KANSAS CITY, Mo. – People to People, an international humanitarian and travel program for teens, has stopped answering phone calls and emails from upset parents who say they are out thousands of dollars and have no idea whether the summer trips their children have waited for will even take place.
“Parents and leaders started emailing, texting, calling and sending messages through Facebook Messenger, but there’s no response,” said David Hotard, a middle school teacher in Louisiana who has volunteered for the organization for nearly 20 years.
He said children ranging in age from 12-18 have held fundraisers and saved for months to participate in these trips to countries, including Japan, Australia, France and Italy.
“We don’t know if they are going to lose their money,” Hotard said. “We haven’t heard anything.”
People to People is the for-profit arm of People to People International, a humanitarian organization founded under the leadership of President Dwight Eisenhower to foster mutual respect among teens throughout the world by encouraging them to meet one another through travel. The president hoped the program would one day help prevent another world war.
People to People became the gold standard for student travel. Teens participated in service programs in the countries they visited and stayed with local families.
But now the organization appears to be jeopardy.
Parent Kristin Rios, of Oregon, first noticed there was a problem this month when she tried to make the final payment for her son’s trip to Costa Rica. She discovered the website was down.
“It wasn’t your typical type of error,” she said. “The website had been taken off by the web hosting.”
She phoned and emailed the organization, based in Kansas City, but never got an answer. Rios said she’s out $2,500.
Another parent, who has two children signed up for a summer program abroad, is out $20,000. A third parent told FOX4 Problem Solvers that she has spent $7,000. Parents have even tried posting messages on People to People International’s Facebook page seeking answers. But no one has responded to those either.
Problem Solvers tried to visit the organization’s office in a large building on Grand Avenue in Crown Center. We were told that none of the office’s four employees had been there all week and were believed to be working from home.
FOX4 then paid a visit to the Basehor home of People to People CEO Nicole Randall. No one answered the door.
Randall is married to Merrill Atwater, the great grandson of Eisenhower. When Atwater stepped down as head of the organization six months ago, his wife Nicole was named as his replacement. Atwater also didn’t return our phone call.
With the help of board member Troy Nash, we were able to reach Atwater’s mother Mary Eisenhower, the granddaughter of President Eisenhower and the former CEO of the organization.
She told us that Randall has resigned this week to pursue “other opportunities” and that she would be stepping in to take over the operation until a new leader is hired.
Eisenhower insisted that phone calls and emails were being returned, but there were so many of them that some people have yet to hear back. She also told us that People to People’s website was only taken down to prevent people from signing up for new trips.
Parents aren’t buying either claim.
“They could have at least sent out a message or posted something online telling us to sit tight because they are trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Rios, who has filed a dispute with her credit card company to get her money back.
Mary Eisenhower acknowledged the organization is struggling financially, something she blamed on the lack of travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, according to IRS records, even in the years predating COVID, the nonprofit side of People to People was struggling. Charity Navigator gave the nonprofit a failing grade because its expenses consistently outweighed its revenue.
Mary Eisenhower said People to People is still trying to decide whether this year’s student trips will take place. But parents like Rios said they’ve already lost too much faith to entrust their children to People to People.
“It’s a shame,” Rios said. “It was the legacy of President Eisenhower, and for decades it was such a great program.”