Norwell Siblings Have Grown Along With Their Nonprofit
April 16, 2012
by Neal Simpson
The Patriot Ledger
Sitting in the kitchen of her family's Norwell home, Brittany Bergquist groans with embarrassment as she thumbs through yellowed newspaper clippings, admiring letters from politicians, and photos of herself and her younger brother Robbie, shaking hands with various dignitaries, from Donald Rumsfeld to Tony Danza.
"That's like the worst time to be in the spotlight," said Bergquist, a junior at Stonehill College who became a national celebrity at the age of 13 when she and her brother, then 12, began collecting used cellphones to pay the phone bills racked up by soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I mean, seventh grade - really?"
In the eight years since the TV news vans began lining up on the Bergquists' Winter Street driveway in 2004, Brittany and Robbie Bergquist have grown from ambitious children on the cusp of their teenage years to self-assured college students with a knack for juggling media appearances with their school work and social lives. At the same time, their organization, Cell Phones for Soldiers, has grown from a bank account with $21 in it to a $2 million nonprofit organization that serves nearly 600,000 servicemen and women a year.
Since it was founded, the Bergquists say their organization has recycled nearly 10 million cellphones and provided more than 150 million minutes of talk time to U.S. service members.
Brittany and Robbie Bergquist now say they are are both considering careers in non-profit management when they graduate. And their parents, Bob and Gail Bergquist, are preparing to retire from long careers as public school teachers to devote their time to the organization dreamed up around the kitchen table by their children.
"As a family, we often reflect and we can't really remember a time before Cell Phones for Soldiers," said Gail Bergquist, a special education teacher at Weymouth High School. "It took over many aspects of our lives in terms of what the kids went through in their adolescence."
The parents are running the nonprofit now, Bob Bergquist is president and Gail Bergquist is the clerk. They are compensated for their time, a combined salary of $147,500 in 2010.
As the founders and public faces of a prominent nonprofit, the Bergquist siblings have seen plenty of unusual opportunities, including $100,000 scholarships from AT&T, one of the organization's largest corporate sponsors.
But the success of Cell Phones for Soldiers has also come with some unwanted attention for Robbie and Brittany Bergquist. They remember classmates taunting them in middle school, calling them the "cell phone kids." These days they must be extra mindful of the fact that their activity on Facebook and Twitter could make the evening news.
"We have to constantly be aware of what we associate with," said Robbie Berquist, as his mother added: "They have been and continue to be role models."
The Bergquists' charity began one morning in 2004 when the siblings saw a TV news segment about a Natick soldier who had racked up more than $7,500 in phone bills calling home from Iraq.
Remembering their own cousin's trouble calling home during operations in Baghdad, Robbie and Brittany emptied the change from their piggy banks and went to school to cajole their classmates into turning over their snack money to help pay the outstanding bill.
"It was the hardest $7 we ever tried to get," recalled Robbie, now a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
That evening, the family sat down and decided to name their effort Cell Phones for Soldiers, thinking they could load up cellphones with pre-paid minutes and send them to soldiers who had trouble calling home. With the war in Iraq just a year old, the story of two kids trying to help out soldiers quickly became a national one, and the family soon found itself on Fox News explaining their plan to mail phones to military bases abroad.
"One day later, we had a phone call and it was somebody from the Pentagon saying, ‘You really can't do that, because it's a safety issue,'" said Gail Bergquist.
But it was too late. Boxes filled with discarded cellphones began piling up on the Bergquists' doorstep. The family quickly learned they could sell the phones to recycling companies for cash, which they could use to buy calling minutes for soldiers to use at military phone banks.
Today, more than 100,000 cellphones are collected each month at drop-off boxes around the country and sent to the recycler contracted with Cell Phones for Soldiers. Corporate sponsors make cash donations as well, but the Bergquists say that more than half of the nonprofit's revenue is raised by recycling used cellphones that are donated to the group.
But with most troops now home from Iraq and operations in Afghanistan on pace to wind down, the Bergquists say they have a new vision. In addition to helping soldiers abroad communicate with loved ones at home, they want to make sure returning soldiers, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress and injuries, have access to a free phone and talk time so they don't have to spend their first disorienting days home shopping for phones and negotiating contracts.
They call the new program "Helping Heroes Home" and hope to launch it fully by early summer. They expect it will cost about $100,000 a month and they have already received a $180,000 check from AT&T to get it started.
"We just want to make sure we still care for them after they come home," said Bob Bergquist, a science teacher at Norwell Middle School who plans to retire this summer. "They're still our heroes, even if they're not on foreign soil."
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.