NORWALK, Conn. – An angry Norwalk volunteer packed up her gear Friday and closed her free South Norwalk children’s summer camp one week early due, she said, to problems with the city, leadership of the South Norwalk Community Center and the tension in the building where the camp was held.
“We were invited into NEON,” Donna Wimpfheimer said. “Found out we were walking into a big, stinking mess. … This is not the best environment for doing this with our kids.”
Wimpfheimer was referring to Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now, but she was in the South Norwalk Community Center multipurpose room. The two organizations share the building at 98 South Main St. as tenants in common, but the relationship has become strained over the past year.
Recently, NEON removed phones from the community center, saying NEON were paying for them. SNCC Board Chairman Warren Peña has written several letters to the editor about the situation. NEON CEO and President Pat Wilson Pheanious said this week that NEON officials had decided not to write back, as one attempt to set the facts straight, in their opinion, only led to more rancor.
Peña says SNCC has the right to the entire first floor. Pheanious says that’s nonsense – technically, as tenants in common, they share the entire building, she said. Unfortunately, she said, prior management never put anything in writing.
“That poor lady,” Pheanious said. “She was trying to do something to help kids, she got caught in the middle. … It’s an unreasonable situation and she felt she was getting a run around. Our staff didn’t know what to tell her.”
Wimpfheimer said she had 17 elementary school children in her literacy camp, and a group of teenagers serving as mentors. The camp was sponsored by Grace Community Church in New Canaan, where she is a parishioner, and also funded by private donors.
She said she is a master gardener intern and thought the NEON building would be perfect, as the kids could go out the back door and learn about science in the garden at Ryan Park.
That didn’t work out – she paid $150 for insurance to cover the children in the garden, she said, but subsequently found out the insurance was $150 a day, although, she said, the kids were only out there for 45 minutes a day. She couldn’t find a neighborhood church to put the children on its insurance policy.
“The city has not been very supportive,” she said. “Parks and Rec has not been supportive. They have been, in a very small sense, ‘Oh, it’s nice – but not so nice that we’re going to support you.’”
An independent source confirmed there was an issue with insurance in the park. Wimpfheimer said a lower-level employee had been very helpful, and was sympathetic.
“They wanted to go in the park, we couldn’t,” Wimpfheimer said. She said that was really galling because she spends five hours a week volunteering to clean up the park.
There were continuing issues within the building as well.
“The second day I got accosted by someone saying ‘this is our property, how can you be doing this on our property?’” Wimpfheimer said.
Pheanious was very clear in stating that the camp was not sponsored by NEON. The rest of the situation is murky. Wimpfheimer said NEON Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson invited her in – the multipurpose room is used as a cafeteria, she said, and the “beautiful” Stephenson said she could set up in a corner.
SNCC Chairman Warren Peña said he wasn’t comfortable with the situation, because the multi-purpose room needs construction – scheduled to be done with a $100,000 Community Block Development Grant through the city – and because of other issues that happened before he became chairman. He allowed her in because it was for children and because, he said, he has been trying to be conciliatory to NEON.
SNCC Executive Director Marina Forero-Ferrenadino, a volunteer, said Wimpfheimer did not clean up the room when she left for the day.
Wimpfheimer said there was no broom available, and she had not been told what was expected of her.
“I don’t think the South Norwalk Community Center cares about the kids. … I must leave it clean for them to have a dance on Saturday night?” she said.
The children left the bathroom a mess, Forero-Ferrenadino said. Wimpfheimer said that’s what children do.
SNCC staff put a gate across the hall, denying the children access to a larger bathroom. There was one bathroom off the multipurpose room, but Wimpfheimer did not think that adequate.
Pheanious said NEON has stopped putting toilet paper and paper towels in that bathroom because of the ongoing conflict.
NEON let the kids use their bathroom upstairs.
Forero-Ferrenadino said Wimpfheimer let the children move about the building unsupervised – deplorable, she said, because there are criminals in the building attending NEON’s Alternative in the Community (AIC) program.
Forero-Ferrenadino said she was upset that Wimpfheimer allowed the children to interact with the homeless people in the park.
