Brandon meetup.com group uses activities to spur friendship, networking

BRANDON

These young suburbanites dance, eat sushi, boat and play Pictionary.

Just two months ago, they were strangers. Now, they have an inside joke.

"I'm a crazy bear!" Red Smith, 37, recently declared over a plate of sushi. It was his first time trying the dish, and he ate California rolls and tempura shrimp.

Sitting around the table, the group members collapsed in laughter and exchanged knowing looks. They would go on like this for hours. Despite their inside jokes and familiarity with each other, this Brandon-based group is not exclusive. Its 100-plus members span several decades and include singles, couples, homeowners, renters, parents and those who still act like kids.

They met through the new "Brandon-Valrico … Let's Do Something!" group on meetup.com. The Web site serves as an online meeting place where group leaders post events and locals can join.

There are more than 40 social meetup groups in the Brandon-Valrico area, although not all are as active as Let's Do Something. The groups usually center on a common interest or demographic. There are groups for singles, for moms, for wine enthusiasts and for movie-lovers.

Sara Covelli, 30, launched Let's Do Something in mid-May hoping to make some friends and get active in her new community. She had just moved from New York City with her boyfriend, Matt Gozdor, and they didn't know anyone in the Brandon area.

She searched for local meetup groups, but most were in Tampa and St. Petersburg. She thought she'd fill the void.

"We already have a core membership," she said excitedly. "People keep showing up."

So far, they've met for dinner at Bonefish Grill, Brandon Ale House and Tsunami Sushi and Hibachi Grill. They've sipped wine at Della's After Dark, practiced salsa and merengue moves at Way 2 Dance Studios and relaxed at the beach at Ruskin's Resort and Club at Little Harbor.

Usually 10 to 20 people show up at each event, Covelli said.

Riverview resident Felipe Velazquez, who attends most events, was a natural during the merengue lessons in June. He took small steps right and small steps left. He admits he has had practice.

Velazquez, the St. Petersburg office manager at a medical distribution company, recently hosted a meetup event at his Riverview home. Guests brought food, played Pictionary and danced until about 4 a.m.

"With work and just my schedule, in general, it's difficult to meet people," Velazquez, 26, said. "But I hate sitting at home."

After the dance lessons in June, the group walked next door to Della's After Dark for jazz and drinks. Covelli grabbed Gozdor, and they practiced their new moves to the live music.

About a dozen members attended the sushi dinner a week later. Smith, a personal trainer who recently moved back to Valrico after five years in Jacksonville, kept the group laughing.

No one seemed to mind as a blustery thunderstorm rolled in. They ordered another round of drinks and settled in for more fun.

Smith said he joined the group to make friends. After years in the trucking industry, he tired of the solitary life.

He said it's easier to meet people in a group like this one because everyone is on a level playing field. All the members arrive as strangers with the intent of making friends.

The group is made up of people who probably wouldn't have struck up friendships outside of meetup events, but Smith said that's part of the appeal.

"We might not like the same music or watch the same TV shows," he said. "But we all like to laugh."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

if you go

Other Brandon-area meetup groups

A Dog's Day Out

Started in May by Michelle Bogan, of Brandon

Who should join: Dog

lovers

What they do: Visit local dog parks, as well as beaches and restaurants that are open to dogs

When they meet: Most Saturdays

Active Moms & Kiddies of Brandon

Started in 2008 by Christina Mahzamani, of Brandon

Who should join: Moms with young children (most are 5 and younger)

What they do: Take children to places including the zoo, the aquarium, Busch Gardens and other local attractions. They also have in-home play dates.

When they meet: Most weekdays and some Saturdays

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Started in 2006 by Christina Mahzamani, of Brandon

Who should join: Women over 21

What they do: Go shopping, to the movies and out to dinner. They also have game nights.

When they meet: Usually once a week, often weekends

Brandon meetup.com group uses activities to spur friendship, networking 07/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 9, 2009 5:30am]

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