By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Region – Sweats for Vets began in 2011 as a holiday gesture that provided Boston sports team sweatshirts to about 60 homeless veterans sheltered in Worcester. Last year, the expanded nonprofit organization distributed 570 sweatshirts to five veterans’ homeless shelters. With this year’s goal of over 800 sweatshirts, Sweats for Vets president and founder Mark Vital hopes to surpass past efforts.
“Each year I try to keep building on what we did previously,” he said. “It has become a passionate obsession for me.”
Vital is a veteran, and a sixth- and 12th-grade teacher at Advanced Math and Science Academy (AMSA) in Marlborough. In 2011, a student’s mother invited him to help with a Christmas Eve breakfast she organized for homeless veterans in Worcester. There, a Vietnam veteran was jokingly warned that he shouldn’t be wearing a Washington Redskins sweatshirt in New England, aka Patriots Nation.
“He said that it was the only thing he had to wear,” Vital recalled. “How can that possibly be the case in a country like ours, where a war veteran only has one piece of winter clothing?”
The experience compelled Vital to start Sweats for Vets and ultimately expand to more veterans shelters. Donated sweatshirts representing any Boston sports team are sought. His students also collect winter hats, gloves and socks.
After its first two years serving Veterans Inc. in Worcester, a delivery was added in 2013 to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston. Last year, three more shelters were added: Veterans Homestead Inc. in Fitchburg, Veterans Transition House in New Bedford and Operation Stand Down in Johnston, R.I.
Several months of collecting donations culminates with deliveries Christmas Eve in Worcester and Christmas Day in Boston. Others are scheduled during Vital’s school winter break. For Vital, seeing the homeless veterans receive a gift is worth the effort.
“Watching those guys put on the sweatshirts over their jackets will always be a visual that I’ll remember ‘til the day I die,” he said. “I’ve seen grown men cry with happiness because they got a New England Patriots sweatshirt.”
Vital expressed his gratitude for help last year from state Rep. Danielle Gregoire, D-Marlborough. She reached out and joined him with the Boston delivery.
“Danielle definitely has a passion toward veterans, too,” he said. “It’s not just dumping off sweats; we need to stack them all by size and team. She worked like a dog there on Christmas Day.”
Vital is also grateful for support he received from Bob Page, a veteran and city councilor who passed away this past September. Page was active in several veterans’ organizations and got them to contribute to Sweats for Vets.
“Bob did a lot for veterans that people didn’t know about,” Vital noted.
Contributions of sweatshirts or monetary donations for purchases are accepted. Notable contributors this year include American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, Marlborough chapter; American Legion Post 132, Marlborough; AMVETS Post 1980, Marlborough; Finnegan’s Pub, Hudson; Julio’s Liquors, Westborough; Marlborough Police Patrol Officers Association; and Marlborough Sons of Italy Lodge #240.
Hudson Girl Scout Troop 75242 wrapped over 100 sweatshirts.
Large or extra-large sweatshirts are preferred and can be dropped off at four locations: AMSA, 201 Forest St., Marlborough; Finnegan’s Pub, 25 South St., Hudson; Italian American War Veterans Post 45, 111 Neil St., Marlborough; and Julio’s Liquors, 140 Turnpike Rd, Westborough. To arrange having donations picked up, contact Vital at [email protected] or 508-494-9410.
Vital wants to deliver many carloads of sweatshirts.
“I’ve got the whole Christmas week vacation to drive around to all these homeless shelters and make them happy,” he said. “That makes me happy.”