Virginia Tech student Dayani Harapanahalli stacking the waterproof material used to create the backpacks. Photo by Lily Mott.
Virginia Tech student Dayani Harapanahalli stacking the waterproof material used to create the backpacks. Photo by Lily Mott.

Virginia Tech industrial design students joined UTS Systems employees in Fairfield on Friday to create 50 backpacks for people struggling with addiction and homelessness. 

“The idea of this backpack is it would be stocked with things that meet some immediate need, particularly of those who are housing insecure,” said Mary Beth Dunkenberger, associate director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance.

The backpacks are a part of Virginia Tech’s Connection 2 Care program, which started before the coronavirus pandemic but ramped back up this fall.

Dunkenberger and her team at Virginia Tech met with the university’s industrial design faculty, who got their students involved in researching and designing proposals for the backpacks.

Students met with first responders, community members and homeless people with drug addictions to design the backpacks. The industrial students also toured the UTS Systems headquarters in Fairfield. They received feedback on their proposals from UTS manufacturers and created a final design of the backpack for UTS to produce. 

Six Virginia Tech students volunteered alongside 10 UTS employees to sew and weld the waterproof backpacks. UTS Systems in Fairfield usually makes tents and other shelters for military bases but used the day to create backpacks instead.

Laura York was a graduate student at Virginia Tech before becoming a research associate in the university’s Institute for Policy and Governance and working on the Connection 2 Care project.

“I now get to see other students get involved in things at a younger age than even I did,” York said. “The experience they’re going to have and be able to take into their careers is amazing. I’m excited for them, probably more than they are.”

The backpacks are made from waterproof material and were designed to have extra storage space. Photo by Lily Mott.

Now that the backpacks are finished, Connection 2 Care will give them to 50 people in Roanoke and the surrounding Southwest Virginia communities.

But the project isn’t finished yet for the Virginia Tech students, who plan to design and make more backpacks. “These are going to go out,” said Dayani Harapanahalli, a junior industrial design student at Virginia Tech. “People are going to use them and then we’re going to conduct user research and interviews after that to see what’s working and what’s not working.”

Lily Mott

Lily Mott is a multimedia journalist studying politics and journalism at Washington and Lee University. She serves as a reporter and anchor for the university's broadcast, The Rockbridge Report, and writes...