Backpacks For Life: How One Organization Is Helping Homeless and At-Risk Veterans Get Back on Their Feet

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Posted: Feb 26, 2019 1:00 PM
Backpacks For Life: How One Organization Is Helping Homeless and At-Risk Veterans Get Back on Their Feet

Source: Backpacks For Life

It all started with a backpack.

One cold day in Rhode Island, as he made his way to a doctor's appointment, military veteran Sergeant Brett D'Alessandro spotted a homeless veteran with a sign asking for help. Thinking quickly, Brett went back to his motel, filled a backpack with warmer layers, and gave it to the man. The two made some small talk, but not much came of their encounter. Three days later, Brett saw the same veteran again. But this time, something was different. The homeless veteran had his son with him.

Seeing the boy and his father, Brett stopped a second time. As he got out of his car, the little boy approached him and said, "Thank you so much for the backpack. I no longer have to go to school carrying my books in my hands."

Then the boy's father spoke. "Thank you so much for the warmer layers; they'll keep my wife and the homeless shelter warm," he said gratefully.

This one small, decisive act of kindness was the beginning of an organization that has supported and continues to help thousands of homeless veterans in need.

Alexa and Brett's Story

Brett D'Alessandro, Founder and President of Backpacks For Life, and Alexa Modero, Founder and Vice President of Backpacks For Life, first met in college at the University of Rhode Island. At the time, Brett was in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves, and while attending classes, was attached to a unit based in North Carolina, which then deployed to Camp Leatherneck, a forward operating base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

During his deployment, Brett worked with a motor team unit tasked with retrograding smaller bases throughout the province. If any equipment or supplies were of value, it came back with his unit to Camp Leatherneck. If not, it was handed over to the Afghan army.

After coming home from his tour overseas, it took time for Brett to re-acclimate to normal life. As Brett and Alexa described, it was a "rough deployment."

"We got together right before Brett deployed," Alexa told Townhall. "We spent the first year of our relationship apart. But when he came home, we saw just how quickly he was falling off the tracks and just struggling to get back to normal life."

"You know [the military] train[s] you so well to go fight and go to deploy for your country," she continued. "But when you come home, you're missing so many key elements."

But once Brett helped the homeless veteran's family, he realized he wasn't alone in his struggles and knew he wanted to give back and have an impact on his fellow brothers and sisters.

"At that point, I had three big major things that kinda popped up into my head, almost like an 'Aha' moment," Brett recounted.

"One was kind of like a selfish thing, where I was like, 'Wow I'm not alone,'" he said. "I felt very relieved in a sense that I wasn't the only one going through this, and it wasn't just me, but there were other veterans from other eras and other wars. I knew that it wasn't just me. That was a huge sigh of relief."

While realizing he wasn't the only veteran going through a difficult time, Brett's second thought was that these veterans often have families, families that feel the weight of the veteran's battle with mental illness or homelessness too.

"I knew it wasn't just the veteran going through this," Brett explained. "It's the whole family. If a house burns down, you don't just focus on one side and build only one side of the house. You have to focus on the whole house if you want to get the veteran, quote, unquote, 'rehabilitated.'" 

Brett knew it was necessary not just to educate the veterans, but to educate these veterans' families as well. "You have to educate the family, the spouse, about what's happening or what's going to happen or how to deal with things, so it's much more effective for the veteran," he told Townhall.

The third thing that came to mind for Brett was why veterans were homeless and why the suicide rate for veterans or active duty members was so high. Why were these veterans not getting the help and care they desperately needed?

"It wasn't necessarily because of the lack of resources," Brett explained. "Don't get me wrong, I'd love a million more resources, but that wasn't the issue. It was the lack of know-how navigating through the resources."

After his encounter, Brett called Alexa on the phone, saying he had an idea.

"It kind of just happened all based on that encounter, and that was in 2014," Alexa said.

Backpacks For Life was born.

More Than Just A Backpack

Backpacks For Life is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving thousands of veterans across the country, whether they are homeless or not. By partnering with local organizations in 13 states, Backpacks For Life provides specially made backpacks filled with toiletries and resource information to help veterans survive the streets and get back up on their feet.

Before Brett and Alexa could begin their mission, they first needed to figure out where the best place to start was. Though many people have the right intentions when trying to help veterans, they don't always address the root of their struggles.

