It's been almost three-quarters of a year since "Black Friday," but a dozen laid off High Desert Federal Credit Union employees are walking toward the light and sharing what they've learned.


"We want to help people not go through what we had to go through," said Debbie Geiger of Hesperia, who was with the credit union for more than 11 years.


The women, who collectively bring decades-worth of business experience and expertise, have formed the Sisterhood Of Support, a group better known as the S.O.S. Ladies. A networking group designed to help connect laid-off people with resources and job leads, the S.O.S. Ladies have learned the ropes of unemployment the hard way by living it.


"Some of us are hurting inside," said Jeannie Williams, a laid-off bookkeeper who was with HDFCU for more than 16 years. "In my house I was the only one working."


Williams struggled with the basics and cut costs where she could. But it wasn't enough. When the Williamses finally gave in and went to Social Services for food stamps, they couldn't hide their crushed pride, prompting the social worker to say, "You look like the saddest people in the world."


Williams certainly is not alone.


"It's devastating, really," Geiger said. "We felt a sense of ownership [in the company]."


Furthermore the mature workers who had worked for many years had retirement in their sights.


"All those plans you have to think of in a very different manner," said Lynda Pasco. "Your plan is just blown out of the water."


Geiger, who is in her 50s, is now weighing the benefits of going back to college to get her degree, but that isn't an easy decision.


"Do I spend four years for that 10 years I wanted to retire?" she said.


On Friday, Dec. 12, 2008, 10 HDFCU employees were given their pink slips by representatives of National Credit Union Association, which took over conservatorship of the once venerable institution two months earlier.


"They needed to cut our overhead," said former employee Evelyn Bravo. "We all know there was going to be a layoff. We just didn't know who [would be laid off] or how many."


Soon after the reduction in force, which the laid-off employees began calling "Black Friday," many of the group gathered for coffee to commiserate and talk about their future. A Daily Press article addressed their plight and announced the formation of their organization. A KCBS-TV news segment followed, and the women formed the Sisterhood Of Support, a.k.a. S.O.S.


All of them are still unemployed, except one former 25-year employee Jackie Morgan who recently landed a job.


"It's encouraging," one member said.


Meanwhile, the others press on.


For most, however, the drop in income is only a part of their loss.


"I really miss the customers," said Maxine Callaway, a former assistant branch manager who was with the credit union for 20 years. "You run into them at the store. They're shocked, sad and upset."


Although High Desert Federal Credit Union has changed, the laid-off employees still believe in and practice their creed.


"Our motto was 'People helping people,'" said Clara Gaston. "It doesn't just stop because we no longer work at the credit union."


The S.O.S. Ladies host an informational meeting at the Green Tree Inn in Victorville on the third Tuesday of every month. For more information, log onto www.unemployedsos.com.