Tyler Hill (Family photo)
Sheryl Hill hugged her 16-year-old son a little tighter -- and a littler longer than usual -- shortly before he boarded a plane last summer and took off on his much anticipated People to People Student Ambassador trip to Japan.
The Mound, Minnesota, woman took a mental picture of their last moments together at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport recalling every detail of the excitement in her son's big brown eyes, his brilliant smile, and even the burgundy polo shirt and khaki pants he wore on that June 16, 2007, day.
Sheryl and her husband had worried about sending their son, Tyler -- who had Type 1 diabetes and complex migraine headaches -- on this People to People excursion.
But the travel organization that touts its ties to President Dwight D. Eisenhower convinced her that it had a solid safety record and a 24-hour response team that could handle any medical emergency.
That promise sealed the deal. It's the reason Sheryl and Allen Hill let Tyler join his friends on the trip overseas.
Now that promise is at the heart of a wrongful death suit filed on Monday in Minnesota's Hennepin County District Court.
The lawsuit alleges the 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.
But thirteen days before this tragedy -- as Tyler and his friends said goodbye to their families in the states -- Sheryl's thoughts focused on how much this journey meant to her son.
"This was the most excited we'd ever seen him," she says of Tyler, a history buff who was born on the anniversary of D-Day. "He dreamed of going to Japan."
During their bittersweet farewell at the airport, Sheryl says Tyler -- who had "dominated" his diabetes since its onset at age five -- assured her that he'd be fine.
"He told me not to worry. Then he picked me up, did a backwards dip with me, and said 'I love you momI'm going to make your proud of me.'
"I told him he already had."
She then watched her son's 6'2", 215-pound frame disappear down the jetway as he embarked on his "spiritual journey" to Japan.
The next time Sheryl and her husband saw Tyler he was lying unconscious in a stark hospital room at the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center in Tokyo.
Eleven days had passed.
His eyes were now lifeless. His skin was cold. He had a respiratory tube down his throat. And IV's were sticking from his badly bruised arms.
"The most wrenching part for us was the traumatic degradation of Tyler's body at the hospital," Sheryl told us. "We sent him away as a strong, vibrant, cheerful, enthusiastic, athletic, responsible and loving teenager."
But less than two weeks later, Tyler was near-death in a hospital room thousands of miles away from home. The son they lovingly call "Ty man" was, in clinical terms, brain dead.
"He did not respond when I called his name," Sheryl says. "He did not squeeze my hand in return. When I lifted his eyelids, I knew he was gone. There was no light or love there.
"I kissed his lips and told that I would love him forever."
Sheryl and her husband made the difficult decision to remove Tyler from life support.
But first, they honored his wishes to be a tissue donor.
"Most of his organs were devastated," Sheryl says, "But we did donate his corneas. We (later) received very emotional letters from two recipients of Ty's corneas, one who was a renowned artist who can create again because of Ty's loving and generous decision."
It took two days for the Hill's to receive permission to disconnect Tyler's artificial life lines. On June 29, 2007, Japanese officials granted their request.
"When we went into the room to bless Ty's soul, the respirator and heart monitor resounded like an echo in a cave," Sheryl says, adding that a handful of people were with them during Tyler's final moments a Lutheran minister, Ginger Peterson with People to People, and their son's girlfriend, Abbey Nekola, who joined him on the trip.
"We walked heavy steps to Ty. Allen, Abbey, and I draped ourselves over him and surrounded him with our love and prayers. The intern removed his breathing tube with a horrific screechy sound and we cried and wailed. We said good-bye buddy, good-bye we will see you in heaven."
How could it happen?
But how could something like this happen to such an athletic teenager -- a champion at rugby, football, hockey, and scuba diving -- who never had trouble managing his diabetes?
Why didn't the Ambassadors Group and People to People honor their promise to have a 24-hour team on hand to "respond to any emergencies or situations that may arise during travel?"
And why didn't anyone with these organizations notify Sheryl or her husband that Tyler was sick before he was taken by ambulance to the hospital?
Sheryl vowed to get those answers and find out what really happened to their son during his People to People trip to Japan.
The shocking findings she uncovered laid the foundation for the lawsuit her family filed yesterday against 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.
Sheryl says her family also filed its lawsuit to "protect other kids from this program by letting the public know that children are not safe during People to People trips."
Just how unsafe are these overseas trips?
In Tyler's case, Sheryl discovered that he'd become sick at least three times before he was taken to the hospital. 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 or monitored his condition.
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 says. "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 suit charges.
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 suit charges that Tyler was also 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 had 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 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 delegation leaders finally called an ambulance.
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 -- and was then resuscitated -- and that he was now on dialysis.
Tyler died two days later.
"My son was killed," Sheryl told us, 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."
The delegation's leaders, however, 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 says. "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. 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 of this travel organization and its agents don't stop with its failure to contact the Hills when their son became sick, the lawsuit states.
It also alleges that a European company called docleaf Limited and its employees which the Ambassadors Group hired to help the Hill's 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 everythinghe counseled us for two days."
Sheryl, however, says 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 she and her husband tried to work with top officials at the non-profit organization People to People International headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, -- and the for-profit company that markets its overseas trips to students and makes all the travel arrangements.
The company is the Ambassadors Group based in Spokane, Washington.
The Hills' requests weren't motivated by greed or money. "No amount of money will bring our son back," Sheryl says.
The Hills asked Jeffery D. Thomas, president and CEO of the publicly traded Ambassadors Group to change his company's Web site and stop bragging about its stellar safety record.
The organization's Web site touts that People to People "sets the gold standard" in travel safety.
"At People to People, the health and safety of our Student Ambassadors have always been our top priority," the Web site states. "For nearly 50 years, we've worked to make our health and safety measures as advanced and comprehensive as they can be.
Those false claims infuriated Sheryl and her husband.
"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 says 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 adds: "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.'"
During her investigation, though, Sheryl says she 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 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, either. They list Alfred Frankfurter, Franklin Murphy, and Joyce C. Hall as the incorporators.
Sheryl says 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 instances of the misleading marketing tactics People to People use 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.
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.
She also hopes the lawsuit will bring justice and reform. One of her top goals is to ensure that safety protocols will be put in place to protect the thousands of children who participate in these student ambassador programs each year.
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.
ConsumerAffairs.com left messages for Jeffery Thomas with the Ambassador's Group and Mary Eisenhower, president of People to People International.
Neither returned our calls.
Meanwhile, Sheryl says 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 loss of his older brother.
"Ty was very easy to talk to," Sheryl says. "He and his brother built a special 'fort' he and Alec could spend hours down there talking about whatever brothers talk about."
She adds: "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 says: "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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