"People are like, 'Let's give them housing, 'Let's give them a car,' 'Let's get them a job,'" Brett told Townhall. "You have to look at the underlying issues of why don't they have a car, why are they homeless, and that's kind of what we really started to focus on and tackle those before the housing," he explained. "We wanted to work with the vets that were on the streets, that were homeless, that were struggling, that didn't have any know-how or knowledge of the resources."

The first step for Backpacks For Life in helping a veteran get the support and care they need is giving them hope, and there's a good reason for that.

"Before you rehabilitate someone you have to instill hope in them," Brett said. "And that sounds kind of silly, like, 'What is hope? It's not an actual tangible thing.' But if you don't instill hope or make them have the will or the want to get better, none of these resources are possible."

After befriending veterans and restoring the hope they desperately need by showing them their lives can get better, Alexa and Brett give them their specially designed "Bowery Pack."

Handmade in North Carolina, by vets, for vets, the "Bowery Pack" provides everything homeless veterans need to survive on the streets. Initially, Alexa and Brett would buy backpacks in bulk to fill with toiletries. But while homeless veterans did benefit from the supplies, the store-bought bags didn't always fulfill their specific needs. 

To meet those needs, Alexa and Brett talked to thousands of homeless veterans, took their suggestions, and created a backpack that would best serve them. Alexa and Brett's patented pack comes with multiple built-in features, including a lock and cable to secure it to a bedpost, a cell foam collapsible sleep mat that helps prevent hypothermia from lying on the ground, a reflective material that allows drivers to see veterans at night, and a detachable toiletry kit, among other features.

But Brett and Alexa's assistance doesn't just stop with the "Bowery Pack" and telling veterans where they can go for help. Though a homeless veteran may know about a particular resource, it's often difficult for them to navigate paperwork and provide the proper documentation to receive the care they need. This can leave the veteran helpless as the system bounces them from resource to resource in an endless cycle which Brett has coined the "wagon wheel of resource death."

"We're not going to be like, 'Oh, here are some resources,'" Brett chuckled. "We'll literally bring them to appointments, help them fill out paperwork. We've had a bunch of vets just come over to our place, and we'll sit on the computer and fill out all of the paperwork, fill out all the applications, to make sure everything's smooth."

"A lot of times veterans are unsure what programs they qualify for, if they're eligible, what supporting documents they need," Alexa added. "We don't just hand a veteran a backpack and say, 'Good luck. See you later.' We try to be there to guide them through the processes."

"When you're dealing with mental health issues, perhaps losing a job or a home," Alexa explained, "it's really hard to take all that on by yourself."

Brett and Alexa also take the time to follow up with these organizations to ensure all the necessary information is submitted correctly. They also help pay for any fees that may arise.

"We help pay for little fees and stuff, to make sure that ball continues to roll and make sure that they've done all they can," they stated. The goal is to prevent having the veteran's care delayed "because of a lack of communication."

But most importantly for Brett and Alexa, through this process, they ensure to treat the veterans they are helping like humans rather than numbers, as a lot of systems in place are missing a human element.

"We're there to first and foremost treat these veterans and their spouses, their family, like they're humans," Alexa said. "A lot of the systems in place, while they're great programs, a lot of it's very automated and sort of just makes a veteran a number," she continued. "And we really try to focus on making sure they understand that we know they're a person. That takes away a lot of the intimidation factor for them."

While Brett served in the military, Alexa did not. But this isn't some drawback; it's an asset.

"As a spouse role, I'm able to work more comfortably with spouses, and I also work really closely with our female veterans who might just be more comfortable speaking with me because I'm a woman," Alexa stated. "I think it's to our advantage that we have both viewpoints."

Though Brett holds the title of President of Backpacks For Life, he made it clear that Alexa "basically does 99 percent" and "runs the organization full-time," adding that she "works with the veterans' kids or their spouse or if the veteran is a female."

"It's funny, you know, she's not in the military, but she probably knows more of the military jargon, the resources out there than probably any other veteran that's been in," Brett said laughing. "It's always funny when she goes up to these meetings, and you got these older generation vets, and then there's this girl sitting there, and she stands up with authority and kills it. Giving out 6,000 backpacks and coaching hundreds of homeless vets, all of that has to do with Alexa." 

When asked if there was a particular story of a veteran benefitting from the work of Backpacks For Life that had an impact on them, Alexa shared the story of Rita, a female veteran who was trying to move across the country, back home to the East Coast.

