Feature, Local News

Army reservists recycle boots for those in need

Good boots should not go to waste.

That notion led to a community service project for soldiers in the 317th Engineer Construction Company based in Homewood.

Executive Officer 1st Lt. Alberto Azarias was finishing a training program at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri before heading to Homewood when he noticed that many soldiers, who had good boots of their own, were tossing their Army-issued boots.

“They throw away these nice unused pair of boots in the dumpster by the hundreds,” he said. “There are a lot of homeless veterans, particularly in the Chicagoland area and homeless people that need these boots.”

Albert Azarias, left, with soldiers of the 317th Engineer Construction Company in Homewood, poses with some of the 75 pairs of boots the volunteers cleaned so the footwear could be given to unhoused veterans and others in need.
(Provided photo)

He got permission to collect cast-off boots and gathered 75 pairs. Soldiers with the 317th cleaned them so they would be ready to deliver. The top priority was to get the boots to unhoused veterans, but Azarias mainly wants to be sure they get to people who need boots.

The project is a collaboration between the U.S. Army Reserves and Azarias’ non-profit organization, AZA Essentials, which he started in 2020 in Elgin.

AZA Essentials paid the expenses involved in transporting the boots from Missouri, storing them and buying cleaning supplies. The soldiers at the 317th provided the labor.

He said volunteer projects like this are not unheard of in the Army, but they are not common. He hopes that can change, and he sees the boot project as an opportunity to prove the worth of charitable work for the Army, the soldiers and the communities where the soldiers are posted.

“We are one of the only reserve units that are doing a volunteer program,” he said. “The boots was just the first project. We’re doing three or four projects a year or more.”

He plans to leverage his experience to grow the volunteer program.

The first AZA Essentials project was to make face masks during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within a year, volunteers had made 2,000 masks, which were donated to Elgin-area hospitals.

“I learned how to sew and everything,” Azarias said.

Azarias had experience volunteering before starting AZA Essentials. In the years prior to 2020 he participated in trips to Peru and the Phillippines. In Peru his group helped build a school for autistic children. In the Phillippines the group distributed backpacks filled with school supplies to children.

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