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?

By May 2000, the Westwood Community Association had raised $55,100. The association contributed $23,939 to help build the park with the remaining $31,161 earmarked for the Atkinson center.

The donations were raised between April 1997 and April 2000. All the money was kept in a private, interest-bearing account, according to Westwood's 1999 tax return. The interest raised totaled $1,687.

When the donations were given to the Park Foundation of Phoenix, Neill's organization kept $954. Neither Donna nor Jerry Neill could initially explain why the charity kept the money. Later, they say it was meant to sustain a floating fund for other expenses, but financial records do not show the money being used for charity events.

Jerry and Donna Neill moved to the Westwood community in 1993.
Kevin Scanlon
Jerry and Donna Neill moved to the Westwood community in 1993.

Kid Street Park opened in December 2000. The community center has been designed and a groundbreaking was expected in October. That groundbreaking has yet to occur.

Kid Street Park is a source of immense pride for Neill.

She beams upon entering the gate, staring at the park.

She talks about the children who flock to play there daily, the families who fill the grassy slopes on weeknights.

The park is a direct offshoot of an event Neill started in 1995 called Kid Street, the same event that would many years later be the inspiration for naming the park.

Kid Street evolved during a meeting between Neill, school officials at Simpson and Westwood elementary schools and Lisa Hubbard, a neighborhood specialist assigned by the city to assist the Westwood neighborhood.

Hubbard remembers a woman from the Simpson school talking about growing up in Chicago, how a neighborhood street was blocked off to allow inner-city children a chance to play without fear of traffic or distraction. Neill keyed on the idea and soon met with city Parks and Recreation officials and members of the transportation department. A city grant paid for staff time to allow parks officials to supervise the children playing. In 1996, a Neighborhood Block Watch grant from the police department provided more than $9,000 for equipment, portable rest rooms and a computer to allow Neill to create and distribute information about the event.

The event ran every Saturday between October and April. City officials blocked off Pierson Street, a stretch of asphalt just south of Camelback Road. Neill brought food and drink.

Neill varies on how much it costs to feed the children at Kid Street.

In the 1996 Block Watch grant, she listed the cost at $3,900. During an interview with New Times, she placed the cost at $175 to $200 a week, or about $4,900 to $5,600 a year.

Each year, the Westwood Community Association sponsors a Christmas party, which she says costs considerably more because it has grown to include more than 300 people. The spaghetti dinner served at the Christmas party, she says, costs about $1,000 alone.

But Neill has had help putting food on the table. She has continued to ask for money to pay for food and supplies that other businesses are providing free of charge.

Since 1998, Neill has solicited more than $15,000 to feed children at Kid Street and to host the annual Christmas party.

In 1998, she received $10,000 from PriceRite Foods, a grocery store that opened and later closed at 19th Avenue and Indian School. She has received at least two $1,000 donations from Le Girls, an adult cabaret near downtown. She received donations of $2,000 from two local convenience stores and gas stations in Westwood.

None of these donations appear on any Westwood financial statement and were never reported to the IRS. There is no way, other than Neill's word, to document that the money was spent on Kid Street.

According to the Reverend Gale Watkins, his congregation at Westminster Presbyterian Church has provided free food and workers for at least four years on the third Saturday of every month that Kid Street is in operation.

Mike Tanner says that for at least two years his business paid for food used two Saturdays a month. Even Childress says he's bought food for Kid Street when asked by Neill.

So what is Donna Neill doing with the money she says she's raising for Kid Street?

Neill says that anyone who has given money to Kid Street knows where the money is going, even if the donations are not documented.

How do they know? "By what I do and my reputation of doing it," she says.

Augustyn, the former police officer who cut ties with Neill, doesn't buy it.

"In terms of her fund raising, she raises a lot of money. But I was there a year and I saw very little of the money she actually got going to the causes she brought up," he says.

"Feeding the kids on Kid Street? I saw a lot of money donated to that cause. I would like to see some receipts or something where money actually went to the organization. Part of the reason I felt deceived, Donna talked about the kids, the kids, the kids. When I got there, I didn't see the kids getting that much."

In addition to the Westwood Community Association and the Westwood Business Alliance, Neill also co-founded a third group in 1996 to address neighborhood issues statewide.

NAILEM was an effort to bring neighborhoods together from across Phoenix and the state. It was meant to give residents of different legislative districts a singular voice that would be heard by a number of elected officials.

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