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?

Childress, who brainstormed the concept of NAILEM with Neill and Paul Enniss, a community activist in the Simpson neighborhood, wanted to recruit someone who could figure out how to "work the system" at the state capitol, to address larger issues than just slumlords and crime. He didn't want the job, but he agreed to sponsor whoever took up the cause.

Neill and Enniss are credited as being co-founders. They benefited from Childress' help as he set up a phone line at his car dealership to take incoming calls. He provided office space at his dealership and gave Neill access to e-mail.

"At some point, you can't just be a community association and try to change state law," Childress says.

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

As an organization, NAILEM was loosely constructed on purpose, according to Enniss. It did not have a checking account and was not incorporated to avoid having to register as a 501(c)3 organization, which by law is restricted from lobbying.

"The thing we did not do is set up any bylaws, which in retrospect was a mistake," Enniss says. "Anybody who ever called NAILEM or came to one of our marches is by default a NAILEM member. There was no bylaws to stop any one person from going out and claiming to speak for NAILEM."

Neill and Enniss, through NAILEM, assumed control of weekly drug and crime marches in 1996, organized on Saturday nights in various city neighborhoods. At first, according to Enniss, as many as 50 to 100 people would turn out. Over time, that number dropped significantly. By the time he left the organization, "if we got a dozen, that was a good crowd."

NAILEM also rarely asked for donations. Enniss says he can remember just one time when people were asked to contribute, and that donation was to buy stamps. "It was somewhere around $40, I think," he says of the funds collected.

But Neill was asking for money.

Wally Straughn and Ben Rolse, longtime neighborhood activists who had moved to the Coronado community in 1993, took part in one of the weekly marches. Soon after, Neill approached them for funds.

"She said there was no bank account. It would have to be made out to her," Straughn says of the checks he wrote to Neill.

While he can't remember specific amounts, Straughn says he and Rolse gave Neill several hundred dollars. When told there is no record of their donation, Straughn shrugs it off.

"We don't donate money unless we're willing to give it away. We didn't continue to donate money because there was no organization," he says. "I really don't know that she didn't use it for NAILEM."

If she did use the money for NAILEM, she never told Enniss. "I never knew about it until they [Straughn and Rolse] told me much later," he says.

Neill can't recall donations from Straughn and Rolse.

"They might have [contributed]," she says.

Within a year of its creation, NAILEM was an active player at the state Legislature.

Neill and Enniss lobbied for several neighborhood bills that eventually passed into law.

State Senator Chris Cummiskey, a Democrat who represents the Westwood area, became a supporter as NAILEM evolved.

"What I was able to witness was Donna going from a stray bomb thrower to a more seasoned advocate for neighborhoods," the senator says. "Not just on the west side, but neighborhoods throughout the state."

Cummiskey credits Neill with taking the point position, but he says that NAILEM encompasses many people. And, he says, it now commands respect from House and Senate members.

"They know NAILEM has grown to be a viable organization and one that can't be ignored," he says.

What they don't know is that NAILEM may really just be Donna Neill. New Times could not find anyone else who is a member even though the NAILEM Web site claims membership to be more than 400 people. In an interview, Neill said that e-mails from NAILEM reach about 35,000 people statewide. Yet no one interviewed by New Times, including city and state officials, can name another NAILEM member besides Neill. Even Neill, during an interview, is unable to name specific NAILEM members.

Still, as NAILEM gained recognition, Neill came in contact with more people, and she solicited more help.

The Westwood Community Association, as well as Enniss' Simpson neighborhood, benefited through a series of state grants received from then-governor Symington's office. The grants allowed for education and assistance to area schools.

In Westwood, the bulk of the money went toward programs at Westwood Primary School, which houses kindergarten through third grade students.

"They were very helpful in providing us with resources for parents. Counseling was a big part of it," says Principal Mara Wayland, who first met Neill in 1996. "We have a counselor, but when you have 1,250 children with numerous needs . . . truly, it was a very great resource for us. One counselor can't provide all that was needed that this grant did."

All told, Neill and Enniss' neighborhoods received roughly $788,492 in state grants between 1996 and October 1999. However, only a fraction of the grant dollars received -- $192,978 -- were reported by the Westwood Community Association to the IRS.

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