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Job club fights on with laughter, song

  • Story Highlights
  • Breakfast club uses unconventional means to help members find jobs
  • During job lull, one member turned singing hobby into money-maker
  • Speakers include psychotherapist, monk-turned-business guru and comedian
  • Club even has a nonhuman member: Oopsie, a 10-year-old horse
By Kristina Yates
CNN Producer
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NORTH WOODMERE, New York (CNN) -- "Are you ready? Are you ready? Let's get it on!" screams the guy at the podium. It feels like fight night, and while this isn't a boxing match, people aren't pulling punches, either.

A nearby stable owner donated a horse lease to the club to help members "clear their head."

Club founder Valentina Janek: "One of our main missions is to keep people open to new things."

"You are unique and you are a warrior. Get up and move forward. Go after that job!" says Chris Fidis, co-founder of the Long Island Breakfast Club. Landing a job is the ultimate prize here, but the way the club goes about it is far from conventional.

"Go to a regular job fair, and most of those meetings are very stuffy and they're very narrow-minded, and they want you to feel, 'OK, this is what you did wrong.' It makes you feel like you have to climb a mountain. Here, you don't have to climb a mountain, just reinvent yourself," Fidis says.

Jim Altamore is the perfect example. He works as a construction manager, but during a previous job lull, he decided to follow his true passion for singing and turned his hobby into a money-maker.

As he tells the audience about his journey, he concludes his speech by singing a few notes of Frank Sinatra's "I've Got the World on a String." The crowd loves it. Video Watch Altamore belt out a few notes »

That's when club founder Valentina Janek takes the podium: "Are you seriously thinking about the job you don't have right now? That's what this club does!" The crowd cheers some more.

The idea for the club was born when Janek lost her job nearly five years ago. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she met with people who were in the same boat -- middle-aged and unemployed.

"We were so experienced that we felt that we were a product of age discrimination and we couldn't get beyond the brick wall," she says. "There were some days where we needed a lot of support from each other."

They found support from each other -- but not from the owner of the diner where the small group regularly met for 10 months.

"One day, the diner owner came up to us and said, 'You come here often and you only buy coffee and doughnuts, and you don't spend enough money, and I need the diner,' " Janek says. "So we said we're going to turn this into a positive, and we left. We went out into the parking lot, and we were all laughing."

That was three years ago. The unique approach of networking, counseling, support and laughter has helped grow the club to 190 members; 87 of them have found jobs.

The club now meets at The Bristal, a retirement home in North Woodmere, New York, and members are welcome there. The monthly meetings always start with breakfast and conversations. Common sounds reverberate through the room: "I'm trying to reinvent myself and move forward." "I went on the interview." "I'm looking for a job."

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Maryellen Shpak is among those still looking. "Because the stock market took such a hit, the amount of income that we thought we were going to get was a lot less," she says.

The losses forced her out of early retirement at 53 to start working again -- or so she thought.

"There are no jobs," she says. So she connected with the Breakfast Club. Although she is still looking for work, the club and its members have helped her stay positive.

"You just get involved with people who are in your situation, and people who were in your situation and have become successful."

Back at The Bristal, members have moved on from coffee and scones and are listening to the featured speaker, a psychotherapist, who tells the crowd how to navigate through the turbulent economy. "It's a marathon, not a sprint," she says.

Past speakers include a monk-turned-business guru and a comedian. "He turned our interview stories into jokes, and everybody laughed. That's healthy," says Janek.

"We brought in somebody that can teach us a new skill as in wine tasting. We taught everyone how to sip, sniff and swirl for 20 minutes. That was enlightening, and what we try to tell people is, 'Now that you're unemployed, do something that you've never tried before, and you just might like it.'

"Is it going to be your job forever? Absolutely not, but you will meet new people and you will learn new things. And one of our main missions is to keep people open to new things; you never know what could happen" she says.

The club even has a nonhuman member -- Oopsie, a 10-year-old horse.

"We came across this organization founded by Valentina, and we were in a growing stage, so we needed to hire some people," says Alex Jacobson, who owns Oopsie and Lakewood Stables in West Hempstead, New York.

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Jacobson was so impressed with the club that he decided to donate a horse lease to its members.

"It will allow their members to go out for a trail ride and just clear their head. It gives them the energy to go back out there and face the challenges ahead," he says. "Puts a smile on their face."

CNN's Christine Romans contributed to this report.

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