The Minnesota family that recently sued a student travel organization for the wrongful death of their son has now taken their case to a federal consumer protection agency.
ConsumerAffairs.com has learned that Sheryl and Allan Hill recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against the Ambassadors Group and its People to People programs.
The complaint alleges the companies use unfair and deceptive trade practices to recruit students for their oversea trips and promote their safety record.
The complaint also names a company called docleaf, Ltd., which provided counseling services to the Hills after their son died.
The Hills' 16-year-old son, Tyler, died last summer on a People to People student ambassador trip to Japan.
In their lawsuit -- filed last month in Minnesota's Hennepin County District Court -- the Hills alleged that People to People's chaperones refused to take their son to the hospital when he requested medical attention.
Tyler had Type 1 diabetes and complex migraine headaches. His family disclosed his medical conditions before he left on the trip.
'Solid' safety record
The travel organization that touts its ties to President Dwight D. Eisenhower assured the Hills it had a solid safety record and a 24-hour response team that could handle any medical emergency.
That promise is the reason the Hills let Tyler join his friends on the trip overseas. It's also at the heart of their wrongful death lawsuit.
Now that promise is the centerpiece of the Hills' FTC complaint.
In that action, the Hill's allege the travel organization and its program engage in unfair and deceptive trade practices, including:
• People to People claims it will immediately notify parents if a child becomes sick during a trip. That did not happen in Tyler's case. The Hills allege the leaders on their son's trip did not call them until after Tyler was taken to a Tokyo hospital;
• People to People claims to have a "solid safety record." "One dead child is not a solid safety record," Sheryl Hill alleges. She also alleges other children have been injured and become sick on People to People trips and that one child died trying to jump a train on a trip in Europe;
• Students are led to believe they are "nominated" for these oversea trips. But People to People uses a commercial list rental service to obtain students' names and then "mass mails" invitation letters, the Hills allege. The company, they added, solicits more than 300,000 children each year;
• The company's invitation letters appear to come from the non-profit People to People International. But the Ambassadors Group, a for-profit company headquartered in Spokane, Washington, markets the People to People Student Ambassador trips and handles the travel arrangements;
• People to People has sent "invitations" to the parents of deceased children. It also sent "invitations" to the "parents" of a deceased cat;
• Consumers are led to believe President Eisenhower founded and chaired People to People. "President Eisenhower was never the founder or the chairman," the Hills allege;
• Anyone can nominate a child for a student ambassador trip on People to People's Web site. The Web site doesn't ask about a student's qualifications for the trip or even the name of the person making the nomination;
• Consumers are led to believe that People to People student ambassador programs are sanctioned by the government and part of the U.S. Department of State. This is false, the Hills allege.
Warning to parents
Sheryl Hill said her family filed the FTC complaint to warn parents about the organization's tactics.
"My job is to make sure families know this organization is lying and deceiving their kids," she told us from her home in Mound, Minnesota.
She reiterates that message in her FTC complaint.
"We wish to protect our future generations," she writes. "People to People Organizations, Ambassadors Group, Inc., and docleaf's unfair and deceptive acts of practice cost Tyler his life, and us our beloved son. These organizations send 28,000-50,000 kids on trips every yearplease don't let it happen again."
The Hills allege many of the same wrongdoings in their lawsuit.
Named in that action are the Ambassadors Group, People to People Student Ambassador Programs, People to People International, A United Kingdom organization called docleaf Limited, two of its employees -- Larry McGonnell and Dr. David Perl -- and the four delegation leaders on Tyler's trip: Susan Stahr, Pat Veum-Smith, Josh Aberle, and Angela Hanson.
In their lawsuit, the Hill's allege the travel organization and its delegation leaders refused to get Tyler the medical attention he requested - and that his June 29, 2007, death in Tokyo is the result of their negligence.
Tyler Hill (Family photo)
The Hills discovered that Tyler had become sick at least three times before he was taken to the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center in Tokyo.
One time, he became ill after eating bad food. He later vomited blood, fainted in the shower after an unsupervised trip to a hot springs, and his blood sugar became low.
People to People, however, never contacted Tyler's parents about these medical problems and allegedly failed to monitor his condition.
Mount Fuji climb
Tyler's health took a turn for the worse on June 26, 2007 -- the day he and his group hiked Mount Fuji. After that climb, Tyler asked his delegation leaders to take him to the hospital. He said he had altitude sickness.
"Ty was the catalyst and poster child for the FIT USA Foundation, a non-profit diabetes rehabilitation advocacy group," Sheryl told us. "He dominated his disease and he knew if he was sick."
But according to the family's lawsuit, People to People's delegation leaders refused his request for medical treatment. Instead, they told him to "work through it" and sent him to his hotel room with water.
The lawsuit also states that People to People again failed to contact the Hills about Tyler's illness.
Sometime around 4 a.m. on June 27, 2007, Tyler's condition deteriorated and he started vomiting blood.
