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.
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.
“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.
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.
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
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
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.