BROKEN HEARTHS: San Luis Obispo County families are clinging to normal

In this economy, maintaining a sense of stability for the kids is the No. 1 goal of  parents who’ve suffered layoffs or pay cuts that demand changes in family lifestyle

September 17, 2010 

Moses Becerra, 2, plays in the yard of his San Miguel home.

JOE JOHNSTON — Tribune Buy Photo

Let’s keep it normal — for the kids’ sake, for family stability, for maintaining one’s place in the community.

It’s a tired, fearful phrase whispered by stressed parents in tough times. Let’s not tell the world — or the kids — about our problems. Let’s keep private business private.

But exactly how do you keep it normal when your income went out the door with your job, when there’s nowhere near enough money to pay the bills, when you’re months behind on rent or the mortgage, when the bank’s about to repossess your car, when you may have to surrender your home and yank your kids out of their school, their neighborhood, their world?

Maybe, if you’re lucky, you still have that job, but now it pays 15 percent less than it did a year ago.

That’s exactly what San Miguel resident Elisa Becerra faces. She’s been holding down a state job for a decade, pulling down a decent salary. Expenses for herself and her four children have stayed about the same, but because of a state-enforced furlough, her salary has plummeted. So she’s struggling to stay above water, even with a job.

Becerra does not suffer alone. Family after San Luis Obispo County family has felt the shock of this economy’s ugly punch.

Los Osos residents Tracey and Jim Serino are convinced their current financial problems have affected their two boys. Jim, owner of Serino & Sons Painting, sees it in their slipping grades. Tracey thinks she and her husband are catching only the surface view of the effects.

Katy Griffin, director of family and children’s ministries at Highlands Church in Paso Robles, hears kids praying that Dad gets a job. She has no doubt that children figure out what’s going on.

For Jennifer Maw, the roof fell in when both she and her husband lost jobs earlier this year. The San Luis Obispo resident with three children still at home wanted the kids to feel safe and secure.

But the children were asking questions, and she spent a lot of time soothing nervous feathers, she says.

In the end, Griffin says, kids ask questions because they want to know the family’s going to be all right, that life is going to stay the same.

Tracey Serino knows that’s what the kids want. But sometimes it’s hard to deliver when you feel yourself becoming the poor family on the block.

Actually, on many blocks in many San Luis Obispo County communities, there is even more poignant evidence of this economy’s devastation. In too many cases, families have been forced, in school district nomenclature, to “double” or “triple” up. To survive, they have moved in with relatives or friends and are living three — even four — to a room. It’s not kids’ stuff, this economy. And as these stories show, dealing with the new normal is stretching families thin.

ABOUT THIS SPECIAL SERIES

This project is the result of a partnership between The Tribune and the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting. The center is an independent news organization devoted to reporting about health care issues that concern Californians. It is headquartered at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and funded by the nonprofit, nonpartisan California HealthCare Foundation.

Over 11 weeks, two reporters — one from the Tribune, one from the Center — interviewed more than 200 people, including children, parents, social service employees, child and homeless advocates, therapists, county and state mental health officials, mental health advocates, community clinic administrators, job search specialists, domestic violence and law enforcement experts, food bank employees, church and nonprofit staff, public and private school officials, and others.

Three Tribune photographers shot two dozen photo assignments for the project.

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