Vernon church helping soldiers stay connected

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:49

    VERNON-Barrie Beaver figures he's like a lot of people who are unhappy about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But like a lot of people, it's the politics he's opposed to, not the men and women serving in the military. "A lot of people are unhappy about the war and feel there is nothing we can do," Beaver said. "This is something we can do." That something is to organize the local effort to help service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan stay in touch with their families back in the states through the "Cell Phones for Soldiers" program. The Vernon United Methodist Church off Route 94 has been designated as an official drop-off site for old cell phones. The phones are collected and returned to the manufacturers, which pay between $3 and $8 a piece. That money, in turn, is used to purchase pre-paid calling cards for soldiers stationed in the war zones. The Cell Phones for Soldiers program was started by 13-year-old Brittany Bergquist and her 12-year old brother Robbie of Norwell, Mass. After hearing a news report about a local soldier who ran up a massive phone bill calling home from Iraq, they decided to do something to help. The youngsters started a bank account using their snack money. The bank contributed $500 to get them started. They hope to provide as many soldiers as possible with pre-paid calling cards, with an ultimate goal of providing banks of cell, satellite, or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology that allows people to make telephone calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular phone line. They already have distributed calling cards to soldiers in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and elsewhere. According to some of the testimonials on the program's Web site (, servicemen and women and their families report three-minute phone calls costing $50; others report monthly phone bills totalling more than $500 in an attempt to keep in touch with one another in the war zones. The importance of such calls is explained by Amanda Nix of Broken Arrow, Okla., who wrote the following to Brittany and Robbie Bergquist: "My step-dad and brother both served in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division. They have been told that they will be going for a second tour in July. My brother-in-law was just sent to Afghanistan. "I know how important it is for them to be able to hear their loved one's voices and not just read letters from us. I would get to talk to them for about two minutes each! It is not long but it is enough for us and them to know that they are well and say I love you!" Beaver said he doesn't know for certain whether any members of the church have loved ones serving in the military, although he notes that there are frequently requests for prayers in the church's Sunday bulletin. But with the support of new pastor, the Rev. Alec Park, the Vernon United Methodist Church started the Cellphone for Soldiers as part of its community ministry outreach. If you've driven by the church along Route 94 in Vernon, you may have noticed the large, colorful sign that announces the church as a drop-off site. The banner was created by the folks - owner Scott Gardner, his wife Tama and Adam Ziedema - at Advanced Signs on Route 94 in Hamburg. Beaver has set up a drop-off container at the Methodist Church. He's also getting containers ready for the other sites which should be ready later this month. "As soon as I have 25 phones," Beaver said, "I will pack them up and send them to the folks in Massachusetts for final processing." Bob Bergquist, the children' father, said that Rich Critchley of Rockaway already has donated two used cell phones, shipping them directly to the bank the program uses in Massachusetts. "We are hoping that people who get new phones this year will remember Cell Phones for Soldiers when they get their new ones,' Bergquist said in an e-mail exchange. "AT+T told us that they estimate there will be 160 million phones sold this year alone. That's a lot of old phones." Beaver, a retired educator, taught math and its computer applications in the Nutley and Vernon school districts. In conversation, he's not outwardly political. But he's aware. He mentions the father in Florida who, when the Marines came to tell him his son had died in Iraq, set their van on fire and tried to kill himself. "I cannot imagine in my heart the pain of losing a child," he said. "But I ache every time I hear that (a soldier) has died."