Around 7 that morning, People to People's four delegation leaders learned about Tyler's failing health. But they again refused to seek any medical treatment -- even though he requested that attention "because he had been vomiting blood since four o'clock in the morning."
The delegation leaders also failed again to contact Tyler's parents, the lawsuit alleges.
For the next ten hours -- from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- People to People's delegation leaders allegedly left Tyler alone in his room -- without any medical attention.
The lawsuit further alleges that Tyler was placed under the "custody and care" of the one person the Hills specifically requested he never be left alone with -- delegation leader Pat Veum-Smith.
The Hills met Veum-Smith before Tyler's trip and expressed concerns about her abilities to care for their son.
"Pat Veum-Smith did nothing to assist him or obtain assistance for him, nor did she engage the 24-hour service center to contact Tyler's parents or medical doctors," the lawsuit states.
In fact, People to People's delegation leaders allegedly did not seek any medical attention for Tyler until he was found unconscious in his hotel room -- sometime around 6 p.m. on June 27, 2007. That's when the leaders finally called an ambulance, the lawsuit states.
A few hours later, Pat Veum-Smith notified the Hills that Tyler was in the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center. She also told them that Tyler's heart had stopped beating for more than an hour, that he had been resuscitated and was on dialysis.
Tyler died two days later.
"My son was killed," Sheryl told us last month, fighting back tears. "They (People to People) killed him. This was involuntary manslaughter, neglect, and abandonment."
The lawsuit echoes her sentiments.
"Tyler's death was caused because he was refused healthcare and left unassisted by the agents, employee, and representatives of Defendants Ambassadors Group, People to People, Susan Stahr, Pat Veum-Smith, Josh Aberle, and Angela Hanson, all of whom failed to notify Tyler's parents or medical doctors of his severe illness."
Doctors in Tokyo said Tyler would be alive today if he'd gotten medical attention sooner, Sheryl said.
That would have happened, she added, if someone had called her when Tyler first became sick.
The delegation leaders didn't hesitate to call Sheryl several days earlier when they caught Tyler holding hands with his girlfriend.
"Angela Hanson, one of the People to People leaders, phoned me from Japan the day after arrival with a reprimand call because Ty and Abbey were showing public displays of affection on the airplane to Tokyo," Sheryl said. "They were holding hands."
Hanson then put Tyler on the phone. The marked the last time Sheryl talked to her son.
"Ty said not to worry, that it wouldn't happen again and that I could be proud of him," Sheryl recalled. "I told him I already was. He told me it was great to hear my voice and that he loved me."
Sheryl will never forget Tyler's final message to her: "I love you so much too, Mom. Don't worry."
The unconscionable actions don't end with the organization's failure to contact the Hills when their son became sick or get him the medical attention he requested, the lawsuit states.
It also alleges that docleaf Limited and its employees -- which the Ambassadors Group hired to help the Hills with their grieving process -- invaded the family's privacy.
By "providing confidential mental health records and reports" to the Ambassadors Group and People to People, the lawsuit states.
"Larry McGonnell (an employee of docleaf Limited who claimed to be a licensed psychotherapist) flew home with us from Japan," Sheryl told us. "He was good. He helped us focus and grieve. And we told him everything...he counseled us for two days."
Sheryl, however, said her family never gave McGonnell or docleaf permission to release their private medical and psychological records to anyone - including the Ambassadors Group or People to People.
Before initiating any legal action, Sheryl says her family tried to work with top officials at the non-profit organization People to People International -- headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, -- and the Ambassadors Group.
The Hills' requests weren't motivated by greed or money. "No amount of money will bring our son back," Sheryl said.
They simply asked Jeffery D. Thomas, president and CEO of the Ambassadors Group, to change his company's Web site and stop touting that is has a stellar safety record.
"I told Jeff he can't continue to solicit students and brag about the company's safety records," Sheryl says. "I asked him to take this down (off the Web site). I also told him that he needs to change his company's safety standards. He told me that's my opinion."
Taking legal action against an organization that boasts about its ties to one of Tyler's heroes -- President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- also proved daunting for Sheryl and her family.
"Eisenhower was a supreme strategist who never fought on the battlefront," Sheryl said when asked why Tyler admired the former president. "Eisenhower also honored God and was responsible for putting 'In God We Trust' on our money, and the pledge of allegiance in the classroom."
She added: "Ty was born on the anniversary of D-day. He was diagnosed with diabetes at age five. He knew he could never serve in the armed forces, but believed he could make a positive difference by modeling after 'these great men.'"
Not founded by Eisenhower
During her investigation, though, Sheryl made a stunning discovery: People to People was not founded by President Eisenhower.
A New York Times story dated June 10, 1958, stated the People to People Foundation was formed to "implement a 1956 proposal by President Eisenhower to promote international understanding."
That non-profit foundation, the paper wrote, was organized in 1957 and President Eisenhower served as its honorary chairman. The 1958 Times article also stated the People to People Foundation had recently dissolved because "it had served its purpose."
