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Cell Phones for Soldiers speaks to her calling

Patti Conover’s initiative helped collect 2,000 used or outdated cell phones that are exchanged for calling cards.

Special to the Times

Patti Conover’s initiative helped collect 2,000 used or outdated cell phones that are exchanged for calling cards.

Patti Conover bought the book Developing the Leader Within You last year, but so far she's only gotten to Page 8.

She likes the book. She has just been too busy organizing a local effort to help U.S. servicemen and women overseas.

Conover, who lives in Heritage Isles in New Tampa, recently was honored for leading a drive that brought in 2,000 used or outdated phones for a nonprofit group called Cell Phones for Soldiers.

It was the largest single donation ever to the group, and it started with the book Conover ordered from Amazon.com.

When the book arrived, there was some literature in the package about Cell Phones for Soldiers.

"I thought, 'Hmmm, I wonder what this is,' " she said.

The nonprofit, started by two teenagers in Massachusetts, sells the phones to a company that reuses and recycles them. Then it uses the money it gets from the recycler to buy prepaid calling cards for servicemen and women overseas.

Learning about the program made Conover, 46, remember how she missed her mom when she was stationed in Hawaii for the Navy. She said she couldn't imagine how much harder that separation must be for someone in a war zone.

And she said she began thinking about the unclaimed cell phones in the lost and found at the Hillsborough County government center, where she works the midnight shift as a security guard.

Conover got the okay to donate the unclaimed cell phones from the lost and found to the program. She also set out a donation box at the county center. And, with help from her boss, Scott Dunlap, and county community relations coordinator Carol Michel, she rounded up 83 more from residents of Sun City Center who had heard of the effort.

But the biggest source of all came from a county warehouse, where a cache of obsolete phones sat waiting for disposal.

"Two thousand phones is a lot of phones for a single event," said Robert Bergquist, president of Cell Phones for Soldiers and the father of the charity's founders. "Usually for a single event, we're looking in the hundreds. But never that big."

In return for the donation, Cell Phones for Soldiers gave the county 2,000 prepaid calling cards, which the county donated to U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base last month.

Since then, the organization sent the county 2,500 more cards because the county has shown it's good not only at collecting old phones, but also at getting the calling cards to the troops the charity wants to help, Bergquist said.

Conover wants to donate 2,000 of the latest batch of cards to another command at MacDill. The remaining 500 she would like to see set aside for county employees who are in the Reserves or have loved ones serving abroad.

Conover also wants to make the program permanent, and her bosses have agreed.

Conover was recognized recently by the County Commission for her efforts.

"It's just something that leaders like you do," county Commissioner Rose Ferlita told Conover. "The character of people like you, Patti, is what makes this country and this community so incredible."

But the cell phone drive was hardly the first volunteer community effort Conover has led.

Every year at the start of school, she leads a school supplies drive for students at Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

Every holiday season, she organizes a toy drive for children who see their parents for supervised visitation through the county's Children's Justice Center. This year, she and colleagues donated toys for 100 children.

And every weekday, she tutors three students who need help with their schoolwork.

"She's always looking for ways to help people," Dunlap said. "When she came to me with this idea for Cell Phones for Soldiers, I knew that if she had done the research, it would be a good thing."

Interestingly, Conover has never owned a cell phone. She's usually at work, at school (she's working on an MBA at the University of Phoenix) or taking care of her mother, who is disabled and lives with her. Conover says she doesn't really need one.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

AT A GLANCE

Cell Phones

for Soldiers

Founded in 2004 by Robbie and Brittany Bergquist of Norwell, Mass., the nonprofit organization since has raised nearly $2 million and distributed more than 500,000 prepaid calling cards to members of the military serving overseas.

To learn more

• About Cell Phones for

Soldiers, visit

cellphonesforsoldiers.com

• About Hillsborough County's cell phone donation efforts, call Carol Michel at (813) 272-9515 or e-mail michelc@hillsborough

county.org

Cell Phones for Soldiers speaks to her calling 03/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 19, 2009 4:30am]
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