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Volunteers assemble backpacks for homeless veterans
• Veterans gearing up for Stand Down on Oct. 31 at Graceada Park in Modesto.
Laura McCullough
Assembling “Backpacks for Life” last week was Laura McCullough of Ceres. The gathering was at the Veterans Center at 3500 Coffee Road, Suite 19. - photo by Jeff Benziger

There is a camaraderie that runs deep between veterans that survives long after tours of duty or lengths of military service.

That’s why veterans continue to have the backs of veterans who are homeless or down on their luck.

On Wednesday a small army of volunteers – some who are members of the Veterans Employment Committee of Stanislaus County and others supporters of service personnel – gathered to assemble care packages in the form of “Backpacks for Life.” Filled with essentials like shaving cream and razors, soap bars, toothbrushes and toothpaste, socks, deodorants, first aid kits, hats and beanies, gloves, hand and foot warmers, and emergency blankets, the backpacks will be distributed at the 4th annual Veterans Stand Down set for Oct. 31 at Graceada Park in Modesto.

The event, set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., will bring services to veterans who may be living on the streets throughout Stanislaus County because of drug addictions and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Hot meals will be provided, as well as haircuts and beard trims, showers, clothing and more. A special guest will be Brett D’Alessandro, a former Marine who founded Backpacks for Life, for which he is now president.

Veterans are urged to register for the event by visiting but it is not necessary to receive backpacks or services.

“We want to support our veterans,” said Hughson resident Shirley Serrato, who showed up to help at the Stanislaus County Veterans Center at 2625 F Coffee Road, Suite 160. Serrato is a Navy veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield. Her husband Juan Serrato served aboard the USS Iowa when a turret blew up and killed 47 on April 19, 1989.

Shirley Serrato
Hughson resident , businesswoman and teacher Shirley Serrato helps out at the veteran’s center in Modesto. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Ceres resident Chris Alarcon, a two-time combat vet who is now a Gallo Winery employee serving on the Gallo Veterans Organization board member, came by to support.

“It’s our way at the winery to help in the community,” said Alarcon was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom and redeployed to Mazari Sharif. He also spent 15 months in Iraq as a reservist.

Chris Alarcon Dave Pratt
Military veterans Chris Alarcon and Dave Pratt, both of Ceres, discuss business of the Veterans Employment Committee of Stanislaus County. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Members of the Royal Neighbors Riverbank Chapter 9890 from Oakdale and Riverbank turned out to assemble backpacks.

“We support veterans and their rights,” said member Diane Talbert of Riverbank. “We do an annual free veterans luncheon in November. Right now we’re the oldest chapter in California. We do community service. We work with veterans.”

The ladies also participate in Toys for Tots and have adopted a care home in Oakdale for visits.

D’Alessandro spotted a homeless veteran with a sign asking for help while he was on his way to a doctor’s appointment in Rhode Island. At home he assembled items to fill a backpack and ran it down to then man. When he saw the man with his homeless child days later, he felt compelled to take action for other veterans who have a hard time acclimating to life after combat.

“People are like, ‘Let’s give them housing,’ ‘Let’s give them a car,’ ‘Let’s get them a job,’” said D’Alessandro. “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. 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.

“Before you rehabilitate someone you have to instill hope in them,” said D’Alessandro. “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.”

The Veterans Employment Committee networks with federal, state, county and non-profit agencies to help out veterans. In May it held its annual Veterans Job Fair, offering meets with employers and offering job opportunities and training.

Donations are welcome to support the Stand Down event and may be sent to the Veterans Employment Committee, 2625 F Coffee Road, #160, Modesto CA 95355.

The Stanislaus County Veterans Center is open 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays for veterans who want to enjoy coffee and donuts and share war experiences or just socialize.

For more information on the Veterans Employment Committee, call 353-4957 or visit