bare living quarters.

Rosemary coordinates deliveries and other activities long distance, through e-mails, phone calls and twice-a-year trips to Hartford.

She’s found plenty to do in SLO County as well. In addition to her participation in Womenade, she volunteers at the St. Barnabas’ Thrift Shop; serves on the St. Barnabas Church vestry, or board of directors; volunteers at the Clark Center as an usher; and she teaches tai chi at Cypress Ridge Fitness.

Yet she shrugs off praise.

“I think those of us that do these types of things do it because we see a need and try to fill it,” she wrote us in an e-mail.

Reluctant hero, yes, but a hero just the same.

Rosemary not only sees a need for change — whether it’s to stop polluting the environment with plastic bags or to outfit the apartments of needy families to prevent them from slipping back into homelessness — she also does something about it.

We’re proud to recognize Rosemary Cleaves as our unsung hero for March.

Editor's note: This is another in a series of monthly Editorials celebrating the unsung heroes in our community.

By highlighting individuals who unselfishly apply their energy and skills to lighten the burden of others, we hope, first, to offer these community heroes the appreciation they deserve; second, to let those who could use the help know of available resources; and, third, to inspire others who are able to help in whatever way possible.

If you would like to nominate an unsung hero, contact us at letters@thetribunenews.com.