Home Culture Backpacks For Life: Saving Lives One Veteran at a Time

Backpacks For Life: Saving Lives One Veteran at a Time

by Gabriela Lachapel O'Brien
0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

Backpacks for Life is a local non-profit that started back in 2014 shortly after co-founder, Sgt. Brett D’Alessandro, a Verona native, returned stateside following a deployment to Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps. In the midst of his own challenges with readjustment to civilian life, Brett encountered a homeless veteran on the street in the middle of a cold winter night and realized he wasn’t alone with his struggle. He went home, stuffed the backpack from his service with socks, sweaters, and other essentials to bring to the veteran, and when he delivered it, he realized that act of kindness was the lifeline they needed. Since then, the New Jersey-based organization has delivered over 7,800 backpacks in twenty-six states and touched the lives of thousands of veterans all across the U.S. We had the pleasure of chatting with Alexa Modero, who has not only been Brett’s partner since before his career in the military but a co-founder of Backpacks for Life. 

Backpacks for Life veterans nonprofit

^ Bret + Alexa

The Ivy at Chatham

(Photo credit: @backpacksforlife)

MG: How did Backpacks for Life get started?

Alexa Modero: We actually had no intention of starting a nonprofit but the idea was really born from our personal experience after Brett returned from his tour abroad. He was experiencing a loss of purpose and asking himself a lot of questions about what he was going to do next. We were both shocked how difficult that time was because we spent so much time preparing for service, we expected the same kind of support during this transition.

After Brett brought the backpack to the veteran and noticed him a few days later at the same location, Brett decided to pull over and chat with him. At that moment, Brett felt such a huge sigh of relief because he understood he wasn’t the only one having a hard time reacclimating, but also because he knew he could help. He called me right after and asked if we could start putting together backpacks to hand out to veterans filled with supplies, clothing, and helpful resources. 

Backpacks for Life veterans nonprofit

(Photo credit: @backpacksforlife)

MG: What kinds of things are in the backpacks and how has that evolved?

AM: The first backpacks we distributed were created with funds raised through a GoFundMe™ page.  Looking back at these memories we laugh now because they [the backpacks] were neon green, made from very cheap materials, and just had our logo slapped on the side. While the backpack itself has significantly evolved, we have since developed our proprietary backpack, the contents have pretty much remained the same. There are high-quality, full-sized toiletries; a first-aid kit; supplies; clothing; and pamphlets for helpful resources. It was really important these were quality products because the veterans saw their worth reflected in the items within the backpack, and that could mean all the difference in someone’s outlook for the future.  

Read More: How EWAAB is Encouraging Women in STEM

Backpacks for Life veterans nonprofit

(Photo credit: @backpacksforlife)

MG: How does the organization go beyond supplying veterans with a backpack?

AM: We always say, “it’s more than a backpack.” When I approach a veteran, whether that’s in a shelter or on the street, the backpack is just the first line of defense for breaking down barriers. Most people are not inclined to ask for help, so we would simply ask them to tell us their stories. After only a few conversations we realized the organization’s true mission was in establishing a deeper connection and understanding how we could help beyond the supplies in the backpack.

As people who have had similar experiences and could relate to the veterans, we found ourselves in a special position to really make a difference in this community, whether it be helping someone find mental health services, supporting a person trying to escape an abusive environment, or someone who is on the verge of losing their home. This is where our coaching and mentorship program evolved and it has been the backbone of Backpacks for Life for the better part of five years. 

Each veteran’s experience is unique depending on everything from the branch you served in, to the length of service, to the matter in which you were discharged.  not claim to be experts with respect to each situation but because we receive phone calls from all over the country, we’ve developed a network of service organizations, other non-profits, and government agencies, etc. that we can partner with to provide personalized help tailored to the veteran’s needs. 

Backpacks for Life veterans nonprofit

(Photo credit: @backpacksforlife)

MG: What’s been the most difficult part of growing Backpacks for Life?

