Arlene (Arruda) McNamee refers to herself as a SouthCoast "homegrown kid."
"I grew up here, and as a result of that, I knew and know a lot of people. That helps get things done. I came up through the ranks, yes, but most people do. You just have to work hard," said McNamee.
The daughter of Portuguese immigrants, McNamee was the first in her family to graduate from college. Today, she is executive director of Catholic Social Services in New Bedford and Fall River.
Since 1994, McNamee has helped maintain their mission to improve the quality of life for the poor and those in need, to strengthen individuals and families, and to advocate for social justice.
She's helped countless immigrants, homeless people, hungry people and children and mothers in need; she's helped immigrants learn English and low-income people rent homes.
And always, she remembers one thing, she said: "My mother always taught us to never forget where we came from."
McNamee was the second child born to Portuguese immigrants Herbert and Alice Arruda in New Bedford in 1946.
The late Herbert Arruda immigrated to New Bedford from the Azores in 1922 when he was 14 years old. Alice Arruda — now 101 and living in New Bedford — emigrated with her family from mainland Portugal that same year.
Both went straight to work in factories. Herbert fought in World War II, and later opened a successful lumber business. Alice was a homemaker, who raised McNamee and her older brother, Robert, and for a time, "used to sing on the radio. She was quite famous in her time in the Portuguese community," McNamee said.
The Arrudas raised their children Catholic and with a strong "Portuguese work ethic," said McNamee.
McNamee was educated in private Catholic schools — at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in New Bedford and Bishop Stang in Dartmouth; she graduated there in 1963 at age 16.
"I was the baby of my class," she said with a laugh. "I'm not sure why I was so young—I guess I just started school early."
McNamee became the first in her family to graduate college when she earned her bachelor's degree in sociology from Stonehill College in Easton in 1968.
"My father said, 'She doesn't need to go to college; she's going to get married.' But my mother was, and is, a very strong woman. She made sure I went," said McNamee with a chuckle.
It was at Stonehill that McNamee found her life's calling — helping others.
"I started out majoring in English, thinking I would be a teacher, but I went to college at 16 years old. I was a kid. Most people don't know what they want to do at 20, never mind 16," she said.
"At Stonehill, two things happened: I took a sociology course and Vatican II came out."
Pope John XXIII announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II, in 1962. Thousands of church officials and laypeople discussed cultural changes that the Roman Catholic Church needed to make in the aftermath of World War II. The documents that resulted in 1965 lay the foundation for the church that Catholics know today.
"I'm a child of Vatican II," she said. "When Vatican II came out, I realized, 'Wow, this is how church is supposed to be."
Inspired, she switched her major to sociology. After graduating Stonehill, she landed an entry-level position with the state Department of Public Welfare.
Over the next few years, she worked various social work positions for the Fall River Public School System, New Bedford Child and Family Services and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Since 1994, she's worked at CSS and has risen through the ranks to hold her current title of executive director.
"I love my job. I love what we do and the people we serve. I love the mission — to help those in need," she said.
Helping others is a family affair:
Her husband James McNamee, a retired superintendent of Catholic Schools in Fall River, now volunteers at Our Sisters School and Nativity Prepatory School, private schools for low-income children in New Bedford. The McNamees grown children, Aaron and Julie, also work in charity.
McNamee said for her, "Every day at work is different."
On any given day, she could be working on any of the services under the CSS umbrella, including: assisting low-income people with rent and utility bills, housing, and food; adoption services; bilingual health services; Central American immigrant worker community development; naturalization and citizenship preparation services; mental health counseling for the uninsured and under-insured; immigrant, refugee, and minority advocacy; immigration legal services; child protection; assisting people with disabilities; and running the Solanus Casey Food Pantry, the largest food pantry south of Boston.
"I wear a lot of hats," said McNamee, who also oversees the Community Action for Better Housing.
McNamee was a pivotal force in founding CABH in 1995. The program buys "abandoned and blighted properties" in New Bedford and rehabilitates them to build new housing units for low-income or formerly homeless people.
In April, McNamee and CSS unveiled the Oscar Romero Home, formerly known as the James Tripp rooming house, on Allen Street in New Bedford. CSS renovated the abandoned property to make 12 apartments for formerly homeless people to live, McNamee said.
She's most proud of the transformation CSS has made in the last 20 years or so.
"When I got here, CSS only did adoptions and counseling. Now we're the largest organization for helping homeless and immigrants south of Boston," she said.
When working with immigrants, she always remembers where she came from.
"I'm proud to be Portuguese," said McNamee, who speaks the language and has been to the Azores and the mainland many times. "I love the people, I love the culture—and I love the food."