When two siblings emptied $14 out of their piggy banks in 2004 to help a deployed soldier pay an exorbitant cellphone bill, no one thought it would result in a major organization called Cell Phones for Soldiers.
Brittany and Robbie Bergquist, now 28 and 27 years old respectively, reflected on the last 15 years since creating CPFS when they were students at Norwell Middle School.
“We saw on the news that a deployed Massachusetts soldier had an $8,000 phone bill, and we were devastated that soldiers serving our country couldn’t afford to talk to their loved ones,” Brittany said. Without discussing it, they emptied their piggy banks on the kitchen table. “We told our parents we wanted to help pay the soldier’s phone bill. Then we asked our friends to contribute and ended up with $21.”
The duo realized that would barely make a dent in such a high bill, so they held car washes and bake sales. “We ended up getting enough notoriety on the news locally and nationally that the phone company waived his bill,” Brittany said.
“We learned the issue was widespread, so we expanded our efforts, and with our parents’ help, we created the [nonprofit] called Cell Phones for Soldiers,” Robbie added.
But their best intentions met with setbacks. Unsolicited, people sent their discarded phones to the Bergquist’s Norwell home. After receiving hundreds of cellphones, they decided to add minutes to the phones and send them to soldiers.
“But one hour after a national TV interview, a Department of Defense general called and said we had to cease and desist our project because it was a security hazard for the soldiers,” since the phones could potentially be tracked by an enemy, thus revealing the soldiers’ locations, Robbie explained. “This was a huge roadblock. Our program was beginning to build momentum, going viral before viral was a thing. By now we were receiving thousands of phones and had to rethink what to do with them.”
The answer was a recycling program to generate funds and an eventual partnership with AT&T Inc. to provide calling cards to the troops, enabling them to call home for free.
Celebrating its 15th anniversary last month, CPFS is now an international program that has distributed more than 5 million calling cards loaded with more than 350 million minutes of talk-time to deployed service members. Although deployments are fewer now, they still send a weekly average of 4,000calling cards and collect about 50,000 recycled phones per month, helping to reduce waste in landfills.
As times changed, CPFS expanded its mission to assist veterans returning home with a CPFS offshoot, Helping Heroes Home. It provides emergency funding for soldiers in need after deployments, paying a one-time bill up to $750.
“We also plan to grow our veterans’ initiative program,” said Robbie, “to provide sustainable, affordable phone plans with pre-loaded phones for returning veterans to help them stay connected in this ultra-connected world.”
Robbie and Brittany were named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2017, joining the prestigious ranks of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel as young game-changers and entrepreneurs. Combined, they’ve received two dozen awards and recognitions, met celebrities and high-ranking politicians including President George W. Bush, and were featured in the Young Heroes Book Series.
The Bergquists grew up running CPFS with the help of their parents, Gail and Robert, and older sister Courtney, while trying to maintain a normal existence. “One minute we’d be on ‘Good Morning America’ and the next minute our parents would tell us to take out the trash,” said Brittany, who now lives in Plymouth. “Both parents were teachers and made a point to keep us grounded.”
Robbie said Boston College High School was understanding of his need to miss classes for CPFS duties, providing him with lessons while he traveled, and allowing him to play varsity soccer in spite of missing practices.
Their work with CPFS helped dictate their college majors. Brittany studied marketing and economics at Stonehill College and Robbie, a college soccer player, chose Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to study sports management and marketing.
While maintaining an active role in CPFS, Brittany is a New England associate field marketing manager for Kind Snacks. Robbie continues to run CPFS in Atlanta through a strategic partnership with its recycler, CT Cellutions. The company pays all of CPFS’s overhead, including Robbie’s and his assistant’s salary.
“Our goal is to put Cell Phones for Soldiers out of business,” Robbie said. “But as long as there’s a need, and until there’s a government program that provides proper communication tools free for our military, I’ll continue working with CPFS.”
CPFS continues to accept discarded cellphones and small electronics such as iPads and iPods. Donation information is on its website, www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com.
Christie Coombs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.