BROKEN HEARTHS: Los Osos family finds light in darkness

Resilient Los Osos family hopes 2011 brings better times after a spate of personal and professional troubles

ebazar@usc.eduSeptember 17, 2010 

Wyatt and Hunter Nelson shrug off the financial troubles that have plagued their family for two years.

“We’ve been in a money situation before,” said Wyatt, 12, a long-boarding enthusiast and eighth-grader at Los Osos Middle School. He jokes that it was easier for him to fall asleep the two times the electricity was shut off because the house got so dark.

“I knew (my parents) were going to overcome it,” he said.

Hunter, 10, a fifth-grader at Monarch Grove Elementary in Los Osos, describes his hands-off approach before disappearing into his room to play video games.

“I just ignore the changes,” he said. “I don’t think about it.”

The boys’ mother, Tracey Serino, knows her sons are resilient. But despite the boys’ nonchalance, she and her husband, Jim Serino, believe the family’s financial troubles have had a significant impact on them.

“They were having trouble focusing. Their grades were suffering,” said Jim, 52, owner of Serino & Sons Painting.

“The teachers begged me” to put the boys on medication for attention deficit disorder, said Tracey, 47, an independent contract paralegal who helps clients with living trusts, divorce and other legal paperwork.

The financial trouble started in 2008, a momentous year for the family.

The Serinos wed in a simple but joyous beach ceremony at Montaña de Oro State Park that August. Both had been married before and had children from their previous unions.

The wedding was the good news. The rest of the year was marked by personal and professional setbacks that sent their middle-class aspirations into a financial tailspin.

Work disappeared for Jim, a painting contractor, when the recession deva-stated the construction industry.

Tracey lost most of her clients when she and three of her four children moved from the town of Galt, near Sacramento, to join her new husband here.

That wasn’t all. Tracey’s ex-husband, a construction superintendent, was laid off, another victim of the construction collapse. He was unable to pay child support for a few months, Tracey said, and when he resumed the monthly payments, they fell to $800 from $1,800.

He has since been diagnosed with brain cancer, another blow to his sons, Wyatt and Hunter.

“It was a lot at once. Boom. Boom. Boom,” she recalled. “There were months we had zero coming in.”

The family turned to food stamps and health coverage for low-income families. Jim got a part-time job as a cook for $10 an hour, and Tracey routinely drives to Los Angeles to pick up work.

Because Tracey and Jim are self-employed, they don’t get unemployment benefits. “We are professional people who fall through the cracks,” she said.

“In one year’s time we had our electricity shut off twice and water once,” Tracey said. “Jim and I felt like we were on a treadmill just to literally feed the family and meet the basic necessities: lights, food, running water.”

When the boys ask for big-ticket items such as the Xbox video game system or bikes, she explains to them that there isn’t enough money even for basics such as school clothes, Tracey said.

“It was definitely hard on the kids,” Tracey said. “You could tell we’re the poor family on the block.”

Wyatt recently got a new pair of shoes for school, but until then, his only shoes were a beat-up and fraying pair of yellow Vans.

“There was a lot of stuff we needed and didn’t have the money to get it,” Wyatt acknowledged.

Given the barrage of stresses they have faced — moving to a new place, dealing with financial strain and coping with their dad’s illness — it’s no wonder the boys can’t focus, Tracey said.

“We don’t know how much the kids internalize when we don’t know what we’re having for dinner,” Tracey said.

Tracey’s 16-year-old daughter, Courtney, acknowledges there are some things she wishes she could change. For one, the San Luis Obispo High School senior would like to live in a roomier home.

“The stuff we’ve had to adjust to, it bothers me, but that’s the reality of it,” she said. Courtney is looking for a job so she can pay for her senior trip and save for college. She has big dreams for her future, including a plan to design her own clothing line, which she would sell in her own chain of stores.

“When I get older, I will never let this happen to me,” she said. “I’m going to do things so much differently.”

Tracey is hoping the worst is over, in part because she has more clients and Jim is getting more painting jobs.

“We feel optimistic for 2011,” she said.

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