When it comes to his favorite neighborhood cause – the White Rock/Lake Highlands YMCA – Elliott Stephenson holds nothing back.

This is, after all, the volunteer who was dubbed “the man in the toga” for his creative approach to opening a community meeting to raise scholarship funds for the YMCA during an Olympic year.

Recalls Wendy Barber, YMCA vice president of operations: “We started the meeting. Elliott was nowhere to be seen.”

Stephenson soon made his entrance – clad in a toga and green-leaf wreath, and bearing a torch.

“About 100 people in the community got to see this,” Barber says.

“He’s always been known since as the man in the toga.”

The man in the toga is a man of many commitments. And Stephenson – single father to three, entrepreneur and community volunteer – intends to properly honor each of them.

Says Stephenson: “If I say I’m going to do it, you can go to sleep at night, and sleep well, knowing that it will be done.”

Making a Difference

Each year since we began publishing, the Advocate has solicited nominations from readers to honor a local resident or volunteer who makes our neighborhood a better place to live.

In making our decision, we look for someone who works diligently and selflessly; not with an eye toward the limelight but simply motivated to help others. We found these qualities, and more, in Elliott Stephenson.

Stephenson quotes a favorite professor in talking about volunteer work: “Activity is not the same as progress.”

“It’s not about staying busy,” he says. The goal is to “make changes to make something better.”

“My kind of operating philosophy is ‘make a difference.’”

Making a Home

Stephenson moved to Texas in 1981 as owner of an industrial chemical distributorship. That entrepreneurial bent later led him to put his doctorate in organizational psychology to work as an independent management consultant with WES Systems, a one-man business he runs out of his home. As a consultant, he helps organizations perform better by providing training, facilitating meetings and teaching managers how to better communicate with employees.

He chose to settle in Dallas over Houston because Dallas offered lighter traffic and a booming economy. While house-hunting, a real-estate agent first directed the family to Plano.

“I didn’t want the neighborhood to be integrated because I moved into it,” Stephenson says, laughing. The family kept looking for that perfect combination of good schools, good homes and diverse population.

“Dallas does not have many well-integrated areas,” Stephenson says. Lake Highlands proved to be one of the few exceptions.

Says Stephenson: “Driving on Stults Road, go west and you’ll pass an African-American church next to an elementary school that’s like the United Nations, next to a retirement center, by another school that’s next to a Hindu Baptist temple, by another African-American church.

“Not anywhere else in the City you’ll find all that driving down one street.”

Raising a Family

About four years ago, Stephenson gained full custody of sons Brian, Jonathan and Jarrett when his marriage ended.

During divorce proceedings, “the choice turned out to be a more appropriate and mutual decision for the boys to stay with me.”

“She’s still a part of their lives,” he says. “Their mother is only a few miles away. They still see her.”

Stephenson says the boys are doing well in school and participate in extra-curricular activities such as track and band.

“It’s a fun and wonderful place with these boys around,” he says. An emphasis on activities connected to the YMCA, church and school has helped, as has his home-based business.

“I have a lot more control over my time,” Stephenson says. “I don’t have to be somewhere at 8. I can balance my schedule to go to the track meets, the band concerts.

“There are about 13 different teachers I stay in touch with regularly.”

Building a ‘Y’

Stephenson is the chairman of the Board of Management of the White Rock/Lake Highlands YMCA and co-chairman of the capital campaign to build the Lake Highlands Family YMCA.

The goal of the capital campaign is to raise $630,000 locally, which will then be matched by the Metropolitan YMCA of Dallas. The ultimate goal is to start construction in late June.

Stephenson’s YMCA commitment leads to days like the following: Attend a 7 a.m. executive committee meeting to prepare presentation for Board of Managers meeting, accompanied by youngest son. Drop him off at school at 8:30 a.m. then back to the “Y” for capital campaign discussion. Return home for business-related work and calls. Have a lunch meeting with potential donor to “Y” campaign. Return to “Y” for 2 p.m. meeting.

Leave there at 3 p.m. to pick up youngest from school and take oldest son back to his school for track practice. Return home to make business calls. End day with telephone conference call on “Y” business.

“Is that an atypical day?” Stephenson says. “No.”

“It does take a lot of time and work, but I enjoy it,” he says. “Some days, you have great success, and some you have smaller successes.

“I feel we are making progress in creating this beautiful ‘Y’. The facilities and programs offered will make the Lake Highlands Family YMCA “a high-quality facility, something all the residents in Lake Highlands will be able to come and enjoy.”

Why has the “Y” engendered such commitment from Stephenson? His owns sons have participated in the group’s summer camps and the like since they were “itty-bitty folks,” and he likes what the “Y” offers the community.

“The ‘Y’ is the kind of organization that emphasizes aspects of moral integrity and character that we want to promote, as well as health and recreation,” he says. “It is literally within walking distance of residents in the Lake Highlands area.”

Meeting Academic Challenges

When teachers at Lake Highlands High School wanted to offer extra tutoring to youngsters in preparation for the state-mandated TAAS test, they counted on Stephenson to help organize the volunteer effort.

Each week from Christmas until the end of February, about 45 volunteers from the community met with about 65 youngsters to provide tutoring. Restaurants in the neighborhood were recruited to donate meals to the enterprise.

“My job was to help get community folks to help kids get over that academic hurdle.”

Stephenson was gratified by the response the program received.

“I’ve been impressed with the work kids have done, as well as the supporters of Lake Highlands who came out and helped the kids,” he says.

“Lake Highlands is a wonderful area that has that sense of community. The high school serves as a major hub of that.”

In addition to the tutoring, the gatherings provided “a forum for kids in Lake Highlands to get to know people they wouldn’t otherwise meet.

“You hear so much from the other side of the spectrum,” Stephenson says. “We had 65 students meet with 45 tutors once a week.”

“That’s a story that needs to be told.”

Time for Everything

Stephenson is unlikely to slow down in his volunteer work with the “Y,” or at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, or at our neighborhood schools.

As Barber says: “He’s always saying, ‘If you can’t bring anything to the table, make room for someone who can.’”

“He is a person of great vision and lots of enthusiasm,” she says. “I’ve just learned a ton working with him.”

Stephenson says he sometimes “feels like a taxicab driver going to one appointment after another.

“My biggest challenge is time management,” he says. He relies on a planner, lots of friends and prayer (“not necessarily in that order”) to keep him going.

“The days are full. Let’s put it that way,” he says. “No shortage of things to do.”

And for Stephenson, the busy days are worth the positive changes he always remembers are his real goal.

As he says: “Activity is not the same thing as progress.”