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THE GAMES BEGIN // Stranded teens sent home early

About 2,000 teenagers from around the country who traveled to Atlanta for a jobs program at the Olympics are being sent home after a chaotic three-day stay in which kids slept on motel floors and called home crying.

"I'm very angry, extremely angry," said Wanda Church, 35, of St. Petersburg, whose daughter, Shaquina, had never been away from home without her mother.

Shaquina, 18, and other teenagers weren't given enough food and were forced to ride around suburban Atlanta on a tour bus until 4 a.m. Friday looking for a motel with empty rooms, parents said.

When her daughter finally left a message on her mom's machine, the girl "was not laughing," Wanda Church said.

"She sounded very sad and when I got the message it made me cry. She said, "I'm okay physically.' Which made me know she was not okay mentally."

Stranded in Atlanta on Friday were 700 students from Florida, including close to 200 from the Tampa Bay area. Others were from Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia, officials said.

Creative Travel Services, the company in charge, issued an apology late Friday and said it would arrange for bus trips home today.

"We are as disappointed as the young adults who are returning home," said Merle Zmak, the president. "We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate the professionalism the chaperones and students have maintained since they arrived."

The company promised to reimburse students $200 each and chaperones $1,000 apiece for their troubles.

That didn't soothe the angry parents, many of whom had waited by their phones all day for updates from their kids.

Daniel Smith III, a teacher in St. Petersburg, said his 17-year-old son, Richard, called several days ago to say things were bad, but not that bad.

"He said, "Dad, this is a Code 1.' He said, "If I get up to a Code 5, things are really bad news.' "

Friday, the boy left a message on dad's machine. "He said, "Dad, this is Richard. Code 5, Code 5.' "

The trip provoked concern from top officials in Georgia and the students' home states.

April Herrle, a spokeswoman for Gov. Lawton Chiles in Tallahassee, said parents called the state Capitol all day to complain.

The kids were supposed to get $5-an-hour concession jobs throughout the Games, plus free lodging and tickets to two events. Instead, they were sleeping on floors and scrounging for meals. In one case, chaperones reported a mad free-for-all over a newly arrived shipment of McDonalds hamburgers.

Some students took to calling the program's reception center "the concentration camp."

Officials promised to look into the episode. But Herrle said a preliminary review suggested no laws had been broken. The families did not pay for the trip, she said, so laws on fraud probably would not apply.

Creative Travel Services blamed Atlanta school officials. They said the 2,000-plus students were to have been housed at a middle school and high school. But at the last minute, they said, school officials backed out of the arrangement.

Officials in Florida and Georgia said the blame appeared to belong elsewhere.

Creative Travel Services "seems to be in way over their heads," Herrle said. "They did not have all the details worked out."

The program sounded great to parents and kids. But, Herrle said, "It clearly has been bungled."

In Hernando County, Sharon Florio was ready Friday evening to drive all night from Spring Hill to Atlanta to pick up her stranded son _ if only she had known where he was staying. She hadn't heard from Steven, 17, since the night before.

"I am scared out of my mind," she said.

Kids reported sleeping on floors and outdoors by a motel pool. Others complained the only food they got Thursday was a sandwich and piece of fruit. Still others got so fed up, they called their parents Friday and convinced them to buy one-way plane tickets back to Florida.

Then they shelled out $40 for a cab ride to the airport.

Jerry Woodka, a coach and teacher at Northeast who was acting as a chaperone, said he and other adults called around to see if they could find charter buses to bring the kids back to Florida.

"Every bus in the state of Georgia was taken," he said.

Karen Phifer, whose son John is a senior at Boca Ciega High School, said the company's promise to pay $200 a kid "is not near enough."

"They can apologize until the cows come home," she said, "and it wouldn't be enough for me, for what these kids had to go through."

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