Kids Help Soldiers Stay Connected

Lisa M. Cataldo
July 29, 2004

Article Updated in September 2009

Robbie and Brittany Bergquist
Robbie and Brittany Bergquist collect mail and cell phones inside the South Shore Savings Bank in Norwell, Massachusetts.

In April 2004, 13-year-old Brittany Bergquist heard a radio report about how the family of U.S. Army Reserve Sergeant Bryan Fletcher was struggling to pay a $7,624 cell phone bill. Fletcher had run up the bill calling his hometown of Natick, Massachusetts from Iraq, not realizing the kinds of roaming charges he was incurring.

Brittany and her brother Robbie, 12, pooled their own money with some from school friends, and took $16 to the South Shore Savings Bank in Norwell, MA to open an account to help Fletcher with his phone bill. The bank management decided to kick in $500 to help out.

That early donation from the bank was an early tip-off—the Bergquists' idea for helping Fletcher and other soldiers overseas stay in touch with their loved ones was going to take off in a big way.

Pretty soon, the Bergquists were taking donations of money, pre-paid phone cards, and used cell phones. (The cell phones are recycled and sold to benefit the campaign.) By July 2004, their campaign had raised more than $130,000 from all over the country. Meanwhile, T-Mobile decided to forgive Fletcher's phone bill balance after the media picked up the story.

To date, 6,500 AT & T calling cards have been purchased through the fund. The first batch of cards were shipped to soldiers at Camp Victory in Iraq and to military personnel stationed in Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Moving forward, the campaign is interested in working with government officials to explore additional methods of communication for members of the military and their families, such as voice-over communication through computer networks.

A Snowball Effect
The growth continues. On July 14, 2004, the Buffalo New York Fire Department held a press conference announcing the department's involvement in the campaign. The event was attended by the Bergquist family, Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, New York State Commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Jim Vinsonhaler, and representatives from the fire departments of Buffalo and Auburn, New York and Fairfield, Ohio.

The Ohio contingent had driven more than 1,100 miles to personally deliver 1,200 used cell phones collected for the campaign. "My wife Angie saw the Bergquist children on TV and she knew we had three cell phones in our closet so she asked if we could donate them," said Jeff Kenworthy, a captain with the department. "Later that afternoon we were having lunch with our fire chief Don Bennett and we started talking about the program."

Bennett became interested in the cause and agreed to use the three firehouses in the Fairfield area as drop off locations for the phones. A local TV station did a story, and the cell phones started to pour in.

"We know first hand the commitment and sacrifices of our soldiers," said Michael D'Orazio, acting Commissioner for the Buffalo Fire Department. "Over the past year or so, ten members of our department have at one time or another been asked to fulfill their military obligations as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. We appreciate the efforts of all soldiers and felt that the Cell Phones for Soldiers was a great way for us to help them stay in touch with loved ones back home."

All Buffalo firehouses are now official drop off sites for used cell phones.

Meanwhile, Vinsonhaler announced that the New York State VFW has adopted the Cell Phones for Soldiers campaign as its special project for the coming year. "We'll be asking for donations through our membership and the project will culminate next June," said Vinsonhaler, who heard about the campaign through a local newspaper article.

According to Vinsonhaler, the state of New York has 130,000 members between the VFW and Ladies Auxiliary. "We have done special projects in the past," Vinsonhaler said, "but I have a feeling this one is going to be big."

Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly signed on to endorse the campaign by offering to make a donation to Cell Phones for Soldiers each time someone signs up for home phone service through his company Z-Tel Communications.

The E.T. Imperative

Sergeant Bryan
Army Reserve Sergeant Bryan Fletcher (of the 439th Quartermaster Company based out of Brockton, MA and New Haven, CT) was the inspiration for the Cell Phones for Soldiers campaign.

One reason Cell Phones for Soldiers seems to have taken off is that it addresses an everyday emotional need that almost everyone has experienced: the imperative to phone home, to hear a familiar voice while far away.

"I have no idea how parents, spouses, and siblings survived World War II, Korea, Vietnam, etc., dependent only on letters that may have been weeks or months old to hear news from or about their loved ones," said Linda Williams, who organized a raffle to benefit Cell Phones for Soldiers.

Williams, of Warwick, Rhode Island, first heard about the campaign when she saw the Bergquists being interviewed on a morning television show.

"I was so impressed with what these kids were doing and had so much empathy for the families of deployed soldiers after my experience that I decided I had to do something for this cause," remarked Williams, whose son, Corporal Louis Pelopida, returned home from Iraq in July of 2003 after a seven month stint overseas with the 6th Motor Transport Battalion of Providence, Rhode Island.

Williams, a registered nurse who has not been directly involved with fundraisers in the past, raised $3,300 for the campaign and said she would consider doing additional fundraisers in the future. "There are so many worthy causes in need of financial support and so much affluence in this country," Williams stated. "If everyone could do just a little, so much could be done."

Children's Book Author Joins In
The snowball effect continued through Williams' raffle. One of the featured items was a set of children's books donated by author Lauren R. Bamberger. But Bamberger isn't stopping there. She's now offered to donate a portion of the proceeds from her new book, Until They All Come Home (Trafford Publishers), to the Cell Phones for Soldiers campaign.

That's fitting, because Bamberger wrote the book to comfort children facing the absence of a family member. Bamberger's younger brother Zach joined the Marines following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and was deployed to Iraq last year. "Our lives changed and I learned a lot about what military families go through very quickly," Bamberger explained. "I wanted to reach out to families, especially those with young children."

Bamberger recalled how her family didn't hear from her brother when he first arrived in Iraq. "When he was finally able to call home we paid whatever it cost and it was a lot," Bamberger said. "It was usually a dollar or more a minute but when you haven't talked to someone in almost six months you don't care how much it costs because you never know when another call might be possible."

"A lot of people don't realize that the military today is a lot different from when I served," said Vinsonhaler. "Back thirty years ago the military was made up of 18, 19, and 20-year-old single soldiers. Today, there are over 500,000 reservists, most of them with families and children of their own and it's so important for them to be able to make that connection to call home."