Rita didn't have a home at first, but when she found one, Backpacks For Life, in partnership with other organizations, completely furnished it for her.

Sometimes veterans like Rita have housing, but they don't always have the means to make it a home.

"They have housing, but they're living on the ground in their rooms, completely empty," Brett stated.

Backpacks For Life didn't stop there either. Rita had a dream of developing an app and came to Alexa and Brett for help. The two were able to connect her with someone who would be able to give her the marketing advice she needed that would allow the development of her app to continue.

If a veteran needs something specific, Brett and Alexa go out of their way to find the resources they will need.

"There are hundreds of organizations from prenatal care, from peer-to-peer mentorship, there are psychologists that we know that can talk to vets on the phone...suits for vets, there's a place that does weddings for vets," Brett listed off to Townhall. "It really depends on the veteran's situation, and then we'll implement the resources according to what they need and/or who they need to talk to."

But the "cherry on top" for Rita's story came two to three months later, Alexa said. To her and Brett's surprise, Rita sent them two award statues, thanking them for all of their help and support.

"Here's a woman who's trying to get back up on her feet and took the time out of her day to give us an award, which is the last thing we need," Alexa said. "We're just happy to see her succeed. So that was a big, big, impactful moment for me."

Finding Veterans and Getting Involved

Sadly, there's no shortage of veterans in need.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), veterans make up 11 percent of the adult homeless population. NCHV also notes that another 1.4 million veterans "are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing."

Thanks to the work of Backpacks For Life, veterans are contacting the organization all of the time. If veterans don't reach out to the organization directly, law enforcement and first responders do. These first responders relay important information to the veterans within their communities or Backpacks For Life meets with them.

As Brett described to Townhall, Backpacks For Life will supply members of law enforcement with backpacks to give to the homeless veterans in their communities. The organization also participates in Stand Down Events, where veterans that are homeless or at risk of being homeless "can come to receive information about veteran organizations and resources for things like financial aid, legal assistance, toiletries, clothing and more."

Alexa and Brett are looking to expand the distribution of their backpack as well. To do that, they will need to continue partnering with local organizations across the country that are familiar with their immediate communities.

"We link up with organizations out there that already know the area and the logistics around that area for years, and we give them the backpack, but we also inform them of how to have a supply and toiletry drive," Brett explained.

"We'll let the community get involved, we want to spread awareness, so,'Let's give them the backpack,'" he continued. "We give them a list of how to conduct a supply or toiletry drive, and they'll get the community involved."

"We want to equip other veteran service organizations with our backpack to serve veterans in their area with pertinent resource information," Alexa added.

Backpacks For Life is always looking for new veteran resource organizations and what programs they may offer, Alexa explained. 

For example, if a veteran is living in a rural area away from a city center where most veteran resource organizations tend to be based, "it's nice to know if there's either a national or local organization in their area that we can refer them to," Alexa told Townhall.

Veterans Are Human

When asked about what advice they would give people who want to help veterans in need, Brett and Alexa said they often get questions similar to, "How do you approach a veteran? How should I react when I see one?" 

First, it's not always about the money. Remember, "a little goes a long way."

"We always say you don't have to give money. You can give food or a drink or just say hello to a veteran," Alexa said. "If you see a homeless veteran, say hello and thank them for their service."

Secondly, and most importantly, remember that veterans are human.

"The only way we're able to continue serving veterans is by people realizing that they're just humans like you and me," Alexa explained.

"They've done a lot for their country, and it's our honor to be able to serve them as an organization."

UPDATE: 

We just learned Backpacks For Life founder Brett D'Alessandro is a Top 15 finalist in the StreetShares Foundation Burt Williams Memorial Small Business Veteran Award. This means Backpacks For Life has the opportunity to win $25,000. If you want to support Backpacks For Life, here's how you can help:

1. Visit www.tinyurl.com/votebfl2019

2. Enter your name & email

3. Scroll down to Backpacks For Life/Brett D'Alessandro (2nd Entry)

4. Click 'Vote for Brett D'Alessandro'

You can vote daily, and don't forget to share with friends and family so they can vote too. Voting ends 4/3/19 at Midnight ET.

For the latest news and veteran success stories, follow Backpacks For Life on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @Backpacks4Life.

To donate to Backpacks For Life, register to be a volunteer, and learn about upcoming events, visit BackpacksForLife.org.