"It's not easy," says single mom Cheri Eplin. "Danville is such a family-oriented place that it's hard to be divorced and make friends."
The need to find other single parents and develop those relationships is what led Eplin to found CONNECT, a group designed to work as a means for single parents to meet each other.
"Being married and divorced in a town that's so family-oriented, it's difficult to know who is in a similar situation," said Eplin, who is vice principal at Greenbrook Elementary School. "I wanted to create a safe and fun way to reconnect with others who understand the balance of family, work and creating a social life after becoming single again."
In late July, Eplin started the ball rolling.
"I put an ad on craigslist. I got some responses and we had our first event," she recalled.
The first gathering, a concert and then dancing at the Blue Footed Boobie Canoe Club, drew about a dozen participants and opened the door for further outings.
"We are trying to stick to businesses in the Danville, San Ramon, Blackhawk areas," Eplin explained.
In mid-October, the group held its first ever bowling night at the Danville Bowl.
These are adults who have a wealth of experience and are simply in a new chapter of their lives. The group has a welcoming feeling of warmth, which is immediately noticeable. Some people were attending their first event and others had been with CONNECT from the start, but it was hard to tell which was which.
Everyone seemed really comfortable with one another, chatting and playing pool as they waited for their lanes.
Two of the newcomers were men, Terry Stotka and Eddie Zapatoczny. Both in their mid-40s, they came after getting an e-mail from Eplin.
"I wouldn't be here if I hadn't gotten an e-mail from Cheri, "Stotka said.
"She is the motivated one, for sure," Zapatoczny added.
They said they didn't have any real expectations in coming out but were pleasantly surprised to find they had a lot in common.
"We both got separated two years ago and both got divorced a year ago," Stotka said.
Something so simple was the start of a bond. The pair both said it was good to meet someone who had recently had similar experiences.
"When you get divorced it's hard to meet guys to hang out with," Zapatoczny said. "Most of your friends are people you knew as a couple, and when the marriage ends it makes the friendship uncomfortable."
"It's also uncomfortable when you do hang around with married people because at some point the question always comes up, 'Why are you single?'" added Stotka. "Guys and girls get this and, really, how do you answer that?"
Both men felt that coming to CONNECT gives them someone to talk with and relate to.
As for the dating aspect, both said they appreciated being in an environment where they could meet people without pressure.
"I'm not someone who would just go up and introduce myself," Zapatoczny said.
"I hear it all the time that women are approachable," he said. "I've always felt women were unapproachable. And now being back in the singles scene after being married ... I don't want to say it's a shock, just a different learning experience."
Many of those coming to CONNECT had tried other means of meeting, like craigslist and match.com, but the uncertainty of starting a relationship online was daunting.
"Some divorcees realize they are not ready for a long term relationship or just didn't like the idea of having a 'menu option' of meeting people online," said Eplin. "They'd rather have the opportunity to have a natural way of meeting new friends without the pressure of meeting someone to date."
One of the members who's been around since the first event is Annalisa Fiorenza. The single mom of a 15-year-old son, Fiorenza said CONNECT was the right way for her to meet people.
"I've done the Internet thing and it's very impersonal," she said. "You're gambling that the person on the other side of the computer is who they say they are. You get a better feel for people in a group situation, you get an instant connection."
Among the group, close friendships have formed, such that some of the members meet and have playdates with their children.
"It was more than just a connection. It was a friendship ... it was a surprise and a nice bonus," Fiorenza said.
Does she hope to find a relationship through CONNECT?
"I'm seeking, yes, but it's at the back of my mind. I just look forward to that e-mail telling me when the next event is going to be," she said.
The event at the Danville Bowl ended up with more than 30 people, an equal mix of men and women. The sense of camaraderie continued out onto the lanes as everyone just seemed to find the right place to be. It was friendly, warm and, above all, easygoing.
Eplin said it has been really fun watching the group come together and continue to grow.
"Word is spreading," she said. "Two people who showed up at the last event had heard about it from people we didn't even know, so the interest is there."
Group members stay in contact and learn of new events through the CONNECT Web site. The site has a blog/board section where members can talk about the most recent event and propose events of their own. Other members have created additional Web sites for singles that link back into CONNECT so it continues to evolve.
"My hope is that I would like for it to be an extension of the Danville community," said Eplin. "I think we've got a great group starting with fun, creative, attractive professionals from the Tri-Valley area that are looking to meet others and do fun things."
The CONNECT crew has held other events in the past few weeks, including a billiards night and a Halloween Party for their kids. The next meet-up will be Nov. 16, when the group plans to have dinner at Pasta Gondola and then head back to Danville Bowl.
For more information, contact Eplin at Ceplin@mac.com.