The Impact of War

Teens Turn Old Phones into New Calls for Troops

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Cell Phones for Soldiers collects used cell phones for recycling. The organization, founded by teens Robbie and Brittany Bergquist, has raised a million dollars and distributed more than 400,000 calling cards.


The other day, BPP producer Dan Pashman got a package of stuff that he'd ordered from Amazon. He's really into these books about LBJ. That's another story.


That's another story.

STEWART: Inside the box was this little resealable plastic bag with the image of a soldier talking on a phone and the words "Cell Phones for Soldiers."

MARTIN: Yeah, and he brought it into work and it started this conversation about how getting something in the mail like this makes you realize that as individuals, as Americans, we hadn't personally been asked to give anything up for this war or give anything to it directly. And what a simple idea, really. You put your old cell phone in this little bag, right here. It's resealable.

It gets recycled, and that money is used to buy prepaid phone cards for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that they can use to call their family. Two teenagers, a brother and sister, Robbie and Brittany Bergquist, started the charity with 21 dollars of their own money and this idea that all soldiers should have free time, free talk time with their families back home.

In the last four years, the program Cell Phones for Soldiers has raised more than a million dollars in donations, and distributed more than 400,000 prepaid calling cards to soldiers serving overseas, thanks in part to big name partners they've got now, Amazon, AT&T, and 1-800-FLOWERS. Eighteen-year-old Brittany Bergquist, co-founder of Cell Phones for Soldiers, joins me now on the line to talk about the program. Hey, Brittany.

Ms. BRITTANY BERGQUIST (Co-Founder, Cell Phones for Soldiers): Hi!

MARTIN: Thanks for joining us this morning.

Ms. BERGQUIST: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Brittany, this was four years ago. You were 14 when you and your brother had this idea. I mean, most kids are hanging at the mall and you're a cheerleader. You're probably cheering at games. I mean, how did you come up with this idea?

Ms. BERGQUIST: Well, we were motivated to start Cell Phones for Soldiers when we saw a story about a soldier from Massachusetts who had an almost 8,000-dollar cell phone bill trying to call home from serving overseas, and it was the first time that we had ever heard that the troops had to pay for their own phone calls, and it really made us feel like we needed to something to make a difference.

MARTIN: Now, Cell Phones for Soldiers, it's a non-profit that you guys started. It collects up to 60,000 phones a month. You send out these packets or people can drop off their cell phones then - walk us through how the program works. How does that translate into call time for troops?

Ms. BERGQUIST: Well, we have over 7,000 drop-off sites across the country, and they send the phones to a recycling company in Michigan, and they give us about five dollars per old cell phone and that money we then use to purchase the prepaid calling cards that we send to the troops.

MARTIN: Now, since you started this, I mean, at first it was just you guys, right? Your family, you're getting these cell phones sent to your house.

Ms. BERGQUIST: Exactly.

MARTIN: And now you've got - they're going directly to the recycling company, and you've gotten some big names, Brittany, AT&T, Amazon, and 1-800-FLOWERS, and Pak Mail. How have you done this? How have you - what's been your approach to get these companies on board?

Ms. BERGQUIST: Well, as far as AT&T is concerned, we - I, actually, was searching for companies to give - to help out with Cell Phones for Soldiers, and hopefully to donate a little bit. But I sent an email to a random name on the AT&T website, not expecting a response back, and got one back within a couple days, and - which was incredible because we'd just been brushed off by a few companies, and they just really jumped at the chance to help with Cell Phones for Soldiers. And they've been such a huge help for us so far, as have the other companies.

MARTIN: And you've - I understand you're now working. You have something in the works with Skype, the Internet call site.

Ms. BERGQUIST: We have been trying to work something out with Skype, and hopefully it will be able to work out within the next year.

MARTIN: OK, I want to ask how this affects your life on a daily basis. This is, I mean, this is an organization that you and your brother are running. How are you dealing with this and still being a high school junior?

Ms. BERGQUIST: Well, it is hard at times, because it is really time consuming because it's a grassroots organization. It's still run right from my family's kitchen table. So, it gets difficult. Robbie is really into soccer right now, and I'm into softball, so we're always busy.

But it's like all of our free time basically goes to Cell Phones for Soldiers because it's not something that we have to do, and it's not a job for us. It's something that we love to do. So, we don't really mind giving up our free time to do Cell Phones for Soldiers work.

MARTIN: Have you been surprised at how big it's grown and that you've got these corporate partners? I mean, when you started out, maybe you thought, oh, this is something we'll do for a few months, and now it takes up a lot of your time? It's kind of taken up a life of its own.

Ms. BERGQUIST: Oh, it is absolutely amazing and nothing that we expected. We did expect it to be maybe a few months running drives, and we started out doing car washes and bake sales, thinking that it was just going to stay that way, but it really just snowballed and took off, and we're really happy with the way that it's going right now because it's giving us a chance to make a difference and leave our marks on the lives of the troops who are serving overseas.

MARTIN: You've been asked in the past, Brittany, about how you feel, your personal reflections about the war in Iraq, and you have said that you don't like to answer that question. Why not?

Ms. BERGQUIST: I really feel like it doesn't matter how I feel about the war and how anyone else feels about the war. We really - every American should feel that it's something that they should do, and something that they would like to do, to help the troops that are serving overseas. Because whether they support the war or not, they're over there fighting for their lives, and fighting for our freedoms, and they really deserve something for that.

MARTIN: And lastly, have you heard feedback from soldiers and families directly? Have they gotten in touch with you to explain what it means to get a free phone card?

Mr. BERGQUIST: We have had the opportunity to speak to a lot of the troops who have received the phone cards, and it's really what motivates us to keep going. They send emails that bring tears to our eyes because there's such heartfelt stories of how they got to open Christmas presents with their families, and hear the laughing and the happiness of the families who are back home.

And of troops who said that our phone cards gave them a little bit of heaven in the middle of a war. And just to hear that makes any hard times that we face during Cell Phones for Soldiers just seem completely insignificant, and really makes us want to keep going.

MARTIN: Brittany Bergquist, she and her brother Robbie started the organization Cell Phones for Soldiers. Hey, Brittany, thanks very much, and congratulations on your success with your organization.

Mr. BERGQUIST: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Stay with us. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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