Several years ago, Lake Highlands began changing before Martha Horan’s eyes.

More families, especially single-parent families, were moving into neighborhood apartment complexes.

More poor and mobile students were enrolling in public schools.

Crime was increasing, and neighborhoods were losing their sense of community.

But Horan didn’t pull her children from public schools.

She didn’t put her house on the market and move to Plano. She didn’t bury her head in the sand.

“There is no place to go, and what are you running from?” Horan says. “Are you scared of people who are different from you? That’s not a way to live.”

Instead of running, Horan helped create the Youth Services Council of the RISD Area, an umbrella group of local service agencies and individuals organized to help RISD students.

Horan was hired as the group’s director three years ago. In that position, she coordinates the agencies’ services and finds ways to decrease student mobility to create a more stable community.

One result of her work is the Skylark program at Skyview Elementary, an after-school enrichment program that has served 180 Skyview students this year.

“I think everyone’s first responsibility is to their family,” Horan says. “The second is their community. I think everyone needs to look where they can contribute.”

She didn’t take the job for money. She hasn’t received a paycheck in six months because funding for her position ran out.

She wasn’t looking for recognition.

She took the job because she knew her neighbors, especially the children, needed help.

For her efforts, Horan has been selected to receive the Advocate Award, sponsored by Advocate Community Newspapers and the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce. The award recognizes outstanding leaders who are dedicating their lives to improving our neighborhoods.

“My faith in God and my Lord Jesus Christ have been the most influential,” Horan says of her work.

“You can’t live your faith without trying to assist others. Especially in this role at the Youth Services Council, because this isn’t dealing directly with my children.”

“For me, seeing my family and appreciating the benefits has led me to help other families be stable and feel part of the community. It’s a way to give back some of the blessings I’ve had.”

Horan has lived in Lake Highlands for 16 years, and she has a history of volunteering.

She has worked extensively in neighborhood schools – Merriman Park Elementary and Lake Highlands Junior High and High School. She also chaired the Parent Advisory Committee, which is an umbrella group of RISD schools that reports to the school board about parent concerns.

She’s a member of the Junior League of Dallas and the Lake Highlands Women’s League. She is also active in her church, Skillman Church of Christ, where she serves on several committees.

“I think volunteering is an obsession,” Horan says. “It’s rewarding by itself without the paycheck. When you see something benefit the community that you did, it’s encouraging.”

In order to take the position at the Youth Services Council, Horan cut back on her volunteering, but she remains active in neighborhood schools through the PTA.

“I’ve done probably every PTA job on the whole board,” Horan says. “Parents need to demonstrate to the child that they value good education as adults, so that they value it.”

Horan balanced her volunteer jobs with raising four children. Two attend Texas A&M, one is in Lake Highlands Junior High and the youngest is at Merriman Park Elementary.

Sheila Conner has known Horan for 10 years, They have children around the same ages and have worked together on several school projects.

“Just whatever we do, she’s a vital part of it,” Conner says. “She’s just there. She’s always someone you can count on.”

Conner worked with Horan on Dr. Louise Bias’ recent Lake Highlands speech to neighborhood children and parents. Bias lost two sons to drugs and violence. Len Bias was the number one draft pick for the Boston Celtics when he overdosed on cocaine and died of a heart attack. A second son was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Conner says Horan thought the community should hear Dr. Bias’ powerful message about teens, drugs and alcohol.

“She could have stopped at anytime. She’s just a tremendous worker,” Conner says.

“Just because there’s an obstacle, she’s not going to stop if she thinks it’s good for the community.”

Horan grew up in Dallas and graduated from Richardson High School, where she participated in the Girl’s Service League. She was the older sister of three brothers. Her family was active in the church, and her mother also volunteered.

She attended SMU, where she met husband Danny. She earned a degree in deaf education because she saw a need in that area.

She taught for four years before staying home with their first child. Even today, she tries to be home when school is out so her children don’t come home to an empty house.

Horan says if it wasn’t for Danny, she wouldn’t have been able to volunteer as much as she does. He cooks dinner and drives car pools so she can attend meetings.

Horan works so hard because she wants neighborhoods in Lake Highlands to regain what she describes as a lost camaraderie.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot about Lake Highlands,” Horan says. “Lake Highlands has the potential to remain a stable community. This community can do anything it wants to.”

And the council’s programs are designed to promote that ideal, she says.

The Skylark program provides enrichment courses – such as piano, karate and dancing – for students at an affordable price. Horan says the purpose is to help working parents know their children are taken care of after school four days of each week.

Horan believes that if more programs like Skylark are provided in the community, families will feel welcome in Lake Highlands and will stay longer, stabilizing the community and helping everyone.

“It’s beautiful,” says Joseph Pearson, who works with the Skylark Program. “The only thing is I wish it lasted five days a week instead of four.”

Pearson says Horan’s work and dedication make Skylark successful.

“She started it – what else can you say?” Pearson says. “It’s a program that should have started a few years ago. She’s a loving, caring woman. She cares for the welfare of all kids.”

Horan is working to expand Skylark to other neighborhood schools. She’s trying to start a before-school program at Terrace Elementary and an after-school program for 10- to 15-year-olds.

She recently helped coordinate a community meeting at Lake Highlands High School to discuss how to improve the quality of the community by utilizing neighborhood elementary schools.

She has an office, but you’re not likely to find her there because she constantly travels from one meeting to another. She carries two canvas bags full of files and forms everywhere.

“I have to believe that what we are doing is the foundation of stable communities,” Horan says. “It’s a lot of work. But it’s very rewarding work.”

Funding for her position came from a Meadows Foundation grant that lasted two years. The money ran out six months ago, but Horan didn’t.

“Anybody else we had would have been long gone,” says council member Tim James. “That says she’s not in it for the money. It says she’s dedicated to the cause.

“In my opinion, she has the best interest of kids in mind,” James says. “I would have dropped dead of sheer exhaustion if I did what she did.

“This is mission work for her, and I mean that in a spiritual sense. She’s one to say, ‘Let’s not go back to the way it was, let’s deal with it the way it is.’”

“Martha views the world as one big group of people who have the right to share and make the best of what’s in the world.”

“She wouldn’t turn and fight. That’s what’s neat about her. She would turn and help.”