Efforts for Troops Earn 'Caring Award' for Massachusetts Teens

By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2006 - A brother-and-sister team that has raised more than $1 million to provide pre-paid calling cards for deployed servicemembers shared the spotlight in Baltimore Oct. 17 with fellow recipients of the 2006 National Caring Awards, sponsored by the Caring Institute.

Brittany Bergquist, 15, and her brother, Robbie, 14, were honored for "Cell Phones for Soldiers," an effort they've spearheaded for the last two and a half years from their family's home in Norwell, Mass.

The Caring Institute is a nonprofit organization that promotes the values of caring, integrity, and public service, according to the organization's Web site. Among this year's other National Caring Award winners are the Rev. Billy Graham and baseball great Cal Ripken Jr.

Though the honor is gratifying, Brittany said, the attention it's bringing to Cell Phones for Soldiers is what's really important.

"The fact that we were able to be there at all -- around so many influential people and able to hear the stories of the other recipients -- was just incredible," she said. "It's great to be recognized for what we do, but when that happens, it means more people know about Cell Phones for Soldiers, and that's what matters the most. As more people know about the program, more people donate, and that means more calling cards for the soldiers."

The teenagers said they received a great deal of attention at the gala - Ripken even made a special trip to their table to express his admiration for their work - but they were most surprised at the attention they received the next day as they made their way through Baltimore-Washington International Airport for their flight home.

"We must have been recognized by at least 15 people," Brittany said. "They'd stop and ask us if we were the Cell Phones for Soldiers kids they'd seen at the dinner, and they'd say how much they admire what we do."

Robbie said he's thankful that he and his sister received the National Caring Award, and he echoed Brittany's hope that the honor will mean more deployed servicemembers will be able to receive pre-paid calling cards through their program.

"It was great to be up there getting an award that has gone to so many great people doing such important things," he said. "And it was nice to hear so many people telling us that what we're doing is important."

Cell Phones for Soldiers began in April 2004, when Brittany and Robbie saw a television news story about a deployed soldier who had run up a huge cell phone bill calling his family from Iraq. They pooled their own money, sought donations from friends, and started an account at a local bank, hoping to raise enough money to pay the soldier's phone bill. The bank even kicked in a donation, and the word spread.

Meanwhile, the cell phone company forgave the soldier's bill, so the teenagers decided to keep up the effort and help as many deployed servicemembers as possible stay in touch with their families and friends at home.

With help from their schoolteacher parents, Bob and Gail, and their sister, Courtney, the siblings have built a network of sponsors and partners both large and small, and have distributed more than 80,000 pre-paid calling cards. They fund the program through direct donations and by collecting and recycling used cell phones, other electronic devices and printer cartridges. They've lined up drop-off centers all over the country, which are listed on the program's Web site.

As successful as their program has been, the siblings want to do more. They're working now with military family support organizations to create a spin-off program called Cell Phones for Returning Heroes. The idea is to provide pre-loaded disposable cell phones to the family groups, which in turn would distribute the phones at airports to servicemembers returning from deployment.

"The troops do so much for all of us," Robbie said. "It shouldn't cost them anything to call home."

The teenagers' selection for the National Caring Award comes with induction into the Hall of Fame for Caring Americans at the Frederick Douglass Museum here.

Cell Phones for Soldiers is a member of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which highlights efforts by the American people and the nation's corporate sector to support the nation's men and women in uniform.

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