Sheryl Hill of Mound loves to travel — so much so that she and her husband, Allen, had explored eight foreign lands, from Scotland to Australia, with their two sons. So by the time her eldest, Tyler, had signed on for a People to People student ambassador trip to Japan in 2007, at 16, he was a seasoned traveler. But Tyler never returned home. He died in a hospital, where he arrived too late, sick and dehydrated after a hike up Mount Fuji. Since then, Hill has founded ClearCause Foundation, a nonprofit that educates youth about staying safe overseas and advocates for oversight of study-abroad programs. Meanwhile, she continues to explore our world.
Q: How did ClearCause get started?
A: My son Tyler died a preventable death in 2007. In 2008, we launched a website called tylerhill.org. We received so many calls from other families whose kids had been abandoned, abused, raped or killed on programs abroad. As Americans, we are so used to having laws that protect our kids. We assume, incorrectly, that those same laws protect their well-being abroad. But there are no laws, no oversight, no transparency, no sanctions at all for organizations that send our children overseas. We launched ClearCause in 2011, on the day of Tyler’s birthday, June 6.
Q: Isn’t there some way to determine the safety record of a particular program?
A: No. What I tell parents is that you have to Google “death” and other words plus the name of the program their child is considering. Programs can whitewash their history any way they want because there is no oversight.
Q: Beyond that Google search, how do students and their parents prepare for an overseas experience?
A: We have a 50-point checklist to help students make sure they are ready, called “A Student Abroad Preparedness Plan — ASAPP.” I’ve heard from people who say things like, “Oh my God, I never thought of this, I never thought of that.” (Go to ClearCauseFoundation.org to request a copy of the checklist and see sample questions at right.) I also tell people to register their trip with the U.S. State Department (at travel.state.gov). You leave emergency contact information there. On the site, you also get your consular and embassy locations, travel warnings for the country you’re going to, death reports by unnatural causes and other information. Once registered, the embassies know how to contact you. I’ve been notified twice when there was the possibility of unrest. Also, when you fill out forms for your passport, line 17 is your emergency contact. Leave several different phone numbers there.
Q: You’ve had foreign students live with you, so in a sense you have a keen awareness of this from both sides.
A: Our family has had eight students live with us over 12 years. The first Christmas after Tyler died, our son Alec said he wanted a brother. I said, “I can’t help you. I’m in my 50s.” Alec’s dad, Allen, suggested we try hosting a student again, telling Alec the process can take some time. The following morning our answering machine light was blinking. I checked it and there was a message from Youth for Understanding [an organization that places foreign students in American homes]. They told us there was a student from Germany with Russian heritage who needed a family by Friday. It was Tuesday. How they got our name, I didn’t understand. I said, “Our family has a big heart” and though Tyler recently died, we were willing. Nikita rounded out our table to four again. It turned out, Tyler had signed us up shortly before he left for Japan.
Q: So how do you feel about student travels?
A: Global travel for our kids breaks down barriers, gives them a greater respect for the world we live in. In Chile, a very sophisticated South American country, there is such a split between those who have and have not. In Scotland, in their long history, they deforested the land; any forests they have now have been replanted. We protect our forests. We love our land so much that we put some barriers up. I want kids to have that kind of awareness.
Q: It sounds like you have traveled extensively. What are some of your favorite places?
A: I have to say the Japanese people are so elegant and beautiful and loving and generous. We love Japan. And just for the scenery, I think Alaska. Australia is breathtaking.
Q: Where do you still want to go?
A: I have a bucket list. Tyler wanted to see Greece. Gardens of Salonica [a Greek restaurant in Minneapolis] has a trip to Greece every year, and I hope to go sometime. Portugal, Greece, the Fiji Islands. There’s a big world out there yet.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282