July 23, 2014
   
Family Creates National Nonprofit without Staff, CEO, or Board

By Andrea Decof

Bergquist family, from left, Robbie, Gail, Courtney, Bob, Brittany
Two years ago 13-year-old Brittany Bergquist and her brother Robbie, 12, decided they wanted to help U.S. soldiers stationed overseas pay for their phone calls home. They cracked open their piggy banks, and took $21 to the bank. Today, they, along with their parents Bob and Gail and sister Courtney, are running a million-dollar nonprofit with 10,000 volunteers.

Here’s how it happened. Upon hearing of the soldiers’ plight — some of whom ran up bills totalling $8,000 — the bank donated $500 on the spot to seed their fund. Encouraged, Brittany and Robbie started collecting donations: snack money from their friends at school, running car washes and yard sales. But that wasn’t enough.

Brittany did some research on fundraising, and learned about collecting and recycling old cell phones as a source of income. They liked the idea and started “Cell Phones for Soldiers,” based out of their Norwell home, a concept so simple adults scratched their heads and said, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

The kids collected as many old cell phones as they could, which they then sold to a recycler. With the cash they received, they bought prepaid calling cards and sent them to servicemen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. Families of servicemen would email or call them with tales of need, and they would send cards, either to the soldier directly or his commanding officer, who would then distribute them to the unit.

A Simple Plan

The plan was not only simple, it was irresistible.

Word of mouth about their mission spread quickly, and soon the Bergquist kids were written up in the Quincy Patriot Ledger. When the Ledger put the story on the AP wire, “things went crazy,” according to Bob Bergquist. There was a deluge of interest, not just locally, but nationally. NBC Nightly News, CBS News, Money Magazine and others did feature stories on them. People from across the country started calling, asking how they could help. And cell phones started filling up the Bergquist’s garage.

The idea took off like a rocket. They had calls from people everywhere wanting to donate phones, donate cash, or start a cell phone pickup center for Cell Phones for Soldiers.

Today, with 4,000 drop-off sites around the U.S., the nonprofit receives donations of 15,000-20,000 cell phones each month. The phones come from individuals, families, and companies like the Union Pacific Railroad, which has 50,000 employees. At a recycling value of between $2 and $120 per phone, the funds available to buy calling cards add up quickly.

Bob Bergquist estimates that his kids have raised more than one million dollars so far from cell phone donations. To date they’ve sent 80,000 calling cards to soldiers and their families. They get 60 emails a day, and 400 hits a day on their website. Outfits like Enterprise Car Rental and the Virginia State Police call to donate. The idea has been so successful that the family is branching out and collecting ink cartridges as well.

Success Flowed from a Great Idea and a Great Story

The secret of their success is straightforward. Start with the appeal of a great idea and a great story. Add in the fact that almost everyone has a friend or relative in the military, so everyone wants to help. And the Bergquists made it easy to donate — their website has a Pay Pal account for cash donations — or set up a new drop-off site, so anyone can contribute.

Now consider that this huge operation works on no full-time staff, no salaries, no CEO, or board of directors.

Bob and Gail both work full-time, as teachers, so they and their children work on this project in their spare time, including holidays and vacations. And the rest is the power of networking.

It’s a family affair, and their “family” is growing to include people all over the country.

Courtney, their oldest daughter, away at college, fields phone calls and runs the website. A volunteer in Indianapolis does the art design for the site. Bob estimates they now have a national force of 10,000 volunteers, soliciting businesses and maintaining and adding drop-off sites. Schools all over the country have joined the effort, and it just keeps growing.

Bob says, “It’s really touched a nerve with people. Even people who don’t support the war want to help the soldiers. People want to do something.”

They’ve had soldiers thank them personally, and tearfully, for their efforts. The kids were treated to a trip on a guided missile cruiser, as thanks from the crew of 400 for the phone cards they received. This summer the Pentagon is sending Brittany and Robbie to Brussels and the Middle East, to give out phone cards to soldiers on the 4th of July.

They’ve also been invited to Washington to be the honorary Grand Marshals of the Memorial Day Parade.

But through it all, Robbie and Brittany have kept their eyes on the prize. Brittany is currently researching how satellite phones work, so she can help soldiers stationed on ships at sea stay in touch with their families.

Bob says that while his kids are getting quite an education, they’re just two normal kids trying to help soldiers and their families. Their nonprofit has grown so big, he says, that they’ll need an executive director soon. But for now, it’s Brittany and Robbie’s show, and they’re running with it. And the best thing they’ve learned? That “everyday people can do something to make a difference.”

To learn more, click on www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com.

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