When U.S. Marine Brett D’Alessandro came home in 2013 after having served seven months with a combat logistics unit in Helmond Province, Afghanistan, he was physically unscathed but psychologically wounded.
Just 21, D’Alessandro had interrupted his college studies in Rhode Island to enlist so he could help Afghans defend themselves against extremists.
But when he got home and found himself detached from his military moorings, he felt adrift. “I felt my purpose — being there for others — was gone,” he said.
D’Alessandro’s wife, Alexa Modero said she had also been unprepared for the rockiness of D’Alessandro’s return. Her grandfather, “the epitome of a salty Marine,” she said, had also been in the corp, but Modero remembers D’Alessandro’s initial period back as “a challenging time for both of us.”
It took a chance meeting D’Alessandro had with a homeless veteran to help both D’Alessandro and Modero find their footing. D’Alessandro collected some basic necessities, put them in a backpack, and gave it to the man. A few days later, he ran into the same fellow with his son, who promptly thanked him for the assistance.
“To see another veteran struggling to get by made me realize, ‘hey, it’s not just me who needs help,” D’Alessandro said.
So, in early 2014 Brett and Alexa partnered to collect backpacks and fill them with water bottles, toiletries, a bedroll, and materials directing them to financial advising services, mental health counseling, housing resources, job opportunities, and other services for veterans.
To make a personal connection with ex-servicemen and women, Brett said he always shared his own experience with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I’d tell them it’s like boarding a bus where we were all riding together on a journey to recovery,” he recalled.
The couple’s first foray as a volunteer outreach team took place in September 2014 with Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, a nonprofit that advocates for and aids at-risk and homeless veterans in that state. Brett and Alexa gave out their first backpacks at a weekend event attended by more than 400 veterans who got eye checkups, haircuts and other support services.
One month later, the couple formed their own nonprofit, Backpacks for Life, and in 2017, they moved to Jersey City where, Modero said, they were excited to learn that Mayor Steve Fulop is a Marine Corps veteran himself. Modero credits Stacey Flanagan, the city’s director of Health & Human Services, Juliet Foster, an Air Force veteran and director of the city’s Division of Veterans’ Affairs, and Catholic Community Services, which operates St. Lucy’s Shelter in Jersey City, with supporting the couple’s new efforts.
Brett and Alexa have traveled to 27 states from California to Massachusetts where they’ve teamed up with existing support groups to distribute 9,000 backpacks and provide peer mentoring to veterans and their families.
They might identify the paperwork someone needs to qualify for housing — or where someone can find a free cooking program. Finding and accessing these opportunities can become overwhelming to veterans, who may also be struggling with mental health issues, Alexa said. “The priority is navigating resources to ensure a quicker intake process.”
Alexa said she’s noticed an alarming uptick in the number of women homeless veterans.
Within the Hudson County area, the couple figure they’ve handed out more than 1,000 backpacks while coaching their clients how to get treatment for substance abuse, locate emergency shelter, apply for rent vouchers, keep their old cars running, and even get their pets shots and licenses. And they’ve referred vets to the NJ Reentry, a Jersey City-based nonprofit corporation that counsels those with criminal records as to how to secure employment.
To finance Backpacks for Life, D’Alessandro and Modero rely on grants and donations plus an annual golf fundraiser. Annual costs amount to $150,000, a small portion of which, they say, represents administrative expenses. When they’re not out on a mission, Alexa works for the Veterans Future Lab at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn, and Brett is a longshoreman checker in Bayonne.
For its efforts, Backpacks for Life was one of three groups this year to receive a $25,000 Heroes to CEOs grant from Bob Evans Farms.