August 28, 2017

A Beautiful Day to Help Veterans in Need

Jack Kemp

Sunday was a beautiful day - to visit a self-storage facility in New Jersey. Well, that's true if the self-storage facility is the place where Backpacks for Life founders Sgt. (Ret.) Brett D'Alessandro, an Afghanistan veteran, and his woman friend Alexa Modero - and their parents - were preparing a large number of backpacks to give out to homeless veterans. I also got to meet the Marine's dad, Greg (I hope I spelled that right), his brother - and his mother who I last saw back in 2015 at Fleet Week in New York when we got some simplistic advice from the loudmouth 89 year-old former Dodger manager, Tommy Lasorda, a veteran who never left the States during his post-WWII service. See http://tbirdnow.mee.nu/a_bronx_cheer_for_tommy_lasorda_during_fleet_week_ny

There were also some local families which showed up volunteering to pack socks and toiletries and note pads into various backpacks. Brett and I worked on securing thick string black bracelets, a popular item these days. The deployed Marine came out in Brett when he told me that these (nylon?) bracelets could be quickly unraveled and used to tie down a tent flap in the cold and possibly save a life. Backpacks For Life had previously expanded their operations to include backpacks for homeless women veterans as well and now were changing the contents of those based on both feedback from women vets and cooperation with other charities that supply items to women veterans. The charity has also expanded to help find veterans housing and jobs.

I should add here that the term "homeless" is too cut and dried, as there are veterans who are in danger of losing their homes but do not have the $300 or so to file foreclosure papers to officially give up their homes - so many charities cannot or will not help them because their charity's written legal papers state they only help those "officially" homeless. Brett recently changed Backpacks For Life's registration to now include helping those at risk of becoming homeless as well. Backpacks For Life has also helped veterans in other states, such as a vet in North Carolina who needed money to take a required preliminary class before entering a job training program.

I also spoke with Alexa Modero who told me about a cooperative effort where Backpacks for Life www.backpacksforlife.org used some of the monies donated to them to hire adults with from the North Jersey Elks Developmental Disabilities Agency http://njedda.org/ to do some of their work. She told me that Brett first went to visit the organization with his service dog, the mentally challenged workers fell in love with Brett's dog. The visit made their day. Alexa told me that the with all the events they've had in the last few years, they have better learned exactly what homeless (and near homeless) vets need. You can read articles Alexa has written at the Backpacks For Life website here https://www.backpacksforlife.org/backpacks-life-x-state-farm-neighborhoodofgood/   and here  https://www.backpacksforlife.org/backpacks-life-x-aj-perri-new-hvac-system-veteran/  where Alexa explains how the charity was able to supply a veteran with a donated Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning system.

A few days ago, I sent Brett and Alexa a story from the NY Post http://nypost.com/2017/08/24/heartbreaking-truths-emerge-at-beauty-pageant-for-americas-female-vets/  about a documentary film called "Served Like a Girl," about women veterans who have been holding an annual beauty contest in Las Vegas and the challenging issues those women deal with. I would add that I see the beauty contest not as a self-indulgence but rather as a ritual homecoming ceremony reintegrating these veterans into American society after being far removed from it in a war. The article mentions the problems these women have overcome (one contestant had two lower legs blown off with a bomb) and, although the article didn't say this outright, the contest is a major chance for these women veterans to gather, share stories, and tell one another the ways they have discovered to get help unique to their situation as women veterans. I also talked with some of the women volunteers about another documentary, "Lioness," the story of some women Army veterans who went house to house with male soldiers in the Middle East, the women doing body searches on Muslim women, looking for weapons. I think the volunteers learned a little bit about what it is like for a woman to be in a war zone, the ones for whom they were filling up the female specific backpacks.

Brett D'Alessandro told me that Backpacks For Life used to accept general donations of boxes of seperate types of items from one organizaiton. Now the donating charity organizations are asked to prepack an assortment of items (the ones needed are supplied to them in a list from Backpacks for Life), such as toiletries grouped in individual small plastic bags. This saves a lot of time in sorting and cuts down the hours that Brett, Alexa and their parents have to spend doing basic sorting and packing, freeing them up for other tasks - and have some time off. But corporations have donated items that they alone sell. For example, the My Pillow company donated a number of travel size pillows Backpacks For Life.

Last year, I visited one of Backpacks for Life's events called a "Stand Down" in New Jersey. That is the type of event where the backpacks that were being filled up this weekend will be distributed to homeless veterans. Last year homeless vets were bussed in from other locations to each receive a backpack. The next Stand Downs will be held soon in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Albany (New York) and Camden (New Jersey). Check out www.backpacksforlife.org for updates.

The following story is far removed from U.S. veterans but I believe it represents the spirit of what I saw and experienced this past weekend.

While watching casual but well-dressed people pack things for the veterans, a personal family story of my father's came to me. Forgive me for using this personal story, but I believe it is a fitting comparison.

My late dad was a veteran of the Polish Army in WWII and came to America with virtually nothing. He and my mother opened a small store in the Bronx and prospered. One day, a European immigrant came to my father at his store, claiming to know my dad "from the Old Country" and all but demanded that my father take him downtown to help him fill out some government registration forms as a new resident of the country and state. My father first told him that he honestly did not know this man, but the man retorted, "You came to America and you are now a big shot who is too good to help out someone else?" My father weighed this insult and understood that even though this man was very gruff and probably was unknown to him, this immigrant really needed my dad's assistance and had nowhere else to turn to, as he knew very few people in America. So my mother took over running the store early one day soon after that and my father accompanied this stranger downtown to fill out whatever Federal or local documents in English which the stranger probably didn't understand the words or the concepts required to complete himself.

The people who came to load backpacks last Sunday had a similar attitude to my late father's. They, too, did not think they were too good to help someone who needed a hand to function in a different kind of New World for them, the New World of no longer being a member of an active military service unit where fellow members "had your back." These veterans were now struggling to manage in a very complex, fast paced civilian America with too many rules and not enough cohesion among citizens who may have last seen a veteran when they went to the airport. This desire to help is the same type of response that then Afghan returnee Brett D'Alessandro had when he saw a homeless veteran in Rhode Island, talked to him, and gathered up some supplies in a backpack which he gave to the grateful veteran, leading to the creation of Backpacks for Life This is the spirit that makes America great. 

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