Girl in Action: Brittany Bergquist–Troops Phone Home
It was 2004." America was in the midst of costly wars with both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the multi-front war on terror was raging stronger than ever imagined. Casualties were rising steadily as what was hoped to be a short offensive turned into years of drained resources. Brittany Bergquist was just 13 years old as she watched the effects of the war from her home and decided she wanted to make a difference. On an unforgettable rainy Saturday morning, using $14 from her piggy bank, Brittany and her younger brother Robbie founded Cell Phones for Soldiers, an organization that soon became an influential and far-reaching non-profit.
Inspired by a television segment that featured an overseas soldier who did not have enough cell phone minutes to call home as well as having members of their own family in the military, the Bergquist siblings devised an organization that would turn old cell phones into prepaid calling cards for troops stationed overseas. Seven years later, more than 8.3 million cell phones have been recycled, and more than 114 million minutes for service men and women to use for calling overseas has been provided. Now a junior in college, Brittany balances being a full-time student with all the day-to-day work of leading a charity, as she and her brother" continue to head the organization,
Teen Voices editorial intern Rebecca Klein recently had the opportunity to speak with this amazing lady as she discusses everything from working with family to the importance of giving back to the community.
Teen Voices (TV): How did you and your brother get the idea for Cell Phones for Soldiers?
Brittany Bergquiest (BB): We were motivated to start the organization when we heard a story on television about a soldier who didn't have the minutes to call home from overseas. We ran upstairs without a word to each other, got all the money from our piggy banks and brought it down to our parents. There was a total of about $14. We told them that we wanted to do something to make a difference.
TV: What about that particular story inspired you? Why do you think it is so important to help support soldiers overseas?
BB:" I think it was really important to our family. We have " two cousins who are in the military right now. One is an officer in the Army and the other is an officer in the National Guard. Both were in training to be deployed soon after we had seen that story. It really hit home, especially since it was a soldier from Massachusetts. We were kind of putting ourselves in their shoes if that makes sense.
TV: And now what is your current involvement in Cell Phones for Soldiers? What do you do there now?
BB: I'm still very active in the organization. I'm obviously not home but I am still the co-founder with my brother and we're very involved with doing a lot of the PR and media for the organization. We still do the paperwork, send out the calling cards, and answer all the e-mails at our kitchen table.
TV: So does cell phone for soldiers have full-time employees now? Do you guys oversee these employees? Who else is involved right now with the organization?
BB: We have several big partners who have been very involved in helping out with Cell Phones for Soldiers. Our biggest help I would say is General Motors. They've done a fantastic job of spreading the word about the organization and have also collected thousands of phones. We also work with our recycling company who is very involved with receiving e-mails and helping with calling cards. They send us an excel sheet with all the information so we can send out the cards more easily. It's a huge process.
My parents help out with answering e-mails, and my brother, sister, and I are all still very involved.
TV: That's really great. So what does your sister do for the organization now? Is she a younger sister?
BB: She's actually our older sister. She was the person who developed our first website for the organization. She's been really involved with sending out calling cards and working on the social media aspect. She's a teacher in Indiana and lives in Chicago, but still works diligently on the program. She's been a really great role model and has pushed Robbie and me to continue with the organization.
TV: What is the biggest challenge you think you've faced in being a young woman who is leading a non-profit organization?
BB: I think the challenge lies in being completely understood. It's difficult to explain to someone who's not in the situation why I'm doing what I'm doing. It gets kind of hard, but when we can sit people down and show them what we've done, what we've accomplished, and the e-mails that we've received from the troops or from the troops' families we know that it is worth it. That makes it much easier to push forward on those hard days.
TV: So would you say that the response you've gotten from troops is the most rewarding thing you've gotten from leading the organization?
BB: Absolutely. I mean ever since we were very young, our parents instilled in us that it was important to give back and to care about other people. One time I remember we were going out to get ice-cream and my brother said, "Oh well mom and dad can I have the money for my ice-cream just so that I can hold it?" And my parents were like "Okay, sure." They gave us the 2 dollars that they were going to give us to get ice-cream, and when we were walking past a homeless man on the street Robbie gave his money to this gentleman. So I mean [giving back] has always been very important to us, and being able to do it on such a large scale is very rewarding.
