Talking Cell Phones For Soldiers With Robbie Bergquist

Robbie Bergquist with soldiers at Fort Lewis McChord
Robbie with some of the troops that Cell Phones for Soldiers helps out.


Back when I researched disposing of e-waste, I was fortunate enough to find out about Cell Phones For Soldiers, which of course went right into  Erin McCloskey, who handles communication, introduced me to one of the founders, Robbie Bergquist.  Robbie was kind enough to answer some questions so we civic geeks can understand how his organization runs and how we can help.

1) Robbie, how did Cell Phones for Soldiers get founded and how has the response been?

In 2004, at the ages of 11 and 12, my sister Brittany and I were inspired by the story of a local soldier returning from Iraq with an almost $8,000 phone bill. How could a man who was serving his country not be able to call his family for free?  We decided to do something. We cleaned out our piggy banks, gathered lunch money and held a car wash to help this one man. We decided why stop there and that’s when Cell Phones For Soldiers was born.

Minutes That Matter, the charity’s long-standing program, provides free calling cards to servicemen and women. Since 2004, the charity has provided more than 213 million minutes of free talk time for troops and veterans.

Our newest program, Helping Heroes Home, was created July 2012 to aid veterans with emergency financial assistance. Since its creation, the program has assisted more than 2,500 veterans with one-time emergency needs such as communication services; paying for rent to avoid eviction; imperative car repairs; and more.

The response has been incredible! We’ve been blown away with the support we’ve received throughout the years, not to mention the trust instilled in two kids with a mission to provide a lifeline for America’s bravest.

2)  I’d like to focus on the donation side – how do you handle the cell phones and other devices that get donated?  How are they processed?

We work with Mindful eCycling to process all donated devices. Mobile devices and tablets donated to Cell Phones For Soldiers are then either reused, remarketed or recycled in order to maximize the benefit to our troops and veterans.

Once the donated device is received at the processing facility, it is quickly wiped of all personal information and checked to see if it is repairable or needs to be recycled. The proceeds from remarketed and recycled devices are used to fund our two programs, Minutes That Matter and Helping Heroes Home.

Since 2004, we’ve been able to recycle/repurpose more than 11.3 million cell phones!

3) How do you determine if something can be repurposed or has to be recycled?

When donated devices arrive at the processing facility they are triaged to determined their best use.  A cell phone that is modern and fully functional may be ready for reuse or resale, while newer phones with some damage may be suitable for repair. Phones that are either too old or completely broken are sold to recyclers who strip the devices of any salvageable components and rare metals and then responsibly recycle the remaining parts. The proceeds from this process are used to purchase prepaid international calling cards for troops and to provide emergency funding to veterans.

4) Recycling e-waste is a touchy business with many regulations and issues – how do you make sure that’s done appropriately?

We only work with properly certified processing and recycling facilities to insure all phones are handled in accordance with benchmark environmental and data security standards such as R2 and ISO 14001.  In addition, we encourage our supporters to factory reset their devices before donating.

5) How is enthusiasm for the project?  Being from Silicon Valley I figure it’d be popular here – are there any state, regional, or city differences in response?

The nonprofit has been steadily growing for more than a decade! The charity receives support from men and women all over the United States that want to give back to troops and veterans. Thanks to the support of those volunteers, since 2004, we’ve been able to provide more than 3 million free calling cards to troops.

6) You encourage people to set up their own drives.  Have you partnered with any companies, clubs, groups, or conventions – as I think the SF convention scene might like to get involved.

Yes, we work with more than 3,400 public cell phone drop-off locations across the country! We also work with thousands of individuals who hold private drives as well. Businesses, schools, churches, fire/police stations and civic organizations continue to assist the charity through donations of phones and funds.

7) Have you ever thought of branching out to cover other things, like taking Tablet donations, providing internet access, etc.?

Absolutely, that is why we expanded Cell Phones For Soldiers to include our veterans program Helping Heroes Home. Through Helping Heroes Home we provide veterans with emergency financial assistance to cover items like cell phones, internet access, bill payments and more.

In June 2014, along with our partner AT&T, Cell Phones For Soldiers donated two iPads and two desktop computers for recreation therapy use to the Memphis Veterans Administration Hospital. The donated tablets are equipped with voice-activated technology and are being utilized bedside and in therapy workrooms in the spinal cord injury unit.

We’re also thrilled to announce that we recently expanded our recycling program to include donations of tablets.

In addition, those interested in selling an iPhone can also benefit from Cell Phones For Soldiers iPhone buyback program. Through this program, supporters can receive payment for the device, donate up to 100 percent of the phone’s value to Cell Phones For Soldiers and receive a tax-deductible receipt.

8) What other military charities do your recommend our technically and creatively inclined audience look into?

Within the past year we’ve had the opportunity to assist a number of veteran homeless shelters with communication needs and were inspired to see the results of their veteran programs.

This summer, Cell Phones For Soldiers provided computers and internet for the residents at HomeAgain, a nonprofit organization based in Richmond, Virginia that assists veterans experiencing homelessness by providing emergency and transitional shelter and permanent supportive housing as well as skill-building programs.

Additionally in 2014, we were able to supply cell phones and service to the Union Gospel Mission located in Dallas, Texas and to the Boston-based New England Center for Homeless Veterans. Both facilities will lend the devices to their veteran occupants to use for job searching, allowing them a personal phone number for potential employers to reach them.

Thanks Robbie!  Folks, go help out – and it wouldn’t be hard to start a cell phone drop at your con, club, comic shop, or business.  Just sayin . . . .

(And 11.3 million phones?  Wow  . . . )


– Steven Savage