Seventeen-year-old Hazel Imig's heart broke in 1968 when Jimmy Zboyovski returned from the Vietnam War in a casket. With three brothers in the same war, the Erie County native grieved her loss as she sent her siblings shoe boxes filled with toiletries.
More than 45 years later, the Pentecostal minister is still caring for the country's armed forces. Through Hats Off to the Soldiers, a nonprofit organization she founded, she works to give injured military personnel everyday items as they return home.
"I don't think I appreciated the soldiers enough until one by one I was exposed to them and I realized the struggles they go through for the cause of freedom," said Rev. Imig, 63, of Hopewell, Beaver County.
She is one of six volunteer finalists for the Jefferson Awards of Public Service. These six advanced from among roughly 50 local Jefferson Award winners selected for 2013. The outstanding volunteer will be announced Tuesday at an award ceremony at Heinz Field. The overall winner will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer.
Locally, the Jefferson Awards program is administered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark and BNY Mellon. PG Charities will provide $1,000 to Hats Off to the Soldiers on behalf of Rev. Imig.
Before starting her organization, she earned a licensed practical nursing degree and worked at Shriners Hospital in Erie. She later owned a bridal accessories shop until meeting her husband and eventually moving to Hopewell.
Hats Off, started in 2009, fills the needs of soldiers as they come back to the United States with severe injuries. While trying to visit a relative at a trauma center, Rev. Imig found that soldiers are not given toiletries and other items until their injuries are evaluated.
"A lot of Americans don't know that once they're back at stateside, the struggles and the frustrations [soldiers] go through. They don't always get their pay right away, It could be up to 28 months," she said.
Rev. Imig created the U.S.A. hero bag to give to military personnel at trauma centers such as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Filled by donations from the public, the bags include shampoo, deodorant, razors and clothing, enough to last a soldier a month.
"Here he is. He is trying to recover. He's going through all this physical and emotional upheaval. Why should he be concerned about pinching pennies to go out there and get his hair shampoo?" she said.
Christmas and Easter are the busiest time of year. The large amount of donations at these times also go to local injured and homeless veterans, Rev. Imig said. The day before Easter, Hats Off made a large donation to the Military Order of the Purple Heart of Greater Pittsburgh.
Rev. Imig's days start with assisting her husband and three canine "children." Her husband, 1st Lt. Paul Imig, suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1989 and has therapy each morning. Once everything is settled, she starts returning phone calls and emails, which can be time-consuming as she listens to the soldiers' stories.
"I have a connection with them. I've felt the pain of losing someone or having someone come back not the same person," she said.
She processes and packages items, sometimes into the early hours of the morning, in a small shed without heat or electricity. Most packages are mailed, but she and her husband will sometimes transport them to save money. The couple also makes trips to purchase items for the packages, often using their own money to do so. Rev. Imig said they once spent Christmas funds after finding a sale on T-shirts. The organization sets up tables at local grocery stores and organizes a motorcycle run to raise money.
Each hero bag contains a card for the Brother's Keeper pen pal program. Anyone interested in being a pen pal to an injured soldier fills out a small card and then waits for a soldier to make contact.
On one of their trips, the Imigs met a young woman who was planning to become a nurse. After explaining the organization, Rev. Imig offered the woman a chance to be a pen pal, which she excitedly accepted. The next day, while dropping off a shipment at Fort Sam Houston, Rev. Imig met a soldier who had been severely burned when flares attached to his uniform exploded.
"I told his father, 'You have a pretty nice-looking young man here, Dad.' [The soldier] said, 'That's what I'm afraid of, ma'am. Nobody will love me.' It came right from his heart," Rev. Imig said.
"I told him, 'When you find the right girl, she's going to love you more for what you've been through.' "
Rev. Imig gave the young man the card from the woman she had met the previous day. Less than two years later, the two were married.
Mr. Imig happily listens to his wife's stories and shares some of his own, often starting with phrases like, "Here's another tale, courtesy of my angel ...." With the support of Hat's Off volunteers, he led the campaign to have his wife nominated for a Jefferson Award.
"My wife is a one-woman fountain of love for anybody that is in need," he said. "She will do anything for anybody that needs it. She's too sensitive to think that it's just somebody else's problem."
Read more about Hats Off to the Soldiers at www.hatsofftothesoldiers.org.
To contact Sara Payne, a former Post-Gazette intern, email email@example.com.