From a single news story about a soldier with a nearly $8,000.00 phone bill to a project that's raised over two million dollars, collected 160,000 phones, and sent 450,000 phone cards, Cell Phones for Soldiers has grown at a rapid pace since its establishment in April 2004.
The program was created by siblings Brittany and Robbie Bergquist, who were just fourteen and thirteen at the time. Stricken by a news story about a soldier who had to spend half of his life savings to pay a $7,624.00 phone bill, they set out to help soldiers stay in touch with their loved ones-without having to foot the bill themselves.
With the support of their parents and the community, plus a bit of research, Cell Phones for Soldiers was on its way.
LTK: How did you set it into motion?
Robbie: We asked my dad, who was a teacher at our middle school, if we could collect money from our friends to help pay the bill. He said to check with the school principal, which we did. We collected about $7.00, so we had a total of $21.00. My Dad said that we should put it in the bank so we wouldn't spend it or lose it. Brittany and I went to the bank and the bank manager liked our idea so much that he let us open an account for free and gave us $500.00 to get started.
We knew we had to do more things to collect enough money to pay the soldier's bill. We called our local newspaper to let them know that we were going to have a car wash to raise money and they put the story on the front page. The AP (Associated Press) wire picked up the story and the word got out from there.
LTK: Was AT&T quick to hop on the bandwagon or did it take a while to find a phone company to work with?
Brittany: I actually was searching the web for companies and corporations who may be able to help us with support. I thought that AT&T would be a perfect fit because the AT&T global phone cards are the kind of phone cards that the troops need. AT&T has landlines set up in the Middle East for troops to call home.
I chose a random name on the AT&T website contact us page and told that random person--Susan Bean--what I was looking for. I couldn't believe that in just two days, she wrote back and offered to discuss the idea with me and she helped us get started with the partnership!
LTK: When the program first started up, how did your peers react?
Brittany: When we first started the program in April of 2004, our peers were kind of funny about it. Some were really supportive and helped us with our car washes and yard sales and others started to call us names and snub us. They thought that it wasn't our idea and that there were adults who were running the program, but we didn't let it bother us. We knew that we came up with the idea and we were lucky that our parents encouraged us to do what we thought was right. They never told us that we couldn't make a difference in the world. They encouraged us to continue with our mission.
Robbie: Actually it bothered me to be called cell phone boy by kids. I was only in the 6th grade and trying to fit in and they made me feel like I was strange to want to help other people. It was a tough time.
I ended up asking my parents if I could go to another school. I'm really glad that I ended up going to Boston College High School. The kids there really respect my commitment to Cell Phones for Soldiers and actually help me with packing up boxes of cell phones and mailing phone cards. A lot of them chose Cell Phones for Soldiers as their community service project.
We get a lot of Eagle Scouts and kids who need to do a community service project for church doing a phone drive for CPFS.
Cell Phones for Soldiers: Get Involved
LTK: How does the project work? How can others get involved?
Brittany: Cell Phones for Soldiers is a 501c3 non-profit organization. We accept old cell phones at over 10,000 drop off sites across the country. Many of the drop off sites are AT&T corporate owned stores, so people can just drop by an AT&T store and donate their old phone or go to our website: Cell Phones for Soldiers and find a drop off site in their state.
People can help by creating a drop off site at their school, work, religious organization, or business. They can collect phones for a week, a month or as long as they want to. The shipping is free and we can send FedEx to pick up the phones if there are more than a few phones to donate.
We also now have mailing bags that we are putting in orders from Amazon.com, Cabela's, Omaha Steaks, and other companies. People can just put their phone inside the prepaid mailing bag and drop it into a USPS mailbox.
LTK: How do you select the soldiers who receive the cards? Who contacts you to request them (soldiers, families, etc)? They have to go to specific people, not just in random care packages, correct?
Robbie: Troops and their loved ones like family members, boyfriends, girlfriends and kids go to our website -- Cell Phones for Soldiers -- and click on the link to have phone cards sent. We then create a mailing label and package the cards up to be mailed. We also send phone cards to military family support group contacts, military hospitals and bases throughout the world. Some military support groups also contact us and we send them phone cards for their packages.
LTK: Do you receive varying amounts of money for different types of cell phones or will every cell phone be worth roughly the same amount?
Robbie: We receive all kinds of makes, models and conditions of phones. We take them all. Some have no worth at all because they are smashed up or water logged or so old that they can't be reconditioned or reused. Other phones are newer ones or BlackBerries and they might be worth about $120.00 or so.
With the amount of phones that come in and the different conditions they are in, we average about $5.00 per phone. The phones that can't be reconditioned are recycled in a responsible way so the program is a great one for people who want to help the environment too. There are tons of toxic chemicals in old cell phones and we're helping to keep that out of landfills and water supplies with our program
Today and the Future
LTK: What are your current goals for the program?
Brittany: We will continue to collect used cell phones for recycling and hope to raise nine million dollars because we estimate that it will cost that much to set up satellite phone service and video phones for the troops.
We also are expanding our program to other parts of the world. Right now we have a program in Canada. We have drop off sites for phones in Germany, Japan, and other countries and we would really like to set up programs for them so that they can keep toxic chemicals out of their landfills and help them start projects that will help their own troops.
LTK: How does it feel to be teens in the news, responsible for a program so big it has touched thousands of lives?
Robbie: It feels kind of weird to be looked up to by kids and be interviewed by famous people like Montel Williams, Barbara Walters, and Whoopi Goldberg. Some have called us heroes. Even the troops have called us heroes, which is incredible to me. We don't think of ourselves as anything but normal teenagers who are doing something that everyone should be doing by supporting the troops and trying to make life a little better for them.
Brittany: It is an honor for us to be able to say thanks to the troops and help in this small way. We don't realize that the program is making that much of an impact, but the emails of thanks that we receive from the troops and their families make us feel great and keep us inspired and motivated to continue.
LTK: Do people recognize you on the streets now, since you've done some television appearances?
Brittany: People are recognizing us more and more. We get some people who might look at us and ask, "Do I know you?" When we mention Cell Phones for Soldiers, they get excited and say I saw you on TV!
We get recognized sometimes at airports by the person checking our identification. It feels good to know that they appreciate what we are doing to support the troops.
People who recognize us always tell us that they have a cell phone or two to donate and have been looking for some way to make a difference. That's what it's all about.