Join the jobless club: Groups grow as the economy shrinks

One by one, they answer the question: What's your favorite holiday dish? When all eight are through, an imaginary feast fills an austere white room that buzzes with the hum of a neon light.

"We should swap recipes," says Gary Sanchez, 43. "We may not have jobs, but at least we'll be well-fed."

The group breaks into laughter. It's a welcome emotion.

This is not a summit of would-be chefs but a session of Job Club, a weekly gathering of area unemployed whose mission is to both soothe nerves frayed by layoffs as well as help steer those assembled back to a steady paycheck.

Such informal gatherings have always existed, typically sponsored by church groups and local career centers. But the economic collapse has placed renewed importance on this homespun salve, one that some attendees describe as a lifeline out of anger, fear and loneliness.

"I feel scared and insecure," says Olympia Vouitsis Montgomery, 40, a graphic designer who paid $5 to attend tonight's two-hour session. "This group keeps me focused and organized in my job search."

And it does so in a setting that is almost familial as repeat visitors become fluent in one another's stories and goals. Members eagerly pass along job tips and contacts, banking on the oft-repeated mantra here that you're only one connection away from your next job.

"There's a greater feeling of anxiety (in the group) than I've ever seen," says Hilary Romanoff, coordinator of this Bay Area Career Center club. Those hurting here range from ages 25 to 57, from recent college graduates to those holding master's degrees, from office managers to executives. "I've even had strippers," she says.

With employment prospects bleak, Job Club is mainly about emotional support. They come as they are, sporting everything from faded jeans to colorful shawls, clutching sodas and lattes as they shuffle in. The group quickly homes in on the coming holidays.

"I'll be baking more," says Deborah Mannhalter, 57, who hopes to land permanent work in an ad agency production shop. "That'll distract me. Though I know I'll also be thinking, 'Oh, my God, what happens if I don't find work?' "

Sue Smith, 56, an expert on homeopathic healing, says she'll be volunteering a lot this Christmas. "I'm sick of all the materialism," she says.

And around the table they go, joking about all the knitting their relatives will receive this year. What's apparent is that even those in attendance who are down about their prospects quickly relax in the company of similarly situated souls.

When Romanoff began moderating the 2-decade-old program a year ago, sometimes only three people showed up. Now a dozen is common. "People walk in here feeling alone, thinking that it's just them with these emotions," she says. "But they quickly see that's not true. There are others, and they're willing to help each other out."

Not a job fair

The Job Club's atmosphere of mutual back-scratching stands in contrast to a more typical meeting of unemployed: the job fair.

Those events threaten to become increasingly boisterous and cutthroat as the nation's unemployment rate rises in tune with the number of companies constricting their payrolls. National Career Fairs, one of the nation's largest organizers of job fairs, reports a 41% rise in the number of attendees over 2007.

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