Veteran-owned companies said EDA grants will have big impact

Brett D’Alessandro and Alexa Modero were thrilled that veteran-owned businesses and nonprofits were eligible for phase 2 of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s Small Business Emergency Assistance Grant Program.

Modero applied Tuesday morning without much hassle, but with a lot of hope. She and D’Alessandro hope to continue serving veterans through their Verona-based nonprofit, Backpacks for Life. Like all veteran- and minority-owned businesses, funding has been hard to find, but is much needed during COVID-19.

The grant would help them support the nonprofit they started in 2014. Backpacks for Life is aimed at helping veterans get back on their feet and acclimate to civilian life.

The struggle for Backpacks for Life has been adjusting to doing work under COVID-19 restrictions.

Much of Backpacks for Life’s work involves face-to-face interactions with veterans and large fundraisers. That’s no longer possible.

Modero and D’Alessandro, who was deployed in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps, have pivoted their role during COVID-19. One example is a digital platform, Roger, which they hope to launch by the end of summer. Roger would allow New Jersey veterans easy online access to tools and resources for getting back on track.

“It started as a Facebook group,” Modero said, “but we’ve expedited the development process during COVID-19, because there’s much more of a need now for veterans to access this.”

They’ve also contracted with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to make personal protective equipment, specifically isolation gowns — 105,000 of them. D’Alessandro said the first drop-off of 1,500 gowns begins Wednesday.

“We wanted to give back in some capacity while things were being flipped upside-down, and knew the best way to support veterans, frontline workers and essential first responders was through PPE,” D’Alessandro said.

Modero said Backpacks for Life was able to easily fill out the forms for the EDA grant, as it had all the proper documentation.

Red White & Que
Red White & Que Smokehouse’s restaurant in Kearny.

Jeff Cantor, the CEO of the New Jersey State Veterans Chamber of Commerce, said one of the biggest challenges for veterans’ groups often is the process itself.

“A company has personnel to do the paperwork, but a veteran business CEO is likely figuring out the paperwork on their own,” he said.

Kearny-based Red White & Que Smokehouse got a grant during the initial phase of the EDA program. Its owner, Dan Misuraca, said the restaurant had a different struggle: Figuring out how to stay in business during the uncertainty of COVID-19.

“If we shut down shop, the business was going to actually shut down,” he said. “We didn’t know if this would last two weeks, two months or 12 months.”

Misuraca and his wife, Katie Misuraca, never closed. They have been doing takeout orders at reduced hours since COVID-19 began. Money they got during the first phase of EDA funding helped keep the restaurant afloat.

“While the landlord and utilities tried to be helpful, at the end of the day, you still need to pay rent,” Dan Misuraca said.

Misuraca sees his challenges as ones of every small, minority business, not just veteran-owned ones.

Modero and D’Alessandro see a greater challenge: the mental health of veterans.

Increased isolation and decreased face-to-face services have led to an uptick in veteran suicide, they said. Because of this, Modera and D’Alessandro said Backpacks for Life has tried to maintain as much over-the-phone support as possible during this challenging time.

“It’s been a whirlwind, for sure, but our pivot has allowed us to keep serving veterans, which is the most important thing,” Modero said.

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