Old Cell Phones Find New Life

Student-founded Cell Phones for Soldiers club gathers phones for troops

By Maria-Pia Negro, '11, magazine intern

An old cell phone sitting in a drawer or trashcan could help a soldier serving overseas to call home for an hour. Kevin O’Shea, ’11, learned that this was possible thanks to the efforts of two students at his high school who partnered with AT&T and Recellular, a phone company that sells used phones to create the Cell Phones for Soldiers program.

The program has turned donated cell phones into more than 12 million minutes of prepaid calling cards for U.S. troops stationed overseas.

In fall 2009, O’ Shea and Connor O’Neill, ’11, along with other students, made Loyola a drop point for Cell Phones for Soldiers and a club. Since then they have collected almost 1,500 cell phones, which will amount to 90,000 minutes for men and women serving abroad to call home.

Loyola magazine asked O’Shea and O’Neill, now president and vice president of the Cell Phones for Soldiers to answer a few questions about this initiative.

How does Cell Phones for Soldiers give troops the opportunity to call home?

Connor O’Neill: Cell Phones for Soldiers collects old, used, broken, smashed, whatever it may be cell phones and in turn receives phone cards for soldiers to call home. Each cell phone gives a soldier overseas about 60 minutes to call home for free, saving them a ton of money. Simply donating your old phone rather than letting it sit in a drawer in your room gives soldiers an opportunity to talk to their wives, husbands, children, and friends for free, something that many of us take for granted.

How did the original Cell Phone for Soldiers start?

Kevin O’Shea: Another student at my high school had heard about local soldiers who raked up massive credit card bills by calling their families while they were serving overseas. Many of us take a simple call home for granted but for our troops abroad it can be expensive as $6-7 a minute. This student and his sister saw the need for a solution to this problem. They initially used only $21 of their own money to jumpstart the program. To date the national organization has donated 12 million minutes to our troops.

What made you want to make Loyola a drop point for Cell Phone for Soldiers? What motivates you to continue?

KO: It was something that I had always wanted to do since coming to Loyola. Because of Loyola’s dedication to service I had always felt it would be a great place to set up drop boxes. I had just mentioned in passing to Connor that I thought it would fit in well at Loyola, and he was incredibly excited. That’s what really got the ball rolling because I now had someone as enthusiastic about it was I was. We soon enlisted Fr. Jack (Dennis, S.J., director of Campus Ministry) who thought it would be a perfect fit for Loyola as well.

Sometimes with all the political spin about conflicts on the news and between the different parties, the individual soldiers are overlooked. Every time a Loyola student comes up to me and thanks me for starting the club because they have a parent or sibling stationed overseas, I know how valuable these calls are and it keeps me motivated to keep going.

How was the initial response? Was it challenging to get the word out? How did you reach students?

KO: We had an overwhelming initial response. We spoke at Mass several times and the next times we went we had people coming up to us with bags of phones. Our first initial push was Thanksgiving of last year and the first days back from break we were constantly emptying boxes because they were filling up what felt like hourly. Those first few days after Thanksgiving we collected more than 400 phones. Student activities, Campus Ministry, and The Greyhound were all great at helping us get our word and cause out to the student body. We sent out e-mails, put up flyers and posters, and made sure to speak in our classes about this new opportunity.

What was your reaction when you started receiving cell phones?

CO: When starting the club, we really didn’t know what to expect. One of our main goals, besides collecting cell phones, was just to help raise awareness and remind people that no matter what your views are on the war, men and women are still over there fighting to protect us. That sometimes gets lost through all the political nonsense, and we didn’t want that happening on our campus and in our community. So when we started to receive a lot of phones, we were blown away. I didn’t anticipate anything close to the amount of cell phones we were receiving, and the fact that we have more than 1,200 now is amazing.

How often do you ship the donated cell phones to Cell Phones for Soldiers?

CO: We usually ship phones depending on two things. First, we try our best to send a huge shipment before the major holidays, especially the Christmas season. Whatever we have after Thanksgiving we will pack up and ship as soon as possible, hoping the phone cards will get to the soldiers in time to call their families for the holidays. Secondly, and more simply, we ship the phones out when we have a lot of them. After Christmas, a lot of people will bring back their old phones that they just replaced, so once we feel like we have a large quantity to send, we will ship them. Cell Phones makes it really easy for us, providing free shipping.

The club has collected 1,100 cell phones so far. Did you expect this number when the Cell Phones for Soldiers initiative was brought to Loyola?

KO: We actually just packed up some more phones so the number is a little over 1,200 phones to date now. I know I personally only thought that we would get a few hundred over the remaining two years I was at Loyola if we were lucky. The fact that we are pushing 1,500 phones in a little over a year is beyond belief to me. Every time I go check a full drop box or one of the members brings me bags of phones I can’t believe it still and am eternally grateful to the Loyola community for making our club so successful.

Learn more at www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com.

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