In April 2004, Brittany Bergquist, 13, and her brother Robbie, 12, learned about a Massachusetts soldier serving in Iraq whose phone bill was almost $8,000 from all the calls to and from home.
“We didn’t think it was right that our troops had to pay to call home,” Brittany says. So she and Robbie emptied their piggy banks, asked friends in their neighborhood of Norwell, Mass. (pop. 9,765), for contributions and opened an account at the South Shore Savings Bank in nearby Weymouth with the $21 they collected. Impressed by their sincerity, the bank gave them a $500 contribution, which helped launch a program they dubbed Cell Phones for Soldiers.
Four years later, the Bergquist siblings have raised nearly $2 million from donations and the sale of recycled cell phones to purchase more than 400,000 prepaid calling cards, which allow soldiers to place calls without incurring any charges. They’ve distributed the cards to troops stationed abroad and personally handwritten thousands of heartfelt messages to thank the soldiers for their service.
Some 8,000 drop-off centers nationwide accept cell phone donations for Brittany and Robbie’s nonprofit organization. The phones are purchased by ReCellular, a cellular recycler and reseller, which donates money to Cell Phones for Soldiers for each one. Each donated phone provides the money to purchase about an hour of talk time on a prepaid card.
Those precious calls are a lifeline for soldiers and their loved ones. “They can make a big difference in a soldier’s morale,” say Quentin Carmichael, 29, the Bergquist siblings’ first cousin, who helped distribute the cards when he was stationed with the U.S. Army in Kosovo in 2006.
The former first lieutenant recalls handing a stack of cards to one soldier, who was divorced and worried sick about his daughter. “Later he said to me, ‘Sir, being able to talk to my daughter regularly has changed my whole life.’”
Brittany and Robbie have organized car washes and bake sales, and solicited corporate sponsors to promote their cause. After Brittany contacted AT&T last year, the company donated $875,000 in calling cards and made 1,800 of their stores cell phone drop-off sites.
The siblings also devote countless hours answering e-mails and addressing cards to soldiers. Because of security reasons, the military doesn’t provide lists and locations of deployed troops, so families and individuals send in requests for calling cards.
Learning time-management skills has helped Brittany and Robbie maintain typical teenage activities. Brittany, now 17, is a varsity softball player, cheerleader and volunteer reader for the blind. Robbie, 16, plays varsity soccer and tutors seventh-graders.
Their parents also pitch in. Mother Gail, a special-education teacher, set up a sheltered workshop where students help with mailing. Father Bob, also a teacher, donates much of his free time to the cause. “I still get goose bumps when I think about what they started,” he says.
“They are just the nicest kids, very mature, sincere and well-spoken,” says John Boucher, president of the bank that provided their project’s seed money. “I can see either one running for high political office someday.”
What motivates the Bergquist siblings? “Receiving letters and e-mails of thanks from soldiers, hearing that you are their hero,” Brittany says.
For Robbie, it was going to a deployment and watching families say goodbye. “My father lifted up one little girl that was crying, and held her up to the window so she could place her hand against her dad’s one last time,” Robbie says.
“That’s what keeps me going—knowing I’m helping soldiers and their loved ones keep in touch.”