Marine Sgt. Brett D'Alessandro and his partner Alexa Modero started the non-profit Backpacks For Life in 2014. The couple wanted to work with homeless veterans who are struggling and don't have any knowledge of the resources available to them.
D'Alesandro and Modero came into the studios of WBGO to speak with News Director Doug Doyle about Backpacks For Life and why they've been able to help so many veterans over the years.
After his 7-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2014. Sgt. experiencing the same problems many military veterans face after deployment, he found himself without purpose and that led to several unhealthy issues.
"In Afghanistan I was a machine gunner. I was with CLB6, Combat Logistics Battalion 6th Regiment. It was a really rough deployment. With trucks we attracted IEDs (improvised explosive devices)so it was definitely a hard deployment. When I came home I really didn't know where to go or who to turn to. I was just in this fog of what is happening."
Sgt. D'Alessandro was feeling the same emptiness so many other military vets feel as they return home. Why did Brett feel that way?
"The three biggest things. The traumatic experiences, seeing people die, seeing horrific things. The second was losing my purpose. I had this high profile job. I was doing something so impactful for the community in Afghanistan and for the people who lived in Afghanistan but I also thought there was nothing out there. There wasn't a here is what you do to get better so I think those three things made it difficult to transition back."
Alexa Modero felt like she had to help her man get through the difficult times.
"I got involved before Brett deployed which was back in 2012. We met at college and starting dating. And Brett said he was volunteering to go to Afghanistan. And we he got home it was just this sort of chaos of me not knowing how to support him as a veteran, me not understanding what he had gone through, what he had seen and to a point you never will understand it. But together we tried to navigate through various organizations and resources to help Brett get back on track and that's what kind of led us to creating this organization because we felt so lost as a spouse and as a veteran that we didn't want others to feel this way.
Since that moment Modero and Sgt. D'Alessandro have made it their mission to help those veterans who find themselves with nothing but a backpack.
Modero says they've distributed more than 7500 backpacks in 19 states.
"We fill each backpack with toiletries and supplies so think of your shampoos, your soaps, but we take it a step further to include things like a first aid kit, a poncho and a reusable water bottle. We chose items of high quality. We don't accept your little hotel-sized shampoos. That's going to last you one wash if you're a homeless veteran, so we really focus on full-size quality items. We work with great partners like Bombas to bring in quality socks, and you wouldn't imagine veteran's faces light up when they look inside and they see Dr. Scholl's shoe inserts. That's really the most rewarding thing. We also cater to our female veterans because often they're overlooked. So we make sure we include cosmetic items and femine hygiene care to make them feel valued. That does so much more for the brain than you realize. We put our heart into all the items that go into each pack."
D'Alessandro says the items in the backpack have made a difference over the years and given veterans hope.
"We want to make them feel beautiful because they are beautiful. Those are our sisters and we'll do anything for them. Yes the products are great and the veterans love the products but it's also that symbolic meaning right, they resonate. You give them something of high value and good quality they feel they must be of value and high quality. We want to be there for them. Yes this backpack is our carrier to do so but it's more about that tangible being with them, talking with them and showing them that they aren't forgotten. So we ended developing our own backpack."
D'Alessandro says they hear from three to five veterans a week who are reaching out for help. Backpacks For Life's website gives more information about the backpacks, listings of various resources available, donor opportunities as well as upcoming events like the 5th Annual Backpacks For Life Golf Outing at North Jersey Country Club on April 27.
Click above to hear the entire conversation about Backpacks For Life.