2013 Spirit of Gainesville Award Winenr: YOUTH

The shirt off his back

His Polo Ministry helps kids feel cool for school


Published: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.

The ubiquitous polo shirt: it comes in practically every color, shape and size. You can find it at Walmart and Target and just as easily in high-end department stores and boutiques. It is also part of the dress code for every student attending Alachua County’s public schools.

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Danny Veilleux, a junior at St. Francis Catholic High School, in the “free clothing closet” he established at Howard Bishop Middle School.

Photo by Erica Brough

Facts

Danny Veilleux

CATEGORY: Youth
AGE: 16
YEARS IN GAINESVILLE: 12
WHAT DEFINES THE SPIRIT OF GAINESVILLE? “It’s about working with the community to help a greater cause.”
The work he does and why he does it: His Polo Drive Ministry creates “uniform closets” to provide students with donated articles of clothing that are school-appropriate, such as polo shirts. He credits his Catholic schooling with his desire to serve the community, summed up by the mantra “service above self.”

On June 1, 2010, Alachua County Public Schools voted to adopt a policy requiring all students to conform to a dress code. The school-sanctioned outfit consists of a solid-colored long- or short-sleeve collared shirt or polo shirt and plain, unadorned bottoms or a solid-colored dress.

Not everyone can afford an endless array of polo shirts and khakis — some struggle to pay for just one outfit. The harsh reality is that one in four children in Alachua County lives below the poverty line, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Danny Veilleux was a 13-year-old student at St. Patrick’s Interparish School when the new rules went into effect, and he would often walk to nearby Howard Bishop Middle School to meet his mother, Desi Veilleux, then a teacher at the school. It was there he saw that hardship firsthand.

“I kind of noticed a lot of poverty there, like the amount of kids who were taking the free lunches,” says Danny, 16, now a junior at St. Francis Catholic High School. ‘“How are these kids going to get enough clothes for the year?” he wondered.

After talking with several Howard Bishop students, Danny realized there was a need for school-appropriate clothing. He sayssome kids were embarrassed they had to wear the same shirt over and over. Others felt judged by kids wearing “cooler” brand-name polo shirts. He decided to do something about it.

“I basically started out going door-to-door in my neighborhood to see if anyone had any new or gently used polo shirts that they wanted to donate. I also went to my church at Holy Faith and talked to their masses, and put a collection box in the vestibule,” Danny recalls.

After one summer, he collected 600 shirts and pants, plus $100 in donations.

“He brought the clothes home, sorted them, folded them and took them to Howard Bishop Middle School, where he set up a Uniform Closet for kids who needed clothing. The school reported more than 100 kids benefited from this closet that very first year,” adds his mother, Desi, who now teaches middle school students at St. Patrick’s Interparish School.

Danny wanted to do more. Since that first year in 2010, he has worked harder to increase donations and collections, asking his school and classmates to pitch in. Student Ministries, a service club at his school, helped him make a contest out of it — who could bring in the most clothing donations. According to Desi, he was able to organize a similar contest at his old school, St. Patrick’s, through its student government.

To expand the outreach, he set up donation boxes at several local businesses, such as O2B Kids, Splitz and Quality Cleaners.

“I normally just put the [collection] box in the church over the summer and over Christmas break,” Danny says. “This year I wanted to expand it to other schools, which meant I needed to expand it to other locations for donations.”

“He spends a good part of every summer trying to spread the word about the needs of our underprivileged kids and how much a simple polo shirt can mean to them,” Desi says. “He collects all the donated shirts, sorts them according to size and gender, and distributes them to schools in the area.”

This year, Danny accomplished his goal to help other schools in need.

“I gave out 200 school uniforms to Howard Bishop Middle School, 200 to Gainesville High School, 200 to Waldo Elementary, and 200 to Sidney Lanier Center,” he says.

A teacher from MYcro School, a public charter high school in Gainesville, contacted Danny for clothing after the donations had been distributed.

“[MYcro] School serves a lot of homeless kids and at-risk kids,” Danny says.

With the school’s strong need, Danny turned to his church for help. With one simple speech during mass, he was able to raise money right away.

“After mass, people started writing checks and making donations, so I was able to buy 100 new shirts from Walmart to give to the MYcro School,” Danny says. “They were very appreciative.”

But Danny isn’t ready to rest until he realizes his dream: expanding his ministry to all public schools that need a clothing closet. To get there, the high school junior, who plays varsity football and baseball for St. Francis High School, is planning to make the Polo Drive Ministry a nonprofit organization.

He believes the nonprofit status will open up new opportunities for the Polo Drive — including a possible partnership with bigger churches, such as Queen of Peace Catholic Community and Catholic Charities.

“I’m getting a lot of clothes just from Holy Faith Catholic Church and my schools, and I’m hoping that will go way up when I get other churches involved,” he says.

The 11th grader maintains a 3.8 GPA while taking courses such as AP Environmental Science and AP Biology.

Sports take up much of the rest of his time. In the fall, it’s football, where Danny is the quarterback for his varsity team; in spring and summer, he plays baseball as a pitcher and second baseman for his school and for a recreational club team.

Even with such a busy schedule, Danny manages to focus on his charity, although he admits it’s not always a breeze.

“It’s tough, that’s why most of the work I put into it is over the summer; during the [school year] I usually don’t get home from practice until 8 p.m.”

When asked why he does it, Danny credits his schooling.

“I’ve always been taught that through service we’re leaders, and all of us are called to serve in one way or another.”

His father, John Veilleux, an engineer with the City of Gainesville, also credits Danny’s mother with helping cultivate that desire to serve.

“His mom was an engineer before she was a teacher ... she could have made a lot more money as an engineer but she chose to work in education,” John says. “At [Howard Bishop Middle School] there were a lot of poor kids, and a lot of kids who needed extra help, and Desi tried to make sure they all had the same opportunities. I think Danny saw that and was at an age where that made a difference.”

Ironically, Danny’s altruism also has sharpened his business savvy. “Transitioning from a simple project to a full-blown business has required him to spend a lot of time learning how to plan his business, keep track of his inventory, keep organized records, and research the needs in the community so he can meet those needs,” Desi says.

Danny says he is considering a career in medicine, but is open to whatever the future holds.

At 16, he’s already made a difference in the lives of many students in Gainesville.

“I’ve had a few letters from the schools about how thankful they are and how they needed these clothes,” he says. “My ultimate goal is to have a uniform closet in every public school.”

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