"It's shocking," the leader of South Norwalk's anti-poverty agency Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now said, as she and other staff members attempted to stir indignation from a crowd of more than 100 people last Thursday evening in a bid to get them to fight for their own interests.
NEON chief executive officer Pat Wilson Pheanious was referring to the $90,000 Norwalk's Ad Hoc Grant Review Committee is recommending the city give to NEON. That figure represents a fraction of what NEON needs, she said. The embattled agency has requested $1.3 million --$370,500 for administrative costs, $181,450 for its summer camp program and $750,000 for Head Start.
"We've been given half of what we need for the summer camps programs, and absolutely no funding for any other purpose," Pheanious said, saying that the deficit would threaten every program NEON offers.
She repeated to the parents and Head Start workers that the $90,000 was a recommendation, not a decision, and the time has come to fight and make their voices heard.
"Maybe it's because they don't think you count," she said. "They don't think you care. They're counting on your silence."
NEON was denied funding from Norwalk last year in the midst of a scandal that involved poor bookkeeping and misspent funds, uncovered by a federal audit. Former CEO Joe Mann was forced to resign, and the board of directors is in the process of being replaced.
"It was withheld initially because they felt the agency wasn't run efficiently," she said. "All of the people who made those decisions are gone, in terms of the management staff. ... To penalize the children for the bad doing of people who are no longer with the agency doesn't make much sense."
NEON needs the grant from the city as matching funds to get the federal grant for the Head Start program, she said. The request to Norwalk was actually less than has been made in previous years, she said, adding that there is a 25- to 30-year history of grants from the city to fund NEON.
"If we don't get that match, Head Start may very well say, `we're taking our 80 percent back,' " she said. "In effect, this broken promise by the city is what could in fact jeopardize the dollars we have too."
It might also jeopardize all of NEON's programs, affecting 11,000 people, from babies to senior citizens, she said.
"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.
Some parents said the loss of childcare would make it difficult for them to keep jobs, or to work full-time.
"They should be ashamed of themselves," said Lailo Bravo, mother of twin 3½- year-olds enrolled in NEON's Head Start program. "They should be here tonight, listening to what we are saying. ... I can't live off the state. I need to be at work, I need to be employed. I need to have an income coming in and I can't have an income coming in if I'm asked to be a babysitter."
Common Councilman Carvin Hilliard (D-District B) was the only city official in attendance.
Ernestine McLean made an impassioned speech about NEON's job assistance programs for adults, and the value of its childcare programs.
"We are able now to get a job from 9 to 5," she said. "Without this program, all of us would have to work part time, be on unemployment, be on social service. NEON offers so much more than Head Start for our children."
NEON leaders urged those in attendance to write to city officials, call them and vote.
"We're not giving up. We're moving forward, but we're doing it collectively together. We're going to be having meetings," Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson said." ... Say `NEON counts, my children count, I count.' Let them see the number of individuals that are going to call in to express so passionately what each of you have said here tonight."