Wimpfheimer said she appreciated the homeless people.
“The homeless helped me clean up the park,” she said. “The homeless watched over us as we are in the garden.”
She thinks so much of the homeless people that she plans to have the children put on a show for them next Friday, she said. The kids had rehearsed the show as part of their camp, she said. The $150 for the insurance will be paid for that day because it is worth it, she said.
A major issue was the freshly painted walls in the multipurpose room. Wimpfheimer said she had literacy signs on the walls, and was told to take them down by SNCC staff, who were concerned the walls would be marred.
Forero-Ferrenadino said those “literacy” signs had religious comments on them.
“I am also religious, but I never tell my religion to the kids,” Forero-Ferrenadino said. “Everything was related to the Lord.”
Religious teachings on the wall of the center could jeopardize SNCC’s funding, Forero-Ferrenadino said. Wimpfheimer was told to put up non-religious signs, she said, but instead put up twice as many the next day.
Pheanious was more sympathetic to Wimpfheimer. There are many administrative issues in the building shared by two organizations, she said, and, “Unfortunately because Warren controls part of it, there’s that difficult situation.”
Wimpfheimer wanted to use the kitchen, Pheanious said, but the kitchen equipment had been purchased by the community center years ago, meaning that it technically is not under NEON’s control.
She wanted to use a closet off the multipurpose room but was told no. NEON offered her a closet, but Wimpfheimer said it was too difficult to take things upstairs.
Wimpfheimer wanted to send the kids upstairs to get lunch. Pheanious allowed that, but under strict conditions – the entire gang could not come up at once. One at time was OK. Why? Because Wimpfheimer’s program wasn’t licensed. NEON offers free lunch and dinner to any child that comes in the door, so individual children from the program were invited. But if the entire group came up at once, that would indicate that NEON was sponsoring the program, which would be illegal.
“It’s a very odd situation,” Pheanious said. “… She was continually annoyed and unhappy. I explained, it’s not anything we control.”
Wimpfheimer does not have good things to say about Peña.
“It’s nasty,” she said. “He doesn’t have nice things to say about people either. I got caught in that. I don’t care – I do lip service to nobody. I don’t know the names of who the people are, I don’t care.”
She got a continuous stream of emails from Peña , she said.
“Stupid me. I really thought it was South Norwalk Community Center,” she said. “Mr. Peña said to me, ‘This really started off as a Hispanic center. It’s really for Hispanic improvement.’ I said, ‘Then change the name to South Norwalk Hispanic Center’ and change this room into the banquet hall. This is not a multipurpose room. I got caught in the middle of the warring between the two of them. You know what? This is not good for the kids and nobody takes responsibility for anything. I buy toilet paper and paper towels for my kids. I got the message Mr. Peña. I am hightailing it out of here.”
Peña said there had been a number of problems.
“It is another example of a combative, unprofessional, poorly run program that created a hostile environment at SNCC by NEON,” he said in an email. “I truly feel this was all set up by NEON staff to create chaos and give SNCC a bad name. Not to mention drag me into it when all I was trying to be is courteous since this was supposed to be all about the children.”
Wimpfheimer said she will offer a camp next summer – but not at NEON.
Forero-Ferrenadino said she will offer her own camp at SNCC next summer.
“I love the community’s kids,” she said. “I am there for the kids.”
Wimpfheimer said she wasn’t excusing NEON from blame.
“I’m not saying NEON doesn’t have its problems,” she said. “There are people up there who think they’re bigger than whatever up there. We were not welcomed. To come into this place and people’s faces are so sour. There are a bunch of sourpusses up there.”
She used colorful language to express her feeling that it wasn’t a good place for children.
“This is a stench to our children,” she said. “It’s a stench. I am new to this. I don’t get paid. I am a teacher, I have a master’s degree from NYU, I give my time. I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I love to do programming like this. … I didn’t want my kids to see that nonsense. Somebody goes, ‘Oh you can’t use the water.’ “The bathrooms are leaking.’ ‘The place hasn’t been swept.’”
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