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Vinton native Jesse Hepker was very excited for his senior year. After being nominated by his high school choir teacher, Jesse was selected to represent his state as part of the Iowa Ambassadors of Music on a two week trip to Europe this July. Jesse should have been joining 3,700 other music students and families of the US on what would have been the trip of lifetime. The groups were scheduled to have both vocal and instrumental performances in London, Paris, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Venice andLiechtenstein. Unfortunately, Covid-19 had other plans.

The travel company who sponsors these student trips, Voyagers International, Ltd., represented itself to parents as a well-established organization who would be celebrating its 50thyear this summer. The price of the trip was not cheap, $6,345 per student and $6,745 for each non-performing participant, but the experience was to be priceless.

Jesse's dreams were crushed on March 17, 2020 when Voyageurs International, Ltd. sent out letters stating that not only were they canceling the trip, but that they were keeping $1,900 of each of the fully paid participants because they had "expenses that they could not recoup". Participants who had paid for the optional Greece extension, lost even more money, totaling a sum well over 7 million dollars!VIL is trying to stand behind the "ParticipantAgreement/Contract" that each of the participants signed to justify keeping the money. Their claim is that the outlined cancellation fees in the contract apply to either the participant or VIL canceling the trip. They contend that their travel company is entitled to keep the student's money and not offer any reschedule of the pre-paid trip. They have issued partial payment checks which are marked "Full and Final Refund", in the hopes of this letting VIL off the hook when participants cash them.

Even though VIL is using the participant contract to justify their unethical behavior, they want to ignore the fact that they breached their own contract which states that VIL would never cancel a trip until 10 days before the groups' departure-which for the Iowa group, the trip was canceled over 3-1/2 months early.

Affected families across the US are banding together to fight. A Facebook group calledAmbassadors of Music Voyageurs International COVID-19which currently has 741 members is providing helpful information for parents on who to contact to file complaints against VIL.Thousands of letters have been sent and cases have been opened with state Attorney Generals, Better Business Bureaus, Covid-19 price gouging researchers, news media, TV shows, Judy's Book, signed petitions and more. Parents have also uncovered that VIL's claims of unreimbursed expenses were fabricated, as written documentation by airlines and hotels have confirmed that VIL received refunds for almost everything. The FB group has attained several attorneys and lawsuits will be filed this week. (This of course does not come without ADDITIONAL expense for the participants)

Attorneys for VIL are now backtracking and trying to play on the families' sympathy by stating that the company's president Gil Mahaffy is in his 80s and that the money is being used for payroll and to keep their business afloat. They are also trying to claim that most families are fine with the unreimbursed money, which is also absolutely untrue.

Although families understand why Voyageurs International, Ltd. chose to cancel the trips due to the pandemic, they feel VIL should be required to return ALL of the money it received by the participants for a trip that never happened. Many of these families are now experiencing job loss and hardship due to the economic disaster and they deserve to have their hard earned money returned.

As for Jesse, not only has he lost the opportunity for an experience of a lifetime, but also this was to have been his graduation gift. His family is out $3,800, as Jesse's mom, I was going to be traveling with the group due to his life threatening food allergies. They, along with many otherIowa familieswho were affected, hope to warn students about the unethical practices of Voyageurs International, Ltd. as the company has already started recruiting for future Ambassadors of Music trips.

Tammy Hepker

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