Last May’s departure of longtime Mattapan ABCD Family Service Center director Lillie Searcy came amid an electric streak of civic engagement running through the community. Fortunately for the neighborhood, Searcy’s successor is Milagros “Milly” Arbaje-Thomas, who is at once a seasoned veteran of anti-poverty work, but also a young, dynamic leader who has hit the ground running at the center’s Mattapan Square headquarters.
“I was a bit worried that the transition would be difficult, but it wasn’t. So many people care in Mattapan,” said Arbaje-Thomas, who served previously as the director of the Parker Hill/Fenway Neighborhood Service center for 11 years.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Arbaje-Thomas moved to Lynn, Massachusetts in 1984 with her mother and three siblings. As the oldest of four, Arbaje-Thomas was often left in charge her younger siblings while her mother worked to support the family and studied for a college degree.
“From a very young age, I always felt like I had to be the responsible one—to make sure the needs of everyone in my family were met, so it only came natural to me that I would begin to do social work,” said Arbaje-Thomas.
Arbaje-Thomas was the only child of the family to attend a private school, St. Mary’s High School in Lynn, where she was one of the few minority students and the only Hispanic student in her graduating class. By the time she graduated in 1991, Arbaje -Thomas had earned a full scholarship to Boston College. Initially, she aspired to practice law, but she would later isolate a love for helping people, which would lead her to explore social work.
“Throughout my years, I realized that it was when I was helping people was happy,” she said. “And ever since I got into this field, every day has been rewarding.”
During her years at BC, Arbaje-Thomas met future State Representative Linda Dorcena Forry, who is now married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry, who also graduated from BC alongside Arbaje-Thomas.
“Milly has always been a dynamo, so I knew she would be just the right fit to take up the important work at the Mattapan FSC,” said Rep. Forry, who has represented much of Mattapan since 2005. “She already knows the ins and outs of the ABCD center and she’s quickly become a great partner in meeting the needs of this community.”
Arbaje-Thomas completed her Bachelor Degree in Psychology with minors in Women’s Studies and Education in 1995 but decided to continue her education earning a Master’s Degree in Social Work in 1997. From the age of 19, and continuing throughout her time in college, Arbaje-Thomas worked a variety of jobs with ABCD during the summer, including youth counselor, GED instructor and program coordinator. After completing her Master’s, she worked as a therapist at the Brookside Community Health Center before being offered the executive director position at the Parker Hill/Fenway ABCD facility, where she remained until Lillie Searcy’s resignation last spring.
“At Brookside, I came to a turning point in the way I thought about social work,” said Arbaje-Thomas. “As a therapist, I learned that talking about their problems makes people feel better. But I thought ‘what good is it to just talk about the problems if I am not helping them to solve their problems?’”
Arbaje-Thomas says that she was surprised at the amount of collaboration that has begun to define the community activism scene in Mattapan. In addition to managing programs that address the needs of Mattapan in particular, such as ABCD’s foreclosure assistance program, Arbaje-Thomas is also taking over much of the responsibility for the community networking organization Mattapan United, which had been largely developed by Searcy. The Family Service Center has also been named the convening agency for organizing group Mattapan United and will house it’s office.
“It is amazing to me that you can work for the same company and have such different environments,” said Arbaje-Thomas.
Arbaje-Thomas currently resides in Hyde Park, just minutes away from the Family Service Center, with her husband William Thomas, the Assistant Principal at Charleston High School, and daughters Gabriella and Juilana. In the near future, she hopes to create an internship program at the Family Service Center for social work students.
“Milly Arbaje-Thomas is a bright shining star,” said John Drew, the president and CEO at ABCD. “There is nothing she can’t manage effectively. She gets people involved – she gets them working for us – business people, government people, community people. Milly believes passionately in what we do here – in giving people the opportunity to move forward with their lives. There are so many outstanding success stories out of the neighborhoods where she has worked. She inspires everyone to do their very best.”