Stepping up to help people in need has kind of become second nature for Marine veteran Brett D’Alessandro.

D’Alessandro had to conquer some demons of his own after returning from an Afghanistan deployment in 2013, but soon after, he got himself back on his feet, he went to work helping the most vulnerable group of veterans by starting a nonprofit organization for homeless vets.

With the COVID-19 pandemic weighing heavily on the backs of hospital workers, D’Alessandro and his girlfriend Alexa Modero have turned their efforts to helping those on the front lines of combating the virus.

D’Alessandro and Modero, the creators of the Backpacks for Life nonprofit, have launched a new initiative to get much needed medical grade surgical masks into the hands of hospital workers. Backpack for Life, along with United States Manufacturing Corporation, a manufacturer owned by two other Marine veterans, have developed thousands of protective masks in the effort.

Leading that effort is the ‘Masks for Our Heroes’ GoFund Me campaign. D’Alessandro and Modero created the GoFund Me on April 8, and so far have raised about $14,000 of its $25,000 goal. The pair say that a $3.80 donation covers the cost of the materials, labor and distribution of one mask, and all the masks created through the GoFundMe will be donated directly to hospitals, VA hospitals and vet shelters. The Verona-based nonprofit recently dropped off 1,800 masks to New York University’s public safety team.

“We’ve gotten support from people we know, and people we don’t know that just want to give back,” said Modero “It’s been all really good feedback so far.”

'We made a backpack, I’m pretty sure we can make a mask'

The masks themselves are comparable to N95 masks in the protection they provide. Thanks to the mask’s special middle layer, the mask has a 95% filtration rate, similar to N95s.

Backpack for Life’s original mission actually helped this new mission get off the ground. Backpack for Life provides mentorship to at-risk veterans and distributes backpacks to homeless veterans with critical daily and longterm essentials. The need to develop a backpack designed specifically for homeless veterans gave D’Alessandro and Modero the kind of contacts in the domestic manufacturing world needed to get the masks effort off the ground.

“I started to see my brothers and sisters who I deployed to Afghanistan with, who are now nurses, doctors and first responders and such, posting how they were lacking PPE, how the situation was becoming worse and that some weren’t in healthy enough condition anymore to keep working,” D’Alessandro said.

“So, I turned to Alexa and I was like ‘Hey, we made a backpack, I’m pretty sure we can make a mask.’ I probably watched 200 YouTube videos and read every article out there about masks and mask production and the materials. I called the companies and they had the materials. I had to do my part to protect them. They were people that would’ve taken a bullet for me, so the least I can do is try to give them proper equipment to try and keep us safe.”

Backpacks for Life recently linked up with Passaic-based United States Manufacturing Corp. to sew patches into its backpacks. Now the manufacturing company, run by two retired Marines in Dominick and Mario Monaco, are putting the masks together in their facility on 18 Third Street. In addition to having 20 workers on the mask initiative, United States Manufacturing Corp. is continuing other operations. Anyone interested in having them on a project can contact them at 973-471-6991.

“My brother and I also are on the board for two organizations that help out veterans, so that common bond of trying to help veterans was there, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, we were asking 'what could we do,” Dominick Monaco said.

“Brett came to us and said ‘we’d like to make masks. I said ok, you go on one end, and we’ll go on the other end, and we’ll see what we can come up with. We didn’t want to make any old product. We really wanted to take it one step further, so we researched the same fabric that’s made in the N95 masks. We came with a design that we all collaborated on, and we ran with it. Now we’re producing 1,200-1,500 a day.”

Backpack For Life have had to make sacrifices to keep its masks initiative and its original mission going. Modero, the only full-time worker for the non-profit went on furlough, while D’Alessandro upped his hours to work a seven day schedule in his job as a International Longshoreman Association checker.

For D’Alessandro it’s all worth it.

“There’s nothing in this world that means more to me to see someone that you’ve impacted in a positive way,” D’Alessandro said. “When I got back from Afghanistan I was broken. I could barely get a haircut without having a mental breakdown. The year prior to that I was a Marine Sgt. and going to college but (at that point) I was nothing, addicted to drugs and alcohol and just getting through life.”

“The programs and groups out there saved my life. I wasn’t a hard charger all my life, but getting the ability to get my life back really gave me the motivation to really never give up and to be that shoulder for any other veteran or any person out there. I know what it feels like alone and to be broken. I’m just trying to do the right thing, and help people out. That’s my mission.”

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