sharethespiritlogowEBT_reversed
Tears roll down the face of La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program client, Jamaal Morgain, as he talks about the death of his brother during an interview at La Familia in San Leandro, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. Morgain, who left the foster youth program at age 18, found himself homeless and incarcerated, but turned his life around thanks to La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program. Jamaal completed his degree at San Francisco State University and got a job driving for Amazon through the La Familia workforce development program. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

2023

La Familia offers ‘peace of mind’ for thousands of East Bay residents

The nonprofit offers aid to about 6,500 people a year in Alameda and Contra Costa counties

Bay Area News Group

Published November 2023

Note: This story is from our 2023 campaign and has been fulfilled, but you can still donate to the Share the Spirit general fund.

For weeks after his brother’s suicide in January, Jamaal Morgain barely ate. He refused to – he wanted to waste away, to spiral back into the dark pit of depression he’d known all too well through a lifetime of homelessness, crime and addiction.

Luckily for him, someone refused to ignore the warning signs.

Eyeing Morgain’s thinning frame, a counselor at La Familia finally needled an answer out of the 31-year-old Pittsburg native as to why he looked so frail.

The breakthrough that came next was nothing new at the East Bay nonprofit, which has spent decades working to help impoverished, at-risk and recently-incarcerated residents improve their mental health by almost any means necessary.

La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program client, Jamaal Morgain, delivers packages as part of his route in Alameda, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Morgain, who left the foster youth program at age 18, found himself homeless and incarcerated, but turned his life around thanks to La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program. Jamaal completed his degree in Broadcast Electronic Communications of Arts at San Francisco State University and got a job driving for Amazon through the La Familia workforce development program. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program client, Jamaal Morgain, delivers packages as part of his route in Alameda, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Morgain, who left the foster youth program at age 18, found himself homeless and incarcerated, but turned his life around thanks to La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program. Jamaal completed his degree in Broadcast Electronic Communications of Arts at San Francisco State University and got a job driving for Amazon through the La Familia workforce development program. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

For Morgain, it meant finally confronting the demons that had been building over a lifetime, from a childhood spent living in foster care, to being shot in his early 20s, and then grief over his father’s death from cancer and his brother’s suicide earlier this year.

Along with the anger management group counseling sessions to help him cope with his brother’s death, the nonprofit helped connect him with three jobs over the last year, most notably as an Amazon delivery driver.

“It was like a rallying cry,” Morgain said. “I felt like I don’t have to do this alone.”

For years, behavioral health has been at the center of La Famila’s work.

The nonprofit’s roots date to 1975, when it was founded by community members in Oakland and Hayward to provide help for people with developmental disabilities, as well as bilingual mental health care for the Latino community. Since then, its focus slowly broadened to include more behavioral health services and advocacy for greater multicultural resources and curriculums in schools and health care settings.

A merger in 2014 with East Bay Community Services vastly expanded La Familia’s footprint while adding a youth workforce development program to its repertoire. It now offers substance abuse treatment and a housing program as well.

These days, La Familia operates offices in 22 locations across Alameda and Contra Costa counties, providing help to about 6,500 people a year.

The organization hopes to raise $35,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which highlights organizations that strive to help vulnerable individuals in Alameda and Contra Costa counties at critical times in their lives. The funds will be used for vital, emergency supportive services, including housing, clothing, food, transportation, as well as professional clinical evaluations and counseling.

La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program client, Jamaal Morgain, holds his Broadcast Electronic Communications of Arts degree from San Francisco State University at his room in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Morgain, who left the foster youth program at age 18, found himself homeless and incarcerated, but turned his life around thanks to La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program. Also, Jamaal got a job driving for Amazon through the La Familia workforce development program. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program client, Jamaal Morgain, holds his Broadcast Electronic Communications of Arts degree from San Francisco State University at his room in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Morgain, who left the foster youth program at age 18, found himself homeless and incarcerated, but turned his life around thanks to La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program. Also, Jamaal got a job driving for Amazon through the La Familia workforce development program. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

“Right now, more than ever, you see community members that have multiple needs – whether it’s behavioral health, whether it’s food insecurity, whether it’s homelessness,” said Aaron Ortiz, the nonprofit’s CEO. “It’s in front of us – all day, every day.”

“We’re running behind as a society, when it comes to supporting these community members,” he added.

Ortiz often knows exactly how his clients feel walking through the nonprofit’s doors. As an elementary school child in the 1980s, he received counseling for a few years at La Familia after his parents divorced and he began living in a single-parent household.

