Virginia Tech students design backpacks for people experiencing homelessness, addiction

The manufacturing company UTS Systems in Rockbridge County helped make the backpacks

ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY, Va. – Virginia Tech students are gaining critical real-world work experience while making a difference – they’re designing and assembling weather-proof backpacks for people experiencing homelessness and those suffering from addiction.

Each backpack will have a foldable tarp and a first aid kit, plus much-needed supplies, including hygiene items, sunscreen, hats, and gloves.

The backpacks are the brainchild of industrial engineering students and the university’s Connection 2 Care project. It was made possible by a $50,000 grant which was funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Virginia Tech’s Industrial Design Program Chair Martha Sullivan said that over the past three years, students have adapted the prototype while gaining real-life work experience along the way.

They reached out to manufacturing company UTS Systems in Rockbridge County, which makes portable, weather-proof shelters for the military. UTS agreed to help manufacture the backpacks, working with students to tweak the design.

“We brought all of those ideas here to UTS and they went over them and they said, ‘Oh, this will work and this won’t and this isn’t going to work on our machines, but this would be a great option,” said Sullivan.

On Friday, students like Dayani Harapanahalli, finally got to see the backpacks come to life.

“It’s really cool knowing that what we do might have an impact on somebody else, not just ourselves,” said Harapanahalli.

UTS seamstress and supervisor, Nada Simpson, said she’s happy to be a part of this project.

“It makes you feel warm inside,” said Simpson.

The backpacks will also include Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

“It absolutely saves lives,” said Lisa Via, the manager at the Drop-In Center, where the backpacks will be distributed later this month. “People that are going to be using these backpacks often live together in a community. So having that Narcan available to them to share with their peers, should an overdose occur, will be amazing.”

Via said these backpacks will lighten the load for people in need.

“It’s amazing,” said Via. “This is a community that’s come together to serve underserved people.”

The students will continue their research by interviewing the individuals who receive the backpacks to get feedback on the effectiveness and any changes that would improve the product.

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