#MadeInRVA: Taaluma Totes giving back in more ways than one

VICTORIA, Va. (WRIC) — In a small manufacturing site in Victoria, Virginia employees are working hard to create bags that will travel the world and “carry a country.”

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The backpacks are called Taaluma Totes.

The employees are from community action agency STEPS, Inc., which is headquartered in Farmville.

“What you see in our plant in Victoria is a fully-integrated environment,” said Sharon Harrup, CEO and President of STEPS.

People with disabilities work alongside those without to create the totes. Harrup said it is an opportunity that some otherwise might not have.

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“What we find is that the value added to people with disabilities is phenomenal,” she said. “This is not only their place of employment, but it becomes part of their social network.”

She said everyone benefits working side by side. Those without disabilities build their compassion, understanding and ability to advocate in their own communities.

tt9Taaluma Totes was founded by Virginia Tech grads and world travelers Jack Dufour and Alley Heffern.

The owners travel to foreign countries looking for striking fabric before bringing it back to Virginia where adults with disabilities help turn the fabric into travel backpacks.Then, the duo provides microloans for people in the country where the fabric was found.

Harrup said the young entrepreneurs connected with her organization at a critical time.

The STEPS operation started in 1997. At one point, the facility was making 100,000 jackets for the Department of Defense, but the contract ended in 2014. Dufour, Heffern and another private manufacturer stepped in and filled that void.

“We were able to keep the plant open. We had to shrink down, and so it reduced the number of employees we had in the operation, but it allowed us to keep our doors open and provide very needed services,” Harrup said.

The travel backpacks the STEPS employees put together are made from colorful fabric that the Taaluma Totes website describes as, “the craziest cotton and wackiest wool a traveler can find.”

“All of that fabric comes here to Victoria, where we spread it, cut it, manufacture it, trim it, pack it and ship it,” Harrup said.

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Eventually, the products are shipped off and then toted along to adventures spanning the globe, showing employees in the small town their opportunities are limitless.

“There is the ability for people with disabilities to do anything that they choose to do in life. It’s just really up to those of us that are working alongside them or working to advocate for them to open those doors,” Harrup said.

Taaluma Totes is not only opening doors in Virginia. Twenty-percent of profits from each tote gets micro loaned to farmers and small businesses in the country the tote’s fabric originated. They repay the loan when they’re able to, and Taaluma Totes buys more fabric for the next tote. World travelers can even bring back their own fabric to have a tote made.

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The totes will be part of the 37th Annual Farmville Christmas Show: Shopping with a Cause. The event happens this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 100 Industrial Park Road in Farmville. For more details about the event, visit the Facebook page by clicking HERE.

Harrup said anyone is welcome to tour their operations. To learn more about STEPS, Inc., click HERE.

Click HERE to learn more about Taaluma Totes. Search #CarryaCountry on Instagram and Twitter to see how others are traveling with their Taaluma Totes.

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