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The Boston Globe: “Teens’ effort for GIs makes a connection”

Norwell resident Gail Bergquist still doesn’t have the space to park her car in her garage. The garage, she said, is full of old cellphones, boxes of them. She can’t even walk around her house without tripping over them.

Bergquist is the mother of Brittany, 16, and her younger brother Robbie, 15, who started an organization called Cell Phones for Soldiers three years ago to help American troops call home from overseas. They collect, on average, an astonishing 12,000 donated phones a month – and it looks like the donations will not be slowing down any time soon.

AT&T, the giant telecommunications company, recently announced that it has set up cellphone collection stations at its stores in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., in an effort to help Cell Phones for Soldiers. The money from recycling these phones will be donated to the organization. And, according to Kate MacKinnon, a spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless, a subsidiary of AT&T, it’s possible the program could be expanded to the rest of the country this summer – allowing anyone to drop off an old cellphone at any AT&T or Cingular Wireless store for the homespun enterprise that began as two youngsters’ modest effort to help.

“My daughter e-mailed AT&T, and they answered,” Gail Bergquist said last week. “For a company as big as AT&T to even recognize us, that’s what’s impressing us.”

In addition to setting up the collection stations, the corporation donated 10,000 long-distance calling cards to Cell Phones for Soldiers, valued at $270,000, said MacKinnon.

Each card allows a soldier stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kuwait to make a 20-minute call home.

AT&T also agreed to sell any additional calling cards to Cell Phones for Soldiers at half price or less, said Brittany Bergquist, a sophomore at Norwell High School.

Unlike what the name of the group implies, Cell Phones for Soldiers does not mail cellphones to the service men and women. Rather, the organization uses the money from recycling the phones to buy calling cards. The soldiers then call home using old-fashioned landline telephones.

“My children originally thought they could send cellphones over with prepaid minutes. [But] the Defense Department said cellphones should not be brought over there” because the enemy could use them to track the soldiers, Gail Bergquist explained.

But by the time the children learned this, donors had happily mailed boxes of old phones to their house. So Brittany found a recycler in Michigan who was willing to pay cash for the phones. A recycled mobile phone brings in, on average, $5 to $7.

Brittany is particularly happy about her organization’s partnership with AT&T because AT&T cards are most often requested by the soldiers.

“With our partnership with AT&T, [it’s] better for us,” she said, adding that AT&T cards also work best in areas where American troops are stationed because many phone lines there are AT&T lines.

Cell Phones for Soldiers has already purchased thousands of calling cards from AT&T, and Brittany said it will discontinue buying cards from a small Texas company the organization was using before and purchase all future cards from AT&T.

For American troops in Iraq, though, calling home isn’t easy, even with phone cards.

“It’s difficult for troops to be able to get to a phone,” said Brittany, whose parents are teachers. “We’ve heard of people who traveled for two hours, waited in line for two hours, talked on the phone for 15 minutes, walked back for two hours, and started the day with no sleep.”

Besides supporting the troops, the cellphone recycling program has environmental benefits. According to recyclemyphone.com, mobile phones contain lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic that can cause pollution if they are thrown into landfills or incinerators.

Gail Bergquist said people often buy new phones because companies are constantly coming out with the latest models.

When mobile phones are recycled, they are either taken apart for parts, or refurbished and resold to customers in South America and the Caribbean, she said.

Cellphones can be dropped off at three AT&T stores in Boston: 647 Boylston St., 290 Washington St., and 371 Washington St., or at the Randolph and Hanson fire departments, the Norwell Public Library, or the Rockland Town Hall. For more information, visit cellphonesforsoldiers.net.

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