Inaugural Program For Youth Criticized

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Vienna company that promised exclusive inauguration access to 15,000 youths is facing complaints from hundreds of angry parents that the program was a scam that left some students stuck on buses during Barack Obama's swearing-in, unsupervised on the Mall or waiting for hours in hotels without participating at all.

On a blog founded by an Arizona mother, parents are demanding a refund from Envision EMI, the for-profit firm that staged the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference, which attracted students from middle school to college age from across the country. Each participant paid up to $2,900 in registration fees, which covered lodging but not airfare.

The parents are demanding restitution and threatening a class-action lawsuit, and hundreds of college students, some from abroad, registered their outrage on Facebook. Members of Congress have also raised questions. It is not clear how many parents and students were satisfied with the experience. A handful of positive comments also appear on the Facebook site, and the company said the "vast majority" of students were satisfied.

A person close to the situation told The Washington Post that Envision will announce today that it will pay for an independent review headed by Benjamin R. Civiletti, the Carter administration attorney general, and set aside $1 million for restitution.

Envision employs more than 200 people, and it and an affiliated nonprofit company have revenue of more than $80 million a year. The company appeared to have collected more than $40 million in gross revenue from the inaugural conference. Envision rebuffed interview requests but issued this statement yesterday:

"While the vast majority of scholars who attended our presidential inaugural programs had a positive experience, we acknowledge that some of them have stated that they did not and this is unacceptable to us. We take pride in our history of more than 20 years of providing quality and life-changing opportunities for high-achieving scholars. We are urgently working to address each and every concern and to respond to the families' inquiries as quickly as possible."

The program promised and delivered high-profile guests, including Colin Powell, and access to private receptions at the Smithsonian. But many parents said their children missed the events because they were stuck for hours on buses or waiting for transportation in their hotel rooms. Most of the younger students were not allowed to attend the pre-inaugural concert featuring Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé because organizers said the weather was "too cold."

Danielle Moore of Peoria, Ariz., said her son Spencer, 14, was taken to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum for what organizers had billed as a private reception featuring astronauts and hot chocolate on the morning of the inauguration. The hot chocolate was gone when Spencer arrived, and he saw no astronauts, his mother said. By then, the crowd outside had grown so large that the students ended up on the street and were shooed away by police.

"So they went back on the bus," said Moore, who started the parents' blog. "They were sitting on the bus with no TV for two hours. Then they were supposed to go to lunch at the Marriott Wardman Park to watch the parade [on TV], but there was such chaos, they didn't get there in time and missed that event, too."

Morgan Abbey, 16, of Blaine, Wash., watched from the Mall but was left without adult supervision. After Obama's speech, Abbey and a friend walked 1 1/2 miles, guided by printouts of Google maps, to Nationals Park to board a bus to their hotel.

"The thing that makes me furious is the safety issue," said her mother, Teresa Abbey. "She was afraid. She and a friend walked there alone. . . . We're from a town of 3,000 people."

Gabriela Goggin, 13, of Greensboro, N.C., watched the ceremony from her hotel. She also missed the concert after organizers kept students on a bus in the University of Maryland parking lot for two hours. On the first day, Gabriela missed a speech by Erik Weihenmayer, a blind mountain climber and author, because she was stuck in registration lines for hours, her father said.

"She basically spent most of the time in her room," John Goggin said. "The whole thing has been an absolute horror show from beginning to end. I feel like I've been scammed."

Envision stages conferences across the country. Angie Peltzer, who worked for Envision several years ago and returned as a faculty adviser at last week's conference, said the company's typical conferences -- which in addition to leadership events, also focus on medicine, law and technology -- enroll a few hundred students. She and the parents said that Envision extended the enrollment period last year to capitalize on excitement about Obama and that the company was unprepared to handle the number of students who signed up.

"It's hard to do 15,000 people when you've only done 500 before," Peltzer said.

Christina Breshears of Portland, Ore., said her daughter Maddie, 12, bought a 1950s-style gown for the student inaugural ball. Maddie didn't feel much like a princess at the event, which took place at a University of Maryland conference room.

"She waited in line over an hour to get her picture taken," Breshears said. "And the food was mini-burritos and pigs-in-a-blanket. Kids were sleeping on the floor."

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