MHHS students miss out on trip
when travel money disappears
By Jonathan Austin
Yancey County News (published June 14, 2012)
Students who had worked two years to make a Spanish Club trip to Guatemala were “devastated” last week when it was discovered that the money for the flights was never used to buy the airline tickets.
“We … know you’re out a lot more than money,” outgoing Mountain Heritage High School Principal Patricia Bennett told students and parents at a special meeting called Tuesday evening to discuss the lost trip. And despite repeated calls and attempts to find out what happened to the travel money, Bennett said representatives from the International Language Centers in Antigua, Guatemala, were not providing answers. The high school called ILC, as did the administration office, but the only thing they were told was that the language school had their accommodations ready. But the plane the students were supposed to be on had no seats for them.
At that point, school officials say they contacted Robert Sudy, the owner of ILC in Michigan, and were told that it “was their understanding that all arrangements were complete and paid in full,” Dr. Tony Tipton, the superintendent said in a press release.
But that answer was terribly wrong.
“Somebody needed to explain what happened. There needed to be a reason,” Bennett said. “There needed to be an explanation.”
Trip of their lifetimes
The 14 students, their parents and five chaperones had scrimped and saved for months to come up with the $24,000 needed for the trip, which was to offer cultural immersion classes in Spanish in Antigua, then a “full social program (which) helps to ensure that you continue speaking your target language after class. Each school arranges daily activities and weekend excursions,” ILC says on its website.
Becky Davis, whose daughter was going on the trip, said they were headed to Charlotte last Thursday with plans to stay in a motel and be close to the airport for the flight early Friday. “I was thrilled that my daughter was going to a foreign country,” Davis said. “They were going to learn the culture, stay in different places, see exotic animals, even see an active volcano,” she said. “We had (been given) the full itinerary, and had been told when the flight was leaving.”
School officials say they had sent ILC wire transfers of differing amounts, each to cover a different aspect of the trip. The money was collected at the high school and then carried to the administration office to be documented. A staffer took the funds to the bank each time a wire transfer was performed, and a wire transfer of $12,000 was sent for the roundtrip flights from Charlotte to Guatemala.
But when it came time to download the tickets, school officials say they were told that only a $1,000 deposit had been paid on the tickets. The rest of the money for tickets had been wired to ILC, they say, but hadn’t been used to pay for the tickets.
In all, the students, parents and chaperones are out the entire $26,000 they paid for the trip.
“Oh, my gosh, it was surreal,” Davis said when she got that call to tell her there were no tickets for the students. “It was devastating.”
The students had held fundraisers to make the trip, “selling donuts, preparing special lunches, selling brownies. They wrote letters to friends and family asking for donations.” Some parents took on extra shifts at work and set the money aside for their child’s Guatemala trip. For some, raising the money was a hard task, and some of the students knew this was “their Christmas, birthday, graduation” and more all rolled into one.
School leaders say they understand the pain and frustration the kids are feeling. “YCS is certainly upset that our students, parents and community have been victimized by the total loss of approximately $26,000, as well as the loss of this opportunity for the students,” Dr. Tipton said. “Many times, trips with classmates are a highlight for students of their high school years. We are all disappointed that - through this experience - this will now be one of their worst high school memories.”
A tearful moment
Donna Sink, a Mountain Heritage Spanish teacher who helped organize the trip, said her heart was breaking as the extent of the problems became apparent last Thursday. “We kept thinking it was just a slip-up,” she said.
“I was looking forward to spending those 10 days with these kids, immersed in the language,” she said. She was hit hard by the loss of the trip, too, she said, because she and her husband had paid for him and their child to go on the trip as well.
As the clock ticked down last week and ILC failed to respond, Sink said she “took it personally.” As she spoke about Mr. Sudy and his seeming lack of reaction last Thursday to the students and parents, the tears began again. “Whatever his role is in this, he’s dealing with it extremely poorly, and I told him so, in an email. I’m just dumbfounded, because it’s not just a business to me. This is my life. I feel personally hurt … that they (ILC) are so no communicative.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An email - apparently from the owner of International Language Centers - suggests that the money was stolen.
The email, a copy of which was received by Yancey County Schools Superintendent Dr. Tony Tipton last week, is a long, sometimes rambling message to a high school teacher who had told students she demanded answers from Robert Sudy, a Michigan man who owns ILC. The email, which is from "International Language Centers", offers numerous reasons why the Mountain Heritage students lost the trip of a lifetime just one day before they were scheduled to leave.
"Due to a misappropriation of funds, and series of setbacks such as sabotage of our web site for many months we have come to realize, as well as an excessive number of cancellations, and last minute withdrawal of interest from an investor and bank that I have been working on and whom both previously ensured me a positive result, after 12 years we will likely have to close within a couple weeks," the email reads. Read the entire email here.
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