They were a disparate bunch — young, middle-aged, confident, timid — mulling the finer points of job hunting over noodles and rice.
In a state where unemployment has soared to 12.3 percent, they met at a "job seekers'' course, finding companionship in shared circumstances.
"One of the things we learned is, we're not alone,'' said Lily Golgano, 59, laid off since January from her job as a technical writer.
David Chang, 36, an upbeat University of Pennsylvania graduate, savors the newfound friendships and has formed a special bond with Golgano.
With them was Zaneta Sekulski, 32, who made the weekly trek from Clearwater to St. Petersburg for the job hunting sessions and confided she found strength in the tiny group.
"It's not just about getting a job and writing a resume. For me, it was about fear, going out there and presenting myself in the right way,'' she said as the friends shared an inexpensive meal before heading to First Unity Church for their job hunting course.
The recently completed eight-week program — now continuing in the form of support sessions — was the church's way of offering a community service, said First Unity's associate minister, the Rev. Russell Heiland.
"We know that there are many faith communities that are committed to public service, but one of the things we did not see was another faith community doing anything around jobs for the general community on an ongoing basis,'' he said.
Each week, church members welcomed job hunters with coffee, cookies, cheese and fruit and upbeat jazz that filled the sanctuary. Their goal was to create "a social place for people to come and see that they are not the only one in this situation,'' said Debbie Taylor, a member of First Unity's outreach group.
"I was very surprised by the people who came,'' she said.
Perhaps no more surprised to find themselves in a job seeker program were people like Golgano.
"At our age, we should be planning our retirement, not learning how to write a resume,'' she said.
At 61, Gulfport resident Marcia Howard was overwhelmed with talk about newfangled resumes with graphics and social networks said to boost job prospects.
"I feel like a dinosaur fossil,'' she joked one evening.
About 40 people signed up for the free classes and 28 finished, said Larry LaBelle, 60, one of two coaches leading the sessions. He said he understands why some participants felt daunted by the new approaches to job hunting.
"A lot of it was new techniques and some of it was technology. I told them not to try to implement all the techniques all at once,'' he said.
"Take them one step at a time. Baby steps.''
La Belle, president of Training Tamer Inc., a training, coaching and support services firm, also told the job seekers that human resource departments, recruiters and staffing agencies spend about 10 seconds on each resume.
"You have to have something real powerful before you get screened out. Half of the time, they don't even look at your cover letter,'' he told them.
Chang, who recently moved from San Francisco and wants to expand his "life purpose'' and career coaching and holistic marketing business, said the job seekers program helped him learn "how to make peace with what feels like self-promotion.''
But the sessions, which also encouraged participants to get in touch with emotions surrounding job loss and financial difficulties, didn't appeal to everyone.
"I think that people were looking for a magic bullet, and they were going to come here and find some secret. It is a lot of work,'' Golgano said.
"It was a bit overwhelming at first,'' said Sekulski, a former waiter studying to become a licensed massage therapist.
But Golgano, who became the leader of the small group of friends, was encouraging and nudged everyone into getting Skype so they could communicate over the Internet.
"We talked about the lessons we had, the homework we had. We helped each other and we talked about how things are going,'' said Golgano, who hopes to parlay her technology skills into a job in the e-learning field.
She and her new friends say they are grateful to First Unity and the program it offered, but they're also thankful to have found each other.
"We challenged each other to get to know ourselves better and to stretch out of our comfort zone,'' Chang said.
"We laughed together. We cried together and we developed friendships, in my case, a new best friend that I would like to know for the rest of my life.''
"I do not believe this is the end,'' Sekulski said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.