A decade later, in the early 1990s, he decided to give back by securing a job with the nonprofit’s youth development program. There, he worked to foster leadership skills with school children in Hayward while helping to educate them on such thorny topics as HIV.

He returned in 2014 to lead the organization – making it a priority to hire people who, much like himself, had once been clients. The reason, he said, was simple: Advice always lands best when it comes from someone who’s been there.

Count Jenevieve Vandenakker, 48, among those believers.

Addicted to methamphetamine since she was 13, Vandenakker spent the next 35 years toggling between stints in rehab programs, jail and homelessness. She walked into La Familia – ankle bracelet and all – on Dec. 22, 2022, a day after being freed from her most recent stint behind bars.

Immediately, she knew the “vibe” of La Familia was different – largely because “they just really took the time to talk to me.” And within two weeks, she had a part-time job with the nonprofit working at a COVID testing site.

That gig later blossomed into a full time job as an intake coordinator.

“The funny thing is that a lot of clients that come in here, I know them, because I used to be in the streets, I used to be in the dope game, I used to be in the street life,” Vandenakker said. “So a lot of people come in here… and I’m like ‘Hey, you can do this, too.’”

That kindness from staff members – so many of whom know first-hand the struggles of people walking through the nonprofit’s doors – is key, said Jessica Valdez, 37. She first became introduced with the nonprofit in 2019, when someone recommended she stop by to enroll in their reentry and employment program for help finding a job and easing back into society after being incarcerated. Two years later, she began working as one of La Familia’s intake supervisors.

“It was amazing to see how someone could see me from a different perspective,” said Valdez, who now works for La Familia as a housing navigator specialist. “They were just really warm and welcoming.”

Few know the value of that help better than Morgain.

La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program client, Jamaal Morgain, shows his room in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Morgain, who left the foster youth program at age 18, found himself homeless and incarcerated, but turned his life around thanks to La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program. Jamaal completed his degree in Broadcast Electronic Communications of Arts at San Francisco State University and got a job driving for Amazon through the La Familia workforce development program. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program client, Jamaal Morgain, shows his room in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. Morgain, who left the foster youth program at age 18, found himself homeless and incarcerated, but turned his life around thanks to La Familia Transitional Age Youth Program. Jamaal completed his degree in Broadcast Electronic Communications of Arts at San Francisco State University and got a job driving for Amazon through the La Familia workforce development program. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

Most recently, La Familia helped him find a room with a sobriety house in East Oakland – allowing him to finally move out of his 15-year-old BMW 328i sedan, where he’d been cramming his 5-foot-9 frame every night in the back seat.

On that first night indoors, he locked his legs straight. He felt the freedom of that moment. And he wept.

“I cried for a couple hours – I was just like damn, this feels good,” Morgain said. “My bones aren’t aching from scrunching up in a car. I had peace of mind.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). The lifeline is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

How to help

Donations will help La Familia pay for emergency supportive services, including basic, vital needs such as housing, clothing, food, transportation, as well as professional clinical evaluations and counseling for 50 clients.

Goal: $35,000

Note: This story was fulfilled, but you can still donate to the general fund

Previous Stories

2021

Facing tough times, Oakland residents get back on career track through Civicorps

Donations will help Civicorps support the salary of a case counselors, who provides trauma-informed counseling, conflict resolution, social services support, and case management to over ...
Read More →
2022

Contra Costa County nonprofit offers immigrants hope through day labor, small business programs

Donations will help Monument Impact boost its day labor program and Emerging Business Support Program that it started last year.
Read More →
2022

Affordable meal delivery service is a lifeline for seniors, and struggling to meet demand

Donations to SOS Meals on Wheels will help pay for special meals for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other cultural holiday celebrations, and also help the nonprofit ...
Read More →
2022

ShowerHouse Ministries changing lives one shower at a time

Donations will help ShowerHouse Ministries pay for operating the showers, supplying items for hygiene kits and clean clothes, purchasing food and putting gas in the ...
Read More →
2022

Sunflower Hill more than just a home for those with special needs

Donations will help Sunflower Hill provide programming and activities at Irby Ranch to help intellectually or developmentally disabled adults develop skills to support independent living. ...
Read More →
2022

This veteran wanted a career change — Swords to Plowshares steered her toward a new job.

Donations will help Swords to Plowshares  to raise $25,000 to help veterans like Jessie Kohgadai with transportation vouchers and basic need services.
Read More →
2022

Winter Nights Family Shelter helps homeless get back on their feet

Donations will help Winter Nights Family Shelter to assist families move into permanent housing by covering rental deposits, and pay for temporary motel stays for ...
Read More →