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Children’s camp closes early — Was it at NEON? Or the South Norwalk Community Center?

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Donna Wimpfheimer’s teenaged volunteers have some fun Friday while using an iPad to document the cleanliness of the walls in the South Norwalk Community Center – an issue in the dispute between Wimpfheimer and the center.

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.

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Donna Wimpfheimer pauses on her way out the South Norwalk Community Center door Friday. A NEON janitor said he had videotaped the mess in the SNCC multipurpose room the previous night.

“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.

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Nikki Gallagher, 15, clowns around while having her photo taken Friday in the South Norwalk Community Center. Donna Wimpfheimer said her teenage volunteers were the best Norwalk has to offer.

“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.’”

Comments

19 responses to “Children’s camp closes early — Was it at NEON? Or the South Norwalk Community Center?”

  1. Norwalk Lifer

    This is an situation where leadership can shine or it can appear tarnished; get out the brillo NEON and SNCC leadership, you have some cleaning to do

    Regards
    Norwalk Lifer

  2. Anne Sullivan

    A very clear example of an administrative staff who have forgotten what their core responsibilities are- the folks in the community. They need to get out of their offices two full days a week and go back and work in a Head start classroom, or run the summer literacy camp, or cook the food that is served each day until they remember WHY they are there.

  3. Norwalk Spectator

    What’s the point of having a public park if it cost $150.00 a day to use it?

  4. Anna Duleep

    I visited this program for part of every day. The rapport -both among the teenage tutors and between each tutor and child- was astonishing. This program essentially had a 1:1 ratio, tutor to child, plus several adult teachers in the background. Their parents didn’t have to pay one penny; the children got a free lunch and quality lessons in literacy and the arts. They got to bond with terrific role models: “big kids” who were juggling college plans and summer jobs. These teenagers even offered to work for free if it meant keeping the camp open for another week!
    There were successful site visits from at least two charitable foundations while I was there. It was a pleasure to see children and teens of every skin color getting along so well. Give a program like this 6 weeks and we could really see some progress in fighting the achievement gap! I was worried we would lose this program to New Canaan; I hope they will reconsider and stay in Norwalk. By the way, all the women running this program are longtime Norwalk residents.
    I encourage everybody to visit Ryan Park on Saturday, August 10th, from 4-8. Having seen the dress rehearsal of the play (written by the children themselves), I assure you it is adorable. They are very proud of their hard work. The play itself isn’t 4 hours long of course; the rest of the afternoon includes the annual Human Chess Games (Norwalk Police Dept. vs. Norwalk Fire Dept.) and other family activities sponsored by Friends of Ryan Park.

  5. EveT

    Thank you, Ms. Duleep, for another perspective on this day camp. It is truly a shame that the leadership of NEON and SNCC failed to focus on what is best for the kids and the community. Surely the issues of licensing, insurance, and access to space could have been handled much better. Perhaps the woman running the day camp was naive about the administrative dimension, but it seems clear that NEON and SNCC were more focused on their petty squabbles than on helping the kids.

  6. jlightfield

    Let’s stop making excuses for organization leadership which doesn’t follow basic business practices in running a venue.

    You can’t host a program in your space without at the very least of a memorandum of understanding spelling out what the costs, uses and designated areas are.

    To use a city park, the responsible organization should hold a certificate of liability insurance naming the City of Norwalk as insured. This does not cost the responsible organization anything.

    If there’s concern about cleanup responsibility you offer a cleanup fee as part of the rental. If you are not charging a rental fee than the cleanup is on the hosting organization in a shared space.

  7. Suzanne

    Sounds like Ms. Wimpfheimer could have used the expert advise and assistance, on a volunteer basis of course for the children, of jlightfield. Would have taken jlightfield probably ten minutes to explain and fifteen minutes for Ms. W. to file the necessary paperwork and this persnickety nonsense could have given way to an enriching educational, summertime experience for kids. As for the SNCC and Neon, they are beyond shame. “…hobgobblins of little minds…” Emerson

  8. Oldtimer

    It is hard to understand why this volunteer program needs extra insurance to visit a city park. Is every visitor to a city park required to have such insurance ? Of course not. What was there about this program that required extra insurance at $150 a day, and who told this lady she could not take her group into a public park ? Didn’t Mrs Duleep, Anna’s mother, have lots of kids with her when she was setting up the plantings in that park ? She was, in effect, running very successful gardening classes there. If SNCC was Ms. Wimpfheimer’s sponsor, it would seem their insurance would cover a visit to Ryan park, a few steps outside the building.

  9. RU4REAL

    Follow the money!

  10. Mr. Ludlow

    A few possible reasons why the camp closed:
    1. All the campers got an email from Warren Pena telling them not to get “duped”.
    2. Camp organizers finally realized that the young camper who was so interested in Norwalk politics was actually Vinny Mangiacopra.
    3. The mayoral pub crawl was going to be cancelled anyway.
    4. Staff and campers all got sick and tired of being asked to sign nomination papers for Democrat mayoral candidates.
    5. Collarossi and his BOE buddies tried to ban cupcakes at the camp.
    6. Campers and staff knew that this week’s activities included letter writing with Peter Berman and self-aggrandizement with Bill Dunne.

  11. LongTimeDem

    7. Campers became apprehensive when they learned that Ryan Park had been built in a flood plain.

    8. Much to the campers’ dismay, the planned presentation by prominent local blog commentators on “How to Create a Sock Puppet” involved neither actual socks, nor actual puppets.

  12. LongTimeDem

    9. Campers and counselors putting on their play fled the jurisdiction, when a device recording one of their rehearsals accidentally picked up a “private” mayoral conversation and they were all threatened with prosecution (and their residency records subpoenaed).

    10. Staff and campers alike all quit in protest when they find out that they can’t get a grant to buy cool plastic multi-colored lawn chairs like the grown-up campers of Norwalk 2.0.

  13. Mr. Ludlow

    11. Dave McCarthy, Bruce Kimmel and Victor Cavallo didn’t leave any Kool-Aid for the thirsty campers.

  14. LWitherspoon

    12. Campers all left when they learned that next week’s workshops consisted entirely of rap lessons from David Watts.
    .
    13. Two of the campers got into a brawl over who would get to run for Camp Council, and Rep. Bruce Morris was not available to absolve the brawlers with a prayerful press conference.
    .
    14. After Dave McCarthy got wind of the brawl, he kept driving by with a video camera.

  15. Joe Espo

    15. Mike Mushak did a drive-by with his Cub Cadet from Lawn Mower School and tried to mow down that big box bodega on Main Avenue.

  16. LongTimeDem

    15. Camp discipline fell into disarray when several of the counselors announced that, for the remainder of the summer, they would caucus with the campers instead of with the other counselors.

  17. Don’t Panic

    17. The camp’s AAA bond rating was at risk if services weren’t cut due to the couselors being among the highest paid in the state.

  18. Jlightfield

    18. Not so grown up Norwalk 2.0 campers recognize a snarky thread when they see it, offer dislocated campers dinosaur building program at POP City.

  19. loveforthecity

    Have any of you met this woman Donna? She is like Jack O’Dea – WACKO! She was a plant by Chiquita sent to SNCC to do exactly what she did. The games!

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