ConsumerAffairs.com found records in the Missouri Secretary of State's office that reveal a non-profit organization called People to People International -- founded to "encourage and promote in every way possible contacts between citizens of the United States and people of other lands" - was incorporated on October 31, 1961.
President Eisenhower's name, however, is not listed on those records. They identify Alfred Frankfurter, Franklin Murphy, and Joyce C. Hall as the incorporators.
Sheryl said this is just another example of the ways in which People to People deceived her son - and her family.
"There is so much that we have discovered about this organization since Ty's death. I think Ty would be gravely offended by these discoveries."
In a written statement, the family added: "People to People and its associated organizations target children for their own financial benefit under the false pretense of being a non-profit established by President Eisenhower.
"Students are not nominated for this 'honor' (of going on a trip), but instead are solicited through mass mailing lists."
ConsumerAffairs.com has -- over the past two years -- repeatedly exposed examples of the misleading marketing tactics People to People uses to recruit students for its expensive, overseas trips.
Our stories revealed:
• The organization came under fire in 2005 by the Iowa Attorney General's office for sending a letter to a mother, which stated her son was named for a Student Ambassador trip overseas. Her son, however, had died in 1993. He was seven weeks old. Iowa officials did not take legal action against People to People. The organization later donated $5,000 to Iowa's SIDS Foundation and $20,000 to Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines;
• The organization has twice -- in recent years -- sent recruitment letters for its overseas trips to the parents of a deceased baby girl in Florida. The couple's daughter died from multiple birth defects in 1992. She was 18 days old. People to People said it was "absolutely devastated" this happened and blamed the company that compiled its mailing lists for the errors;
• In 2006, the organization sent a recruitment letter to the parents of an Earl Gray in Arkansas. Earl Gray, however, was the couple's white, one-eyed, cat. He died ten years earlier and is buried in the family's back yard. He was 14-years- old;
• Parents across the country have filed complaints with ConsumerAffairs.com about the misleading marketing tactics People to People uses to recruit students for its trips abroad. Parents say the letters led their children to believe they were "specially chosen" or nominated for these trips. Parents later discovered the travel company obtained their child's name from a mailing list.
ConsumerAffairs.com contacted Jeff Thomas and other officials with the Ambassadors Group and People to People International about the Hills' FTC complaint. No one returned our messages.
We previously left messages for Thomas and Mary Eisenhower, CEO of People to People International, about the Hill's lawsuit. Neither returned those calls, either.
The Ambassadors Group, however, issued this statement shortly after the Hills filed their lawsuit: "We are deeply saddened by the death of Tyler Hill last summer and the entire People to People Ambassador Program organization continues to grieve for his family."
KXLY-TV in Spokane, Washington, recently interviewed Thomas and his wife, Peg. She is president of People to People Ambassador Programs.
During that interview, Peg Thomas said her organization accepted no responsibility for Tyler's death.
"Absolutely not. Again, our hearts go out to this family. And being parents our hearts go out to that family and that entire community and our entire organization is continuing to grieve for that family. But our review of the incident does not match the allegations and the lawsuit brought forth by the Hill family," she told KXLY.
During that same interview, the Thomases admitted that another student died on a People to People trip. That child, they said, died trying to board a moving train.
Back in Minnesota, Sheryl Hill hopes her family's legal action will force the Ambassadors Group and People to People to be accountable for their actions -- and false claims that Tyler died because he stopped taking his insulin.
The family's lawsuit also seeks $6,750 in restitution for Tyler's trip, $30,000 for his funeral expenses, attorneys' fees, and damages in excess of $50,000.
Sheryl also hopes her efforts will protect the thousands of children who participate in People to People and other student travel programs each year.
Her family has worked on a bill that would require safety protocols for students on these of trips. The measure is called the "T-Hill Safety Standards Bill."
The Hills will meet next week with Minnesota Congressional leaders in Washington D.C. about this bill.
The family has also set up the Tyler Hill Web site , which has more information about their safety initiative.
Meanwhile, Sheryl said she and her husband continue to grieve the loss of their oldest son -- an honor student at Mound Westonka High School who was known as a humble teen who made friends easily and reached out to the new kids on his team or classmates.
Their youngest son, Alec, is also struggling with the death of his brother.
"Ty was very easy to talk to," Sheryl said. "He and his brother built a special 'fort'... he and Alec could spend hours down there talking about whatever brothers talk about."
She added: "When a child dies, all these connections to 'his community' die too. You miss his friends, his school, his teachers, and you especially miss him."
When asked what she wants people to remember about her son, Sheryl said: "Ty was recognized at Mound Westonka High School last year for singularly reporting a bomb threat that others were to afraid to bring forward. Ty always made the right choices even though they weren't the popular choices. He will be remembered as the kid who knew how to love.
"You should be proud that he wanted to represent America in Japan. We are."
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