OAKLAND -- The UC Berkeley student was so stressed out that she was about to bounce her 4-year-old on the bathroom floor. She didn't. Instead she called a friend. Talking to someone calmed her down, and she felt better afterward.
Family Paths was founded 40 years ago to help parents just like that mother. The organization serves 500 to 600 clients in Alameda County. It provides a parent support hot line that handles 7,000 calls a year, teaches positive parenting classes and cares for the mental health of traumatized children.
"The hot line is the basis that everything else leans on," said Marcella Reeves, executive director of Family Paths.
"The power of listening is just amazing," she adds. "It is transformative."
Reeves has worked with Family Paths since October 1992, starting as a part-time therapist. She later worked with traumatized children.
"The general public doesn't associate children with mental health problems," she said.
The Oakland Police Department, however, which has done training with Family Paths, knows how children are affected when they become a victim or witness violence. If there is a shooting and children are involved, the police often call Family Paths.
Traumatized children sometimes stop eating, have trouble sleeping and refuse to talk.
"The parents don't know that their child is in a trauma response. They will get upset. They might scream at their children, 'Go to sleep!'" Reeves
Many parents have a history of abuse, violence, and addiction. Some families are stuck in poverty, generation after generation.
"They love their kids, they want to be a good parent, but they haven't grown up knowing what that feels like, what that looks like," Reeves said.
The economic crisis has only increased the stress in many of these families who are calling from Oakland, Fremont and Hayward, and sometimes from as far away as Texas or Minnesota, because the hot line number can be easily found on the Internet.
In her little office on the ground floor of a building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Oakland, Reeves played a short YouTube video that, she said, explained everything.
A child plays with his mother. The mother is attentive, she smiles. The baby laughs. Then the mother quits smiling and just stares at her kid, motionless. The baby gets nervous; after a couple of seconds he starts to cry.
If such a small change can have such a huge impact on the well-being of a child, one hardly wants to imagine the consequences of witnessing a drive-by shooting.
"Witnessing violence is incredibly traumatic," Reeves said.
Parents often think that kids won't remember the trauma, Reeves has realized in her work, so Family Paths tries to explain to parents that this isn't the case.
On a recent Friday morning, Alfredo Laris, 22, started his work on the phone in the Family Paths offices. His first call was a mother who wanted to talk about her traumatized daughter. Many others followed, and Laris took notes on his computer.
"Sometimes, it's a lot of information," said Laris, a volunteer who has studied English and psychology and wants to become a therapist.
Of the 84 employees, about 30 are volunteers. The agency is funded by Alameda County and various donors.
Laris speaks Spanish, a much-needed language on the hot line. He said his roots in the Hispanic community help him in his work with clients.
"I feel I am really able to understand what a lot of bilingual families are going through," he said. "Some Spanish-speaking callers are very traditional; they would rather keep things private."
So some just call and say they got the number from a friend. Then Laris has to find out what is troubling them.
When Reeves worked as a therapist, she used a technique with children that her colleagues now use in a small room on the first floor of their building. The room has a sand tray and lots of figurines.
Therapists ask the children to put some of the figurines in the sand -- superheroes and dragons.
"It shows the therapist very clearly what the child is struggling with," said Family Path's development director, Peter Brooks.
Reeves remembers a 7-year-old boy. In the beginning, he would always bury some jewels in the sand.
"The longer he was in therapy, the more of these little jewels came up on the top, Reeves said."
He was beginning to heal.
To contact Family Paths' 24-hour parent support hot line, call 800-829-3777.