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Recession Camp--the cure for dot-bomb blues

The volunteer support group helps unemployed dot-commers survive the technology sector's downturn, largely by arranging social events where tech talk is off-limits.

SAN FRANCISCO--No one swatted pesky mosquitoes or patched leaky sleeping bags. They didn't talk about how to weave friendship bracelets or which camp counselor was the cutest. They didn't experience their first kiss or snooze in a creaky bunk bed.

Instead, these campers talked about which coffee shops let patrons linger the longest and how to tactfully ask friends whether they could crash on their couches. As they munched grapes and gazed at the Golden Gate Bridge, they talked about which Pulitzer-nominated books they've read, which laundromats were the best social hangouts and whether dwindling finances would ever drive them back to live with mom and dad.

Welcome to Recession Camp, Silicon Valley's unique twist on the childhood summer institution. The volunteer support group helps unemployed dot-commers survive the technology sector's downturn, largely by arranging social events where tech talk is off-limits.

Founded by 30-something buddies who lost their jobs earlier this year, Recession Camp has become one of the hottest clubs in the Bay Area. It has 470 members and a Web site visited by 20,000 people. Although less than two months old, Recession Camp has been mentioned in articles ranging from the Los Angeles Times to the London Daily Telegraph, and it's been profiled by the BBC.

"My parents keep saying, 'Why is Andrew getting so much attention when he's still out of work?'" said Andrew Brenner, the 32-year-old former vice president at wireless infrastructure company Mspect, who founded Recession Camp in June with Michael Feldman, 33. "I say that people weren't just interested in the Internet and in Internet companies when they were going up, but they're also interested when they're going down. We're a part of the going down."

Brenner and Feldman came up with the idea in late June, while they were waiting in line to buy movie tickets. They didn't intend for it to be a zeitgeist gathering; rather, they were looking for new ways to meet people who could socialize with them on a random Wednesday morning or Monday afternoon--not only on the weekend.

"We would sit around calling our two-day-a-week friends, asking them if they could go out to lunch or something, and they'd be, like, 'Call me on the weekend,'" Brenner said. "That's when we realized we needed to find five-day-a-week friends--the people who didn't have jobs and could do stuff any day of the week."

So the pair began to organize events ranging from golfing and hiking to chipping frozen peas for a food bank. Word of the group spread among legions of unemployed professionals in the Bay Area, and the mailing list grows by 60 people each week, Brenner said. They're expecting at least 20 people Thursday at Paramount's Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, Calif.

"Why not have fun?"
Dave Morris was one of about a dozen campers who congregated Tuesday afternoon outside the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, where members met after a $2 visit to a Henry Moore sculpture exhibit. (Recession Camp counselors try to make the outings free or as inexpensive as possible.)

Morris, a 35-year-old Internet strategy consultant, was laid off last fall from EventZero. The San Francisco resident became an official Recession Camp counselor. Thanks to the group, he's met "five-day-a-week friends" on golf courses, in baseball stadium bleachers and on hiking trails.

"There's only so much you can look for a job before you realize no one's hiring," Morris said. "If no one's hiring, you don't feel much pressure. So why not have fun?"

The mood at Recession Camp on Tuesday was surprisingly upbeat. A favorite topic of conversation was members' feelings of "liberation" from the working world. Many campers said they felt extreme anxiety in the weeks or months leading up to their layoff, but they've since discovered a happy life away from 60-hour workweeks and round-the-clock connectivity.

"It's a surprisingly easy adjustment--like a duck to water," said Laura Lewison, a technology consultant who was laid off two weeks ago from Burlington, Mass.-based start-up Wheelhouse. "The days go by really fast when you're working on getting a new job and doing so many other things. Five o'clock comes, and some days you realize you haven't even worked out yet."

But as days slip into weeks, some members say, employment-related anxiety rises--especially in San Francisco, where few newcomers pay less than $1,000 per month in rent. Some are starting to sweat the bills.

"You learn to rely on the goodness of friends," said Ami Chokshi, a 28-year-old San Francisco resident who is picking up contract work as an energy consultant until she finds a permanent position. Her landlord recently lowered her rent from $1,200 to $1,100 per month when she informed him of the layoff. "I've realized that people are really kind. They want to help."

Joanne Toran, a marketing consultant at a start-up until her layoff two weeks ago, moved out of her apartment and is now sleeping on a friend's couch.

"Savings?" Toran laughed when asked what she was using to foot the bills. "No. More like credit cards and the kindness of others."

Her remarks drew rounds of laughter and sympathy from campers. The only time members showed slight hostility was when Morris, the Internet strategist, began talking about how much he disliked Microsoft's Outlook e-mail software.

"Hey, hey, hey!" chastised one camper. "Let's stop talking about technology. That's not what this is supposed to be about!"

The conversation swiftly changed when a golden retriever puppy from a nearby picnic romped into Recession Camp territory. Members mused about how being laid off would be the perfect opportunity to housebreak a new pet. Others rolled up shirt sleeves to soak up sunshine and enjoy an uncommonly fog-free day.

"This is not about trying to get a job or even talking about trying to get a job," Brenner said, noting that Recession Camp is unlike pink-slip parties where recruiters mingle with job seekers. "No one here is looking to hire you, so you just hang out."

Support--or a crutch?
Recession Camp may be one of the most organized support groups, but more informal clubs are relatively common--especially among fired alumni of large companies. Laid-off workers from Hewlett-Packard, Intel and others meet regularly for lunch or coffee at Silicon Valley restaurants. Recession Camp has also teamed with San Francisco-based DoGoodDates, a nonprofit group that organizes volunteer efforts followed by a social event at a local watering hole.

Employment specialists say such clubs are a great way to find support and build motivation to find a job or switch careers--without bogging down family members and employed friends with tales of woe.

"It's important to have a support structure, people around you who can buoy you up...who share job tips and strategy and news," said Brian Barton, 35-year-old Silicon Valley author of "High-Tech Survival Guide." "It takes a lot of psychological courage."

But such clubs could also hurt members if they turn into gripe sessions of bitterness and anger. Perhaps the biggest danger of Recession Camp and others like it, said career counselor John Challenger, is that people use it as a crutch instead of actively seeking a new job.

"Often what can happen in groups is that the people who stay involved with it are the ones not quite willing or able to move on," said Challenger, founder of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "They're stuck there, still thinking about the past and waiting for the world to change, rather than changing themselves."

Brenner says that's not his intention. The point of Recession Camp, Brenner said, is to give members the support to leave Recession Camp. In fact, co-founder Feldman missed Tuesday's meeting to attend a job-related lunch. A laid-off Silicon Valley woman who was doing free public relations work for Recession Camp quit earlier this week to move to Seattle, where she took a job with Microsoft.

"I know summer camp can't last forever," said Brenner, who spends several hours a day pounding pavement for a new job and is now considering lawyer jobs--something he was loath to do several months ago. "At least, I hope this can't last forever."