By Nancy Guenther Chapman
NORWALK, Conn. – Accusations of “shame” were made three times Thursday evening in the gymnasium of a Norwalk school.
“The city of Norwalk should be ashamed of themselves,” said Lailo Bravo, mother of twin 3½- year-olds who are enrolled in the Head Start program at Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON).
Bravo and more than 100 other people were at a meeting called by NEON to rally the troops after the South Norwalk anti-poverty agency was told that it may not get the money it says it needs from the city.
NEON Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson spent about 40 minutes recently making a pitch to Norwalk’s Ad Hoc Grant Review Committee, asking for $1.3 million in funding. Committee member Rick McQuaid made a point of thanking her for her thoroughness – unheard of from NEON in past years – but the committee’s recommendation is to deny the request, NEON Chief Executive Officer Pat Wilson Pheanious said.
The committee has instead recommended giving NEON $90,000, she said.
“We’ve been given half for what we need for the summer camps programs, and absolutely no funding for any other purpose,” she said to the crowd, stressing that it was a recommendation, not a decision. “We asked for less money than we have been funded every year for the last 25 or 30 years. This is not a new request.”
NEON was denied funding from Norwalk last year as a scandal unfolded in the wake of a federal audit that showed funds were misspent. Former CEO Joe Mann eventually resigned, and NEON is working to form a new board of directors.
“At the time, I’m not sure I would have acted any differently,” said Pheanious, who was appointed as interim CEO after Mann left. “There were many, many questions that needed to be answered. There were many, many problems that had to be straightened out and issues which need to be dealt with. I fully accepted that. … We turned this agency upside down in terms of cleaning its books, in terms of making sure that we were doing things correctly and that every question that needed to be answered was answered.”
NEON needs the money for matching funds, a requirement for its federal grant for Head Start, she said. Not getting the funds “could put us in the position where the program does not exist,” she said. “The parents here would have to locate other programs. It’s effectively a broken promise by the city, which could jeopardize the money we have to operate on.”
Further, “It can have the capacity of crippling services and making it difficult for us to do many of the things we have done in the past,” she said, adding that 11,000 people would be affected.
Parents watched part of a video showing Stephenson’s presentation to the city, then began asking questions.
“Shame on the city of Norwalk,” said Ernestine McLean in an emotional speech. “NEON is a safe environment for our children. Us as parents, we are able to go to work and come home at the end of the day and know our kids are safe. Without NEON, where would we be? We are able now to get a job from 9 to 5. Without this program, all of us would have to work part time, be on unemployment, be on social service.”
Pheanious and Stephenson had been encouraging them to call city officials and write letters; at that point it was suggested that their employers might call.
Everything the women said was translated into Spanish; some parents said they didn’t know English well enough to write letters or make phone calls.
Pheanious said NEON would write a letter for them to sign, and would post letters on its website. She said she’d let everyone know when the city will vote on the grant proposal.
“We need every program that NEON operates,” she said. “We are a nonprofit agency that’s business is about helping poor people move themselves forward. That is our business. That is what we do on a daily basis. Whether they’re older people or babies like the ones in our programs. Whether they’re black or white or Haitian, Latino, it doesn’t matter to us. Its income and low income is important. And if we don’t take that seriously and let them know that, then shame on us too.”