Last week at 5-year-old Kelzey Hinton's school, Santa arrived. Like any kindergartner, Kelzey bounced right up to tell him what she wanted for Christmas. But given what's happened to her family in the last month, her mom, Kimberly, isn't sure if Santa is going to deliver presents, or if he does, where they will be delivered.
In November, with just a few days notice, Kimberly's husband, Shane Hinton, 33, was told his job as a cable technician was being eliminated. The company he worked for pulled all operations out of the Valley.
Now the family faces eviction from the Mesa condo it is renting. Though they received help from a local agency, it doesn't cover all they owe.
"I just wish we could stay until after Christmas," said Kimberly, 32. "This is going to really affect Kelzey. She keeps asking me to put the (Christmas) tree up."
Deciding when and how to tell kids about a job loss or possible move because of a foreclosure or eviction is not easy, Valley child experts say.
But they do agree, when the child is old enough to understand simple money concepts, there are ways to communicate the family's situation.
"I think one of the things to recognize is children do pick up on tensions and anxiety the parents are feeling," said Julia Kelly, a principal at Mesa's Las Sendas Elementary School. "For very young children, it might be simply stating that daddy's job is changing and we may not have the money to do the extra fun things we were doing in the past."
Shane and Kimberly haven't shared all the details with young Kelzey, but Kimberly said her daughter "knows something is going on." Though Kimberly tries to be as positive as possible in front of her daughter, Kelzey has caught her mother crying a few times.
Kimberly said her daughter is sleeping more than usual and is occasionally acting out at school.
"She's coloring on things she's not supposed to and she's never done that before," Kimberly said.
Conversations about what might happen - a possible job loss or potential move - may be best away from very young ears. But when concrete information is known, children as young as 6 or 7 may understand money concepts and how they affect the family, said Alison Steier, director of the Harris Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Training Institute at Southwest Human Development. Older children may be included in problem-solving discussions, such as ways to save money around the house.
A parent's main responsibility is to let the children know they are safe and their parents are working on a solution. Children may gauge the situation based on how mom or dad are responding to it, Steier said.
"Their primary concern in conditions of high stress is whether their parents look like they are managing," she wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune. "Young children organize their experience around their relationships with parents and other trusted adults and are quite attuned to the feelings of these individuals. They look to these adults in order to draw conclusions about whether they are safe or need to be worried or fearful. They operate according to the principle, 'I'm OK if you're OK.'"
That's exactly what the Hintons are trying to do: maintain as normal a routine as possible.
After turning in dozens of applications, Shane finally got an interview and a job - at a fast-food restaurant.
Kimberly is seeking a night job to supplement her early-morning, part-time position as a school crossing guard. Six days a week, she is in school or participating in clinical training. She hopes to graduate in May.
"I just want to be able to pay the rent and the electricity until she finishes school and can get a good job," Shane said.
Kimberly informed her daughter's teacher of the family's situation, and the teacher, in turn, is keeping a watchful eye on Kelzey.
Schools can provide a consistent, safe environment for children, said Bob Meko, principal at the Arts Academy of Mesa, a charter school for students in preschool through eighth grade.
"The parents are scared enough," Meko said. "We want to be a support."
Principals Meko and Kelly said when a parent is ready, it does help to tell the school - just as Kimberly Hinton did - that there is a situation going on. This way, teachers are aware should a child's behavior change.
"Every reaction is different," Meko said. "Some you see drastic changes in personality because mom and dad tell them everything and maybe they shouldn't. The world of bills, electricity being shut off - it's hard for little ones to understand."