The American Spirit: G.I., Phone Home

(AP / CBS)
Amy Birnbaum is a producer for CBS News based in New York.
The story that correspondent Kelly Wallace and I reported for tonight's Evening News got rolling as a result of an e-mail. An associate producer, Jenny Gold, read a viewer email on Brittany and Robbie Bergquist. She proposed doing a story on them as part of our series on The American Spirit. When I read Jenny's note about the kids and their program, I thought, they can't be all that smart and generous AND nice, can they? I mean, not both of them in one family. I have a 13-year-old, and though he's still the greatest kid in the world and all that, I have to admit that generosity is definitely an acquired skill.

But Robbie and Brittany are for real, as are their parents. They started this charity as a single project, to help a soldier's father pay off a massive phone bill from cellphone calls from Iraq. The kids heard the story on the radio, and then actually ran up to their rooms and took money out of their piggy banks. That was about $21. Many of us would end it there, but they made it a kind of civics project; they organized a bake sale, got a donation from a local bank and eventually helped pay off the bill.

By now their parents, Bob and Gail Bergquist, were in it to help. At first the family wanted to send cellphones overseas, but the Pentagon wasn't too happy with that plan. So they came up with the idea of turning in the old phones to a recycler, and using the money earned on the phones to buy phone cards for troops. It's such an appealing story, and back three years ago, Brittany and Robbie made the rounds of talk shows and news programs. They got a little media savvy and loved the idea that limos were pulling up outside their front door to take them to a nearby television studio. You'd think it would have gone to their heads, but these kids are pretty grounded. Somehow they manage to work on this charity along with keeping up grades in honor classes, playing sports, seeing friends, and of course, doing their share of talking on the phone.

In doing this story, we were really struck by how many people have been impacted by the work of these two kids and their parents. We visited a family in Massachusetts and recorded a phone call from Sgt. Charles Beland of the Massachusetts National Guard to his seven-year-old son Jake. With the free minutes, Beland was able to ask about pets, school projects, sledding, and even talk about what they'll do when he gets back home. Jake's mom, Beth Beland says it's such a relief to hear his voice, knowing you won't have to tell your son something's happened to his father.

Robbie and Brittany think soldiers shouldn't have to pay for phone calls, period, so part of their mission is to pay off large bills when they hear about them. Our crew went down to North Carolina and watched as Renee Holland got a check for a massive phone bill. Once again we heard the word "relief."

The program has gotten a well deserved boost from AT&T now, with a 10,000 card donation, an offer to help the kids get phone cards at a cheaper rate, and a promise to put cellphone dropoff boxes at Cingular stores around the country. This way, Brittany thinks she may get closer to their goal of letting every solder call home for free.

But as I watched this little boy talk to his father, I couldn't help but think that all the free minutes in the world won't make one of those moments any easier: the moment they both said goodbye.