AM: Because we are a non-profit, we are constantly fundraising to be able to provide the benefits that we offer to veterans completely free of charge. Transparency with our supporters is one of the most difficult responsibilities we have but also the most critical to our operation. Our partners and donors want to see the impact of their contribution, so we are always taking photos and videos, and growing our social media presence to achieve that. We are also entrepreneurs at heart, and on the younger side of other people/organizations in this space, so we often find ourselves challenging inefficiencies and having to prove ourselves to others. 

MG: Are there any businesses in this space that you’d like to partner with in the future or perhaps have already in the works?

AM: We pride ourselves on highlighting other veteran-owned organizations, so for our recent annual golf outing fundraiser we partnered with The Mobile Cigar Lounge, which will be hand-rolling cigars at the event, and Backward Flag Brewing, which had partnered with in the past to brew a custom beer, among other amazing sponsors. What’s great about this community is that we all have each other’s back and support one another. I don’t know a single veteran-owned organization that doesn’t have some sort of give-back component so it’s f a win-win to support any veteran-owned business that also helps a veteran in need.

Backpacks for Life veterans nonprofit

(Photo credit: @backpacksforlife)

MG: Can you share a story that had a profound impact on you?

AM: There was a female Navy veteran I met, who was the mother of a five-year-old boy, and she was dealing with a domestic violence issue but was unsure if she would take any action or what her next steps were going to be. A few days later she texted me saying she was in danger, and without hesitation, I told her to come over to my apartment. She was looking to get to Washington State because she had family there but needed help figuring it out. I realized the gravity of her fear and the responsibility of having someone’s life in your hands at that moment.

Brett and I put her and her son in a hotel room for two days while we mapped her travel route and arranged accommodations, had medical records transferred to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington from New Jersey, and even coordinated with the police to ensure she was within the bounds of the law at all times. She has since reached out to us because now that she is thriving in her new home, with a loving partner and participating in various veteran interest groups, she is again ready to serve by helping another veteran like Backpacks for Life helped her. 

MG: What impact did COVID-19 have on operations?

AM:  We do all of our fundraising in person, so it was difficult to execute all of our programmings. Shelters were closed to visitors, which isolated a community that thrives off being with others, and only exacerbated the pool of at-risk veterans while adding to the physical and mental stress everyone has experienced.

We knew we couldn’t just shut our doors and had to continue to support our veterans in whatever ways they needed. We ended up launching a campaign to make masks and were able to contribute over 10,000 masks to veterans and service providers, in addition to more than 105,000 isolation gowns for veteran healthcare workers in the height of the PPE shortage. 

See More: A Guide to Mental Health Therapists in Montclair

Backpacks for Life veterans nonprofit

 ^ Teaming up with Newark fitness gym, Iron Bound Boxing

(Photo credit: @backpacksforlife)

MG: What’s next for Backpacks for Life?

AM: We have two backpacks that we design and produce, one of which is the Bowery Pack, and we’re expecting to have it back in stock this fall, so we’re looking forward to that. Our other primary focus right now is continuing to develop Roger, which launched last November.

Roger is a centralized database of services available to New Jersey veterans and their families that’s been three years in the making. After years and years of conversations, we realized a product like this was a big gap in the current system. Now veterans can look up a provider, find out if they qualify, and know where and how to reach the organization all in one place. Again, this is completely free to veterans and their families. 

Backpacks for Life veterans nonprofit

MG: How can people get involved with Backpacks for Life?

AM: We are always looking for more volunteers, especially with the new shipment of backpacks coming, we will need help with packing at our facility in Fairfield. Backpacks for Life and Dreams Can Happen are sponsoring the Annual Bocce Ball Tournament coming up on October 2nd in Verona Park, and there are sponsorship opportunities and volunteer slots available. Donations can be made via our website and following us across our social media platforms is also very helpful. 

Alexa’s parting thought was, “a homeless veteran can look like anyone, aside from the person living on the street, someone can be living out of their car or couch surfing with friends. When you come across a veteran in need of assistance, thank them for their service and offer to help by providing food, pointing them in the direction of a shelter, and most importantly, connecting them to resources like Backpacks for Life.” 

also appears in

0 comment