VHS Grads Help Homeless Vets

By on November 10, 2014

BackpacksLife1On November 11, many Americans will stop for a minute to think about our 21 million military veterans. Brett D’Alessandro and Kevin Clarke think about veterans every day, specifically the nearly 50,000 homeless veterans.

The two graduates of Verona High School (Class of 2010) have co-founded Backpacks For Life, a non-profit that aims to get homeless vets some of the resources they need to be as strong in peacetime as they were on the battlefield.

“People tend to overlook homeless vets because they assume that there is a safety net and there’s really not,” says Clarke. “These vets get back stateside, there’s a week or two of work, and then they’re out.”

D’Alessandro has a clearer idea than most of what life is like for returning vets. He went into the Marine Corps after high school and did a tour of duty in Iraq. When he was back near his base in Rhode Island, he saw a homeless man with a sign that read “Vietnam veteran”. D’Alessandro went to his apartment, got out the backpack he had used in Iraq, and filled it with clothing, toiletries and other things, and brought it to the man. D’Alessandro told Clarke how grateful the homeless vet was, then added, “wouldn’t it be great if we could do that for everybody?”

The ambitious question got them thinking about what they could do. Putting the power of their friendship to work (“We’ve known each other since before we were born,” Clarke jokes, since the boys’ parents are also friends), they committed to filling 500 backpacks for a veterans event in Rhode Island in September. They rallied donations from friends and family, from parishioners at Our Lady of the Lake and Montclair’s Grace Presbyterian Church, and used GoFundMe, an online fundraising site, to raise cash for more purchases. D’Alessandro’s girlfriend, Alexa Modero, designed their Web site, and they got help from volunteers, like Caldwell Girls Scouts Troop 20089, packing everything they gathered for the homeless veterans. They filled their 500 backpacks and then discovered that they had extra materials.

Caldwell Girls Scouts Troop 20089 helped fill some of the backpacks.

Caldwell Girls Scouts Troop 20089 helped fill some of the backpacks.

“The idea of doing this just once was blown out of the water once we saw that we had a surplus of donated materials,” says Clarke.

Clarke and D’Alessandro registered Backpacks for Life as a tax deductible, 501(c) 3 non-profit organization, and held a bocce tournament fundraiser in Verona Park in September that netted them $3,000. They have now committed to providing 350 backpacks for a veterans event in New Jersey later this month.

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Operation Stand Down will take place November 14 to 16 in Morristown, and even though the number of backpacks is smaller, the challenge will be greater. “Our main push is warm gear, which is really expensive to buy,” says Clarke, who studied at two hospitality schools and now works in special events for the Ritz-Carlton hotels group. He and D’Alessandro, who has two years left on his enlistment, have thought about approaching manufacturers for product donations, but they want to wait until they have a track record to show.

Along with gear, the backpacks include something a bit unusual: A stamped, addressed envelope, paper and pen. Clarke and D’Alessandro want to encourage the vets to tell the stories of their lives. “We’re hoping to put together a publication of some sort to highlight that this is going on”, says Clarke of the homeless vets, “and that it’s going on in our own town and in our own time.”

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If you have blankets, hats, gloves, thermal layers, handwarmers or other items that can keep away winter’s chill, you can bring them to the D’Alessandro’s house at 55 Sunset Avenue. You can also make a donation through the Backpacks for Life Web site.

Kevin Clarke, Alexa Modero and Brett D'Alessandro

Kevin Clarke, Alexa Modero and Brett D’Alessandro

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