TAMPA — A few months ago, none of them knew each other.
But similar circumstances have a way of changing things.
And now, twice a month, they meet at a hip coffeehouse nestled in the heart of Ybor City.
Some come to get motivated. Some are there to touch up their resumes. Some just come to vent about fruitless job searches.
Their stories are different, but each carries the same theme: unemployment.
"When you're unemployed, you don't know what to do," said Liza Pike of Carrollwood. "This networking group is a lot different than all those others. It's kind of like therapy."
Pike, who was laid off in November from a Tampa insurance brokerage firm, stumbled across the group — called the Tampa Job Finders Network — several months ago.
She's now a regular at the group's twice-monthly meetings at Tre Amici at the Bunker, 1907 N 19th St.
"You realize you're not alone," the 41-year-old said. "There's other people like you out there."
Plenty, in fact.
At a time when the unemployment rate is just shy of 10 percent in Florida and higher in places throughout Tampa Bay, the homegrown group, which began on Meetup.com in December, proves that the bad economy can actually bring people together.
The meetings, which began in January, have expanded to include resume help, professional speakers and a place to swap resources.
But mostly, it has become a "let your hair down, casual" place for people to connect with each other, said founder Jessica Green, who lives in Zephyrhills.
At one of the group's recent meetings, members huddled in a circle to hash out strategies for using online social networks.
"It's more than just collecting business cards," said member Charles Caro of Tampa.
Job seekers today need to be using Web sites like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to build their "network," Caro said.
Around him, some members grimaced at the mention of the popular social networking Web sites.
But Caro, who has managed to form more than 500 connections on LinkedIn, pressed on.
He made it simpler. Think of your online profiles as a resume, he told then. Make it your elevator pitch.
Around him, people were nodding.
"Today more than ever, it really is not what you know but who you know," Caro said. "This is the 21st century way of getting to know people."
Green, the group's founder, is a professional writing coach who doesn't profess to be a job expert. She doesn't give workshops and never really considered herself a people person.
But organization has always been a strong suit, and when she connected with Tre Amici owner Dale Swope late last year, things clicked.
Swope, an attorney who helped restored the historic Bunker building a few years ago, was looking for a way to help those in the community who had lost their jobs. He was already offering discounts at the coffee shop, but wanted to do more.
• • •
About 20 people showed up to the group's first meeting, Green said.
Now, its members can easily fill about a third of the coffee shop.
"It just started off with a bang," Green said. "I didn't appreciate how other people would be actively communicating and connecting with each other. It really does have to do with making connections with people."
Those connections can be especially important during these tough times, experts say.
Losing a job can be one of the hardest losses for a person, said Belinda Seiger, a social work professor at the University of South Florida.
"People have their identity associated with their job," Seiger said. "It's one of the top stressors that an adult can go through."
When someone loses a job, more than just a paycheck goes away. They also lose a community of co-workers and peers, the professor said.
Groups like Green's can't totally replace that, Seiger said, but are still important.
"When you're going through a loss of a job, that kind of social networking opportunity and support is extremely helpful to reduce stress," Seiger said. "Preventing isolation prevents depression."
One thing that works for the group is its size, Green said. Even as membership swells online, there remains a small core of people — usually 20 to 30 — who make it to the in-person meetings.
"It's making a difference in people's lives," Green said. "I'm going to keep going as long as there's a need."
For Pike and others, the group has become part of their normal routine. Some have even continued to attend even after finding another job.
Pike, who went back to school this month to gain more certifications, said the meetings have a standing place on her calendar.
"I get a lot out of it," she said. "For me, it's definitely worthwhile."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.