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Inauguration nightmare

January 21, 2009 |  6:43 pm

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. But for a group of California teens, an opportunity to witness history as President Obama took office turned into an exhausting and sometimes frightening round of late buses, missed events and way too little sleep.

Now, some of their parents are threatening to sue the organizers of the Presidential Youth Inaugural Conference, which gathered top students from around the country for a five-day leadership program in Washington centered on the inauguration.

Clara Baker, a composer from Sherman Oaks, said she was expecting her 13-year-old daughter Dylan to have a ringside seat at Tuesday’s festivities when the girl was invited to take part in the program.

Instead, she told her mother that they had to walk 18 blocks to the back of the Mall, where there were no video screens to view the ceremony.

“My daughter said it was so crowded that you couldn’t even see your feet and you just got moved by the crowd,” Baker said.

At one point, Dylan and some of her friends got separated from the rest of the group. “I get a text message from my daughter saying I’m lost and I’m freaking out because I’m 3,000 miles away,” Baker said.

Organizers said their program suffered from many of the same frustrations that affected the rest of the inauguration festivities: record-sized crowds, long security checks and blocked roads that tied up traffic for miles.

“We had 15,000 students come to Washington for a really life changing experience for most of them,” said Shane Hedges, president of the Vienna, Va.-based firm Envision EMI, which runs leadership and career programs for students of all ages.

“But as you can imagine, at the largest inauguration in the history of the United States, there were a lot of logistical challenges that a lot of people had issues with yesterday, and unfortunately some of our scholars who attended the program were not immune from that.”

Hedges pledged to work with disappointed families to “reearn their trust” and “make it right.” He said he would be talking to many of them in the coming days and it was too soon to specify what steps the company would take, including whether it would refund any of the $3,000 fees paid by participants.

Baker’s daughter and other students who got lost in the crowds all managed to reconnect with their groups, but many told their parents they did not get to see any of the inauguration ceremony.

Some of them missed lunch and the parade, too, because they were stuck on their buses.

“My kid didn’t get any sense of the excitement of the inauguration,” Baker said. “It was so anticlimactic.”

As other parents began to hear similar tales from their children, they set up a blog, http://jrpyicparentcomplaints.webs.com/apps/blog, to share information and vent their frustration.

By late this afternoon, 118 parents had signed up as members and were beginning to collect information for a possible lawsuit.

“We parents did not pay thousands of dollars to have our children MISS THE INAUGURATION!” wrote Kim Simmons, who identified herself as Lindsey’s mom from Avondale, Ariz.

“Standing on the side of the road, freezing, without jumbotron or audio is not what we paid for. I could have saved my $$$ and let my daughter watch it on TV with me at home, for God's sake.”

Rachel Fain, a mother of five from Denver, Colo., said the whole family had sacrificed so that her 12-year-old son Macsen could attend.

“We are very large, VERY poor family. My son worked so hard to have this experience. He was barely able to scrape up the last of the money for his plane ticket,” Fain wrote. “Now it's just a bad memory of lost dreams and broken promises.”

Other parents complained that their children had spent hours waiting for buses, had missed meals and speaker events, and were getting about 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night.

Dylan and other California students waited three hours to be collected at the airport when they arrived late Saturday afternoon and were then rushed to the opening event, her mother said. By the time they made it to their hotel, it was after 11 p.m. and they had missed dinner.

Baker ended up ordering pizza from California to be delivered to her daughter’s room in Maryland. The frustration continued to build this morning, when some children told their parents that the buses were late picking them up to go back to the airport and they feared missing their flights.

“God, I hope all the kids get home safely. It's like we trusted our children to other children.,” wrote a parent on the blog, who identified herself as Jacksmom from Killeen, Texas.

Many parents said their children had always had positive experiences with the organization in the past and could not understand what went wrong. Baker wondered if the organizers “just got greedy” and took on more children than they could handle.

Hedges acknowledged it was the largest group they had taken to an inauguration, but said demand for the program had been overwhelming.

“We had 1,000 staff members working on this program,” he said, adding that the youngest participants were instructed to “remain very close to their faculty advisors.”

The organization prides itself on offering students a packed program with speakers such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met with them on Sunday. Perhaps, Hedges said, they had tried to fit too much in this time.

-- Alexandra Zavis