BB: I would have to say that one of the other most rewarding things about the organization and running it with my family is that it has brought us closer together. We know we will have each other's back no matter what, and I think it's really made it much easier to communicate with my brother because he knows everything that I'm going through because he's going through it too.
TV: So you are going to be a junior in college or a senior?
BB: I'm going to be a junior, yes.
TV: And your brother is going to be a sophomore?
TV: Do you guys go to school nearby?
BB: My brother goes to school at UMass Amherst and he's going to be a sophomore. He is about 3 hours away from our home. I go to Stonehill College in Massachusetts and that's only about 20 minutes away from home. I really like to be close just because I can shoot home to do interviews or pack up phones for the weekend.
TV: How have you guys navigated sharing leadership responsibilities at school, when you're not living together?
BB: It's tough. I mean he and I have always kind of had this strange way of always being able to just know what we should do without actually having to say it to each other, but we both have taken on roles. He's very persuasive so he sticks to trying to spread the word on college campuses and he's also a bit more involved with the work of coming home and packaging up the cell phones and sending them out for the weekend. My role is really more press coverage -- Robbie's definitely still involved with that, but I guess I've sort of taken more of a lead role with that just so he can focus more on this athletics and his school.
TV: So what advice would you give to young people who are perhaps interested in going into the non-profit world?
BB: I would definitely say that if you find something that you're passionate about, and if you feel that you want to commit yourself, then it's guaranteed that you're going to be " successful and get a lot out of it - even more than you put into it. We had the passion and the drive, " whichpulled other people to us. It made other young people and adults want to help out. Don't be afraid to hear "no." Just keep going and eventually you will find the "yes" you need.
TV: Growing up did you have any specific role models that helped guide you through this process?
BB: My sister, definitely. She's always been extremely strong. She's very smart and has always been very great at being able to balance several roles while really doing everything she wants to do. I know that it was pretty difficult for her when Robbie and I got thrown into the spotlight because she might " felt a little overshadowed. I hope she knows how much Robbie and I both look up to her. She's done some really incredible things.
TV: Well that being said, you mentioned how she's able to balance several roles, how have you been able to balance being a student and leading a non-profit organization? What have you found is the most important thing about this type of balance?
BB: I think it's about prioritizing. It's always been kind of a balancing actwhere we have to figure out how much we're going to dedicate to our sports and to our friends versus the full time job that we've had as a student and as heads of a non-profit. It's always hard to incorporate " everything together. If we wanted to hang out with our friends, we would invite our friends over and tell them that if they helped with Cell Phones for Soldiers, then our parents would treat us to a mini golf game or would take us out to dinner. So we really tried to find a balance and to also incorporate our friends.
TV: Did you envision this organization being this big and successful?
BB: Never. We envisioned it to be a town-wide or maybe a state-wide organization. We never expected it to be international. We get cell phones from Japan and from Australia and Sweden. They come in from everywhere. It's really incredible.
TV: How did you guys navigate that through high school? How did you know how to handle that type of organization? What kind of guidance were you getting?
BB: It was really a lot of trial and error. We've gotten taken advantage of, we've been cheated out of funds, we've had cellphones stolen from drop off sites. It's been difficult. We've taken a lot of hits, but I think just going through all of the difficult things allowed us to have thicker skin. Now it blows my mind the amount of things that we know. We went by what felt good with the organization rather than what would be a typical business plan. It was also based on what we thought we could accomplish. It's worked for us.
TV: Looking back is there anything you would have done differently?
BB: I don't think so. I think everything we've done has propelled the organization to where it is today. We have had our ups and we've had our downs, but our downs have really made it so that we can appreciate what we've been working on. It has really allowed us to see who our true supporters are. I think every decision that we've made has been pretty great. If anything, I would change the fact that I would have thrown my sister more into the spotlight. She's always been the one who's stayed in the background, and I don't think she's ever gotten the recognition for the work that she's done with the organization.
TV: What would you say has been the organizations biggest accomplishment?
BB: I think just getting off the ground in the first place and becoming such a large organization. Just as I said we expected it to be town-wide, and now it's international. So I think it was really overcoming our fears and just going for it. I think our accomplishment is really our ability to support the troops in such an impactful way at such a young age.
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