Natalie Wood, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, speaks on the phone in her Southeast Portland office. “There is a deep respect for and value of human dignity that is at the core of who we are and how we operate at Catholic Charities,” said Wood, who served at Catholic Charities in Houston for 28 years before accepting the Portland post. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Natalie Wood, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, speaks on the phone in her Southeast Portland office. “There is a deep respect for and value of human dignity that is at the core of who we are and how we operate at Catholic Charities,” said Wood, who served at Catholic Charities in Houston for 28 years before accepting the Portland post. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
" My hope is to create a very strong Catholic Charities, strong in the faith and embodying the Catholic social teaching that is so important to me.

" — Natalie Wood, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon
When it comes to the trials of low-income life, the new leader of Catholic Charities of Oregon gets it.

Natalie Wood, 59, spent her youth in an ethnically diverse low-rent district of Houston and then a small Texas town where white residents were wary of Hispanics like her.



‘We spoke about God all the time’

Her mother, with Mexican Indigenous heritage, had a relationship with a German-American man and found herself with child at age 29. The parents demanded that their unwed pregnant daughter leave the house. A sister took her in and various aunts would come to help with the new baby. And so little Natalie grew up in a community of resilient women.

The interrelated households lived a deeply Catholic life, attending daily Mass and allowing faith to infuse everyday matters. “We spoke about God all the time,” says Wood. “It was ‘If God lets it happen this is what I will do.’ Everything was centered around religion.”

When Natalie was 4, her parents got married and the family relocated to a low-income east Houston neighborhood where her father worked in a laundromat. An aunt moved in next door and the grandmother also helped.

Money was tight. As a grade-schooler, young Natalie worried each time she ran out of notebook paper, because she knew her family could barely afford it.

Now and then, her mother and aunts would take Natalie and her siblings and cousins to a movie. They had to go to bargain matinees and sneak drinks and popcorn into the theater in a diaper bag.

“I fretted about everything,” she says. “I knew my neighborhood was not safe. I prayed each day for Jesus to protect me. I felt safe, wrapped in His arms.”



Small town lessons

When her father got trained as an HVAC technician, he took the family to Magnolia, a town of 2,000 about 50 miles northwest of Houston. Mostly white, many Magnolia residents didn’t know what to make of a family with a white father and a Hispanic mother. There was no Catholic parish, so the household worshipped with the Baptists. When Natalie’s mother sat down in a pew, nearby churchgoers would get up and sit elsewhere.

“People would talk to my mom about ‘your type of people,’” Wood recalls.

But other families had open hearts and Natalie made many friends. She would visit the girls’ houses and they would visit hers. When parents in one home fought, the girls would slip away to someone else’s place and feel secure.

“I got along with everyone,” Wood says. “But I noticed a lot of what went on. It increased my empathy and my belief that all people are created equal. The differences we perceive among people, we create them.”

Her faith grew. The family found a Catholic parish and Natalie made her first confession, receiving only a single Our Father for penance. “How much sinning could a young kid do?” she says with a chuckle. She recalls first Communion clearly and sensed God calling her to be even closer to him.



A path toward service

As she was finishing high school, Natalie planned on finding a job. She had posted a high SAT score and earned stellar grades, but the guidance counselor was urging her toward secretarial school, perhaps pre-judging because of Natalie’s working class family. But Natalie’s father saw his daughter’s high potential and insisted she attend college.

Wondering where to apply, she asked a college-bound friend who suggested Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, Texas. There she studied biology and chemistry for four years.

She soon met Stephen Wood and fell in love. They wed in 1985 and she entered further studies at the University of Houston, thinking of becoming a teacher. That job that would make sense amid married life and motherhood, she figured. But two things happened: Teaching did not seem like a good fit, and she was not getting pregnant.

As she and Stephen consulted with fertility experts, Wood began to discern her calling. In prayer, she remembered what had fueled her passion in years past. As a precocious sixth grader, she was fascinated by Sigmund Freud’s writings on psychoanalysis. She loved the book so much she had forgotten to return it to the library and her mother had to pay a stiff fine. She decided to give psychology everything she had. Wood began at Texas Southern University, a historically Black college in Houston. Wood studied psychology and biology there for four years. She made many Black friends who helped her learn their perspectives, an experience that formed her broad vision.

Wood then began to pursue a master’s in clinical psychology at the University of Houston – Clear Lake, which had a highly respected program. During an internship, she was given a post at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

“I absolutely fell in love with the organization and what it brought that is so unique,” says Wood. “There is a deep respect for and value of human dignity that is at the core of who we are and how we operate at Catholic Charities.”



Compassion increases

While working with women who were trying to escape domestic violence, Wood sensed a profound compassion arise in her. She recalled the Gospel passages in which Jesus has such stirrings when he encounters human suffering. She considers her experience a holy gift that affirmed her calling to social service.

“That was the moment I knew God had placed me there,” Wood says. “I knew this was the work I was supposed to be doing.”

She was hired by Catholic Charities in Houston as a counselor for single women facing homelessness, most of whom were battered.

“We changed lives with what we did,” Wood says. “We would do everything we could to help their dreams come true.”

Later, Wood became a trainer for the whole organization, helping programs use data to run more effectively. She also led trainings on Catholic social teaching. She would stay with the Houston-based agency for 28 years before taking the Oregon job.

Meanwhile, she and Stephen were able to have three children, though one, Drew, died six months after birth. Wood also had many miscarriages. She wishes it could have been different, but the anguish added to her ability to engage with others who feel unimaginable loss.

“God uses us to heal people, even if it’s from the worst experiences of our lives,” Wood explains.

And she thanks God all the more for her 30-year-old daughter in Chicago and her 18-year-old son, a student at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Both children spent a lot of time at Catholic Charities and have hearts for service and justice.



Collaboration and faith

In Houston, Wood earned a reputation as a deeply collaborative leader, a commitment she is continuing in Portland.

“You want to have all the voices,” she says. “I believe very strongly in empowering people.”

Valerie Perales, a retired services director for Catholic Charities in Houston, worked with Wood for 13 years. She says Oregon is blessed with its new hire.

“She is a very compassionate person with lots of empathy,” Perales says. “She’s also very creative.”

Perales recalls moments of enthusiasm and fun as she and Wood brainstormed on projects and solutions. She also remembers Wood handling difficult situations with grace and open communication.

Perales calls Wood a rare person who is both visionary and practical, plus a natural listener. “It is her core being,” said Perales. “But it’s also part of her training as a counselor, that she can listen and observe and not make value judgements and really see what is going on.”

Archbishop Alexander Sample, who, with his colleagues on the board of directors of Catholic Charities, hired Wood early this year, said she stood out for him because of her transparent faith. A member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, she’s a frequent visitor to The Grotto in Portland.

Images of Mary make Wood’s office seem like a small grotto of its own. A statue stands on a table. A painting hangs on a wall. There are rosaries here and there. Mary, Wood said, has helped her through hard times.

“If she could see all the torture that happened to her son and then see his horrific death, then I felt I could get through everything that happened to me,” Wood says.

In Oregon, Wood sees her main role as helping staff and the public understand the faith-based mission of Catholic Charities.

“My hope is to create a very strong Catholic Charities, strong in the faith and embodying the Catholic social teaching that is so important to me,” she said. “There needs to be an excellence of service because that is what we are called to by God.”