Welcome to Donnawood

A west Phoenix neighborhood pays the way for activist Donna Neill to gain control. But who gets stuck with the final bill?

The first thing you notice about Donna Neill is her height.

She is not a small woman. She stands nearly 5-foot-11 with a shock of red curly hair.

The Reverend Gale Watkins and his congregation at Westminster Presbyterian Church have provided free food and other help for Donna Neill's projects.
Todd H. Lillard
The Reverend Gale Watkins and his congregation at Westminster Presbyterian Church have provided free food and other help for Donna Neill's projects.
Phoenix City Councilman Phil Gordon, who has worked with Donna Neill for four years, says he has no doubts about his friend. "I'm standing with Donna.
Todd H. Lillard
Phoenix City Councilman Phil Gordon, who has worked with Donna Neill for four years, says he has no doubts about his friend. "I'm standing with Donna.

Her penchant for fashion could be called garish if it didn't fit her personality. Nearly every inch of clothing is adorned by some accessory, whether it's the American flag tie-tack on her red pinstripe tie, the Uncle Sam emblem stitched on her denim shirt, the tiny flags on her red loafers or the phalanx of police pins on her lapel.

Her fashion sense mirrors her decorating taste, which is a mixture of clutter, nostalgia and kitsch. Her house, a modest brick home built in 1956, is filled with eclectic treasures. The kitchen has a dining booth and soda fountain from Denny's, a vintage 1947 refrigerator and a giant gumball machine. One bathroom is adorned entirely with Elvis Presley memorabilia.

Neill is a simple woman who prefers thrift-store clothes and cheap collectibles best found at flea markets.

Born in Denver, Neill worked for a community college in Colorado while raising two daughters and a son from her first marriage. She took classes in business administration, but never received a degree. In 1976, she married Jerry Neill, whose job with Cisco Foods took them first to New Mexico and then, in 1989, to Scottsdale.

Times weren't easy. Donna Neill worked as an operations manager for a toy manufacturer. Jerry Neill suffered health problems. One of her daughters, born with disabilities, died. Donna Neill stopped working, needing some time to heal.

The couple moved to central Phoenix in 1993.

What they found in Westwood was a neighborhood struggling not to implode. Crime and gang activity were rampant. Neighborhood children lived hand to mouth, their families often moving shortly after finding one of the countless cheap apartments for rent. Graffiti covered most open wall space.

Neill says she saw it as her duty to get involved.

"I think it's all of our jobs to give something back, each one of us," she says.

Especially where children are concerned.

If there is one area that Neill returns to time and again, it is children. She talks about helping children, feeding children, hugging children, educating children.

"I think people don't understand any of this if they've never done it," she says.

One of her first tasks was to get organized.

Neill created the Westwood Community Association in 1994. She documented neighborhood needs and began visiting local businesses to garner support. Neill eventually landed on the doorstep of two car dealers, Rusty Childress and Mike Tanner, whose family owned the Volvo dealership next to Childress' Buick dealership. The Volvo dealership has since been sold and Tanner now operates Tanner Luxury Collision on North 22nd Drive.

"She's very persistent. [It] wasn't just one stop, one visit. She kept coming back over and over again," Tanner says. "She not only got our attention. She held our attention."

And she made both men partners, for better or worse, in all that lay ahead.

By September 1994, Childress and Tanner had helped Neill create a second organization, the Westwood Business Alliance.

In February 1995, the business alliance sponsored a bus tour of Westwood to show business owners and city, county and state officials the places where graffiti marred walls, the alleyways where homeless people slept and drug dealers conducted business, the state of disrepair present at many apartment complexes.

"It was a real eye-opener to a lot of people, including myself," Tanner says. "It showed people what the real problems were, and they weren't easy-fix solutions."

The business alliance, according to Childress, was a shrewd move. Involving businesses, particularly car dealerships, which typically bolster city sales tax revenue, gave Neill a way to capture the interest of city officials.

"People will listen to her. She can get in to see people. She has made a name for herself," Childress says.

He concedes that Neill can be overly assertive at times.

"If you agree with her opinion, she's the greatest thing since sliced bread," Childress says. "I try not to take a position with Donna of agreeing or disagreeing. She's a person I respect to the extent I'll give her the leeway of having an opinion."

The alliance also gave Neill a direct line to people with money.

The business alliance is not incorporated. It has a president and vice president, but no formal board. It has no checking account. It does not solicit donations, according to Childress and Tanner, although Neill does use monthly meetings to update guests about issues facing the neighborhood and ask for donations.

What began with five to 10 people gathering in 1994 now boasts attendance between 25 and 50 people, according to Tanner. The meeting is held the last Wednesday of each month at Childress' auto dealership.

"I think the business alliance is a good steering mechanism," Tanner says. "But the main force behind the business alliance . . . I think it's Donna. It was her brain child, her motivation. Had Donna not been pushing Rusty and I, I'm not sure it would have happened."

Minutes of the alliance meetings show Neill's presentation to be a run-down of ongoing neighborhood events, donations received and, in some cases, a plea for money.

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