Usually the e-mails I get contain a subject field like, "You're a complete moron." The ones from strangers can be even worse. Which is why I was so delighted to receive an unusual note over the transom on Sunday from a reader named Brittany Bergquist, who wrote as a subject, "We'll pay Shaw's Nextel Bill."
Shaw is Warren Shaw, a 67-year-old Acton, Mass., insurance agent I wrote about recently. His son, a U.S. Marine stationed in Afghanistan, ran up an $11,546 cell phone bill while training in the Australian Outback this summer. The son had regularly loaned the phone to his fellow Marines with the belief that the calls they were making using prepaid calling cards would not be billed to him. They were, and Nextel hounded Warren Shaw for the money for months.
So now along comes Bergquist offering to reimburse Shaw for the $6,800 he's already paid (Nextel forgave $5,000 last week), which almost seemed too good to be true. And when I opened the note, I realized it probably was. She began by stating that she was a 14-year-old from Norwell who had been raising money with her 13-year-old brother, Robbie.
Now isn't that sweet? The two of them probably opened a lemonade stand or held a little bake sale, and now they wanted to donate a jar of change to the cause. I decided to play along and give her a call.
On the phone, Brittany Bergquist explains that she started raising money in April when she read about a local soldier who was getting stuck with a $7,624 cell phone bill from overseas. This really is cute, I thought.
She said that from that episode, she kept going, and her organization, Cell Phones For Soldiers, has its own Web site, Cellphonesforsoldiers.com. Her immediate goal is to help soldiers overseas be able to call home free of charge. She says, and I quote: "We just got our 501c3 just a few weeks ago. Companies can donate and it's a tax write-off."
I didn't want to deflate her, but I finally had to ask: How much have you raised, Brittany?
"We've brought in about $300,000 in donations."
I all but coughed up my root beer. She explains that much of it is in cash contributions, some of it is in calling card donations, and they've also set up 4,000 drop boxes around the nation where people can donate old cellular phones, which the group then sells. She casually tells me about how her prior interviews on CNN, Fox News, CBS and ABC generated contributions. She says, "We got the best response when I was on the NBC Nightly News."
She has bought $80,000 worth of prepaid, land-line calling cards at a bulk rate from the USO and sent them to troops overseas. "They have the best ratio of Middle East minutes to U.S. minutes," she confidently says of the AT&T cards. I'm too embarrassed to ask what she means.
Her next goal is to buy equipment for troops to make free Internet-based calls from various stations in Iraq. Ultimately, she wants to raise millions of dollars to buy and distribute satellite phones, which would allow troops to place calls from the battlefield whenever they want.
"Our ultimate goal is to change the way soldiers call home," she says.
"What grade are you in?" I ask.
"Eighth," she replies.
I nervously ask if I might meet her. She graciously agrees. When we gathered Monday afternoon at the Dunkin' Donuts, she wore a hooded sweatshirt. Her hair was pulled tight into a ponytail. When she talks, she doesn't use contractions.
"You're 14, right?"
When I ask why she wants to help Warren Shaw, she says, "It really got me angry knowing that the heads of these cell phone companies are making tons of money from Marines and soldiers and sailors, who are making the country safe so that people can make that much money. I thought it was really unfair."
So all's well that ends well. In Brittany Bergquist's case, things are just beginning.
Brian McGrory is a Boston Globe columnist. His e-mail address is McGroryglobe.com.