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NEON Prepares To Fight For Norwalk’s Head Start Money

Patricia Wilson-Pheanious, left, interim president and CEO of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now and Ernestine McLean during a NEON meeting about the future of the Head Start program.
Patricia Wilson-Pheanious, left, interim president and CEO of Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now and Ernestine McLean during a NEON meeting about the future of the Head Start program. Photo Credit: Alfred Branch

NORWALK, Conn. – Dozens of parents whose children are enrolled in Norwalk’s Head Start program called on city officials Thursday to spend $1.3 million to help keep the child care effort operating, as well as several other anti-poverty programs.

The money was requested by Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON), which oversees the federal Head Start program locally, but city officials are recommending the agency only receive $90,000, an amount that could devastate the child care program.

“For the city to only recommend $90,000 out of a request of $1.3 million is like a slap in the face,” said Shawn Gelin, a Head Start parent whose twin 3-year-olds attend the program. “The City of Norwalk should be embarrassed.”

The bulk of NEON’s Head Start funding  – 80 percent – comes from the federal government, but the city has traditionally given the agency the remaining 20 percent as a matching allocation, according to Patricia Wilson-Pheanious, NEON’s interim president and CEO.

The $1.3 million request would cover that matching allocation, administrative and other program expenses. If the city does not give the agency the matching funds, the federal government could pull its allocation, which would end the program, Wilson-Pheanious said.

“The summer camps we run cost about $180,000 alone, so $90,000 would only cover about half of that one program,” said Wilson-Pheanious during a community meeting called by NEON to alert parents of what the agency is facing. About 75 parents were in attendance.

Last year, the city withheld a similar funding request by NEON following the discovery that more than $400,000 had been misappropriated by the agency. The revelation led to the ouster of former NEON head and Common Council member Joseph Mann.

“The city withheld the money initially because they didn’t feel NEON was managing the effectively,” Wilson-Pheanious said. “Or, maybe because they think you don’t count.”

NEON Chief Operating Officer Chiquita Stephenson and other officials urged parents to call or write to city leaders to get them to reconsider the $90,000 recommendation and give the agency the full $1.3 million.

“Without NEON where would we be?” asked Ernestine McLean, whose grandson attend Head Start. “We all need to come together to help our school.”

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