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Massachusetts Youths Seek 'Cell Phones for Soldiers'

By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 8, 2004 – A Massachusetts brother and sister have set their sights on megabucks to make it easier for all deployed U.S. service members to call home.

Brittany Bergquist, 13, and her 12-year-old brother, Robbie, hope to raise $9 million to buy satellite phones for deployed soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq. They're also buying and collecting prepaid calling cards to send to military units for distribution to deployed service members.

This effort got really big, really fast, and it all sprouted from a seed of compassion.

In late April, Brittany and Robbie sought to help a Massachusetts soldier in Iraq with a large cell phone bill. With their cousin, Army Capt. Don Williamson, serving in Iraq, the youngsters said they felt a special affinity for the soldier's plight and decided to help him.

They pooled their own money and got donations from their classmates in Norwell, Mass., a suburb south of Boston. They took the $21 they raised to the South Shore Savings Bank to start an account. The bank's employees were impressed, and the bank donated $500.

Just after the youngsters opened the account, they found out the soldier's cell phone company had waived the bill. So instead of closing the account and giving the money back to their friends, Brittany and Robbie decided to do something that would make calling home easier for deployed troops.

Since then, "Cell Phones for Soldiers" has raised more than $100,000 in donations and has bought $30,000 worth of calling cards to be distributed to deployed service members.

More than 2,000 businesses, schools, fire departments and other facilities nationwide have set up drop-off points for used cell phones, which are recycled for cash. The list of collection sites is growing daily; a plan in the works will soon put a drop-off point within easy reach of most Americans.

Other businesses are poised to make substantial donations as soon as Cell Phones for Soldiers receives official status as a nonprofit group, said the children's father, Bob.

The first three batches of calling cards have gone out to units in Iraq. One went to cousin Williamson's unit, the 139th Engineering Battalion. Another went to the Massachusetts National Guard's 42nd Division Artillery. The third batch of calling cards went to the 1st Cavalry Division.

Bob Bergquist said a Wisconsin National Guard units is training on the West Coast in preparation for its deployment to Iraq, and the family hopes personally to present the unit with calling cards before the deployment.

"No one would have thought only two and a half months ago, when this started, that it would grow so quickly," he said. Fortunately, he said, he and his wife, Gail, both are teachers and have the summer free to help their children with Cell Phones for Soldiers, which now even involves travel for the youngsters.

Brittany and Robbie served as honorary grand marshals at the National World War II Memorial Dedication parade Memorial Day weekend in Washington, and were in New York on July 5 to appear on CBS' "The Early Show." After host Hannah Storm interviewed the children, their father said, there wasn't a dry eye in the studio nor at sea, apparently.

Bob Bergquist said a deployed sailor e-mailed the family after seeing the interview, saying he had to get up so his friends wouldn't see him crying only to be joined by about 20 other sailors doing the same thing.

"We've received a lot of e-mails from people who have said that (Cell Phones for Soldiers) has finally given people who normally just kind of sit and watch helplessly a way to do something that's actually meaningful for the soldiers," the children's father said. "They e-mail us to let us know how important it is to them to be able to do that."

The couple's 18-year-old daughter, Courtney, also is involved in the program, working behind the scenes. She started the Cell Phones for Soldiers site on the Web, and handles much of the correspondence that comes in through the site.

Robbie said he doesn't foresee an end for Cell Phones for Soldiers. "Our goal is actually to change the way that soldiers call home," he said, "and to do that we need to raise $9 million." The money, he said, would buy 7,800 satellite cell phones, with each one available to 10 to 20 deployed service members.

The family has a promise of help from the White House in cutting through red tape, and what amounts to a free site license from a Swedish company for use of its software in computers that will be used for 3-cents-per-minute satellite calls in Internet cafes funded by Cell Phones for Soldiers, Bob Bergquist said.

What started out as handful of children's ice cream money in April has taken on a life of its own in a short time, he added.

"It's really pretty amazing," he said. "I'm just stunned by it still. The nice thing is I still get goosebumps when I think about it."

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