By JANICE R. KIASKI
Herald-Star community editor
WEIRTON - Shana Pepper, shown in the photo illustration at right, isn't really playing matchmaker or Cupid by organizing an online dating seminar for people 18 and older interested in a relationship.
Shana Pepper will lead the online dating seminar that will be held Saturday, Feb. 23, at Cove Presbyterian Church in Weirton.
-- Photo illustration by Michael D. McElwain
But the Weirton woman does stand ready to help people navigate down Love Lane, so to speak, mapping out an Internet-based journey minus the detours and bad directions, the headaches and heartaches.
It is, however, no coincidence that Pepper's seminar is purposely scheduled during this month defined by hearts and Valentine's Day.
"Absolutely - that's why I wanted to do it in February," she said of the online dating seminar that is rescheduled for Feb. 23 (an incorrect date is in the printed version of this story) at Cove Presbyterian Church located at 3404 Main St., Weirton, beginning at 1 p.m. It was to have been held Feb. 2 but was canceled because of inclement weather.
It's also early in the year for people who may have resolved for 2013 to be the year that they try to meet that someone special yet are "wavering to take that first step," she said.
"Let's give them a boost and make it happen, and if somebody is just thinking about it and disappointed with Valentine's Day, well then, maybe we can make a change. Successful or not, let's give it our best shot," says the graduate of Weir High School who has never married but has had her share of good and not-so-good online dating experiences.
"One in five relationships begins with online dating," said Pepper, whose seminar will offer tips for using online dating websites and creating a profile to help people put their best foot forward. It also will cover safety tips, do's and don'ts, and "how to really work well in the online environment to make the best of it."
The estimated 90-minute seminar has a class size limited to 40 people. Participants must be 18 and older, and the cost is $10. Participants can pre-register through e-mail to OnlineDatingSeminar@gmail.com.
Although pre-registering is encouraged in the event that inclement weather might require notification to cancel, Pepper said walk-ins will be welcomed. As for the $10 charge, that's "to pay for the heat and the staff that needs to be on hand at the church."
A longtime member of Cove Presbyterian Church and an elder there, Pepper said her background in office work and sales and marketing combined with her desire to help others and her own personal experiences with online dating are ideal ingredients for a successful seminar recipe.
If it is, the seminar could be a quarterly event or an annual one, she said. "If this is something that works out, wonderful. I will go to other churches, other community events to help folks out. I'd be more than willing to do that," she said.
"Online dating really is sales and marketing of one's self to potential dates or potential relationships so that was a perfect match," Pepper said of what she hopes will be a way to use her strengths to help people put thought, understanding and preparation behind their online searching - a thought-out, educated approach instead of a random one.
Pepper said her motivation to do the seminar stems basically from a heart to help others.
"I love to help people. That's a big motivator for me," Pepper said. "I love to help people no matter what it is I'm doing. In the past, I've done Habitat for Humanity with the church, served on boards with the church, and I've served on community events, so I thought this would be a perfect thing that I'm currently involved in to help share my experience with someone who might be new to it or might be uncertain, might not be as technologically savvy about what they're doing to really make that work, so that's how I decided to come up with the idea of the seminar," she explained.
"We are also looking within the church to find ways that we can really help the community - how can we best serve those folks who are out there. There are a lot of places that will obviously help with food, utility bill assistance and things of that sort for people who are desperately in need, but how can we serve both the folks in our church community and the greater community with something that they deal with every day," Pepper continued.
"Loneliness is certainly a big problem with the number of divorces and number of folks who have lost their loved ones. One of the numbers quoted already is that online dating is the No. 1 way that folks over 50 meet because their friends are all married or have children or have activities they're involved in, so once they are divorced or widowed, that changes their friendship with a lot of folks," Pepper said during a recent interview. "It leaves them with fewer friends that can help them connect with someone new, so online dating has become a big area for them, and some of them are very capable with the computer technology, and some are going to need a little bit of help with that so that's another reason."
The seminar is an outreach of sorts, Pepper agrees.
"I do consider this as somewhat of an outreach to help people, again, put their best foot forward and to hopefully help them find what they are looking for, to encourage them to look for someone special in their life, and this (seminar) is a trial run. This is just a test to see if this is something the community needs. I can't know that unless I ask the question," she said.
Pepper explained that she has put together a "simple presentation" and some handouts for participants.
"There are so many ways to date on- line, and we will talk about online dating, but there really are different types of services," she said.
"There are types that help you to simply date, and there are more relationship matching things like eharmony and match.com that really go through a questionnaire process to help match you to people that you would be most successful with in a relationship, and then there are full-service types of dating services where not only do you have the website, but you also have business cards you can hand out to somebody saying, 'Hey, I am really interested in you if you would like to check me out - here is my web profile,' so there are a lot of different ways and different relationship stages," she said.
People may have different reasons for using online dating websites, not all of them with a walk down the aisle in mind.
"Some people are new to the area and would like to just meet some folks and make some new friends, and some people are really looking to get married," she said.
"There are some dangers inherently with online dating as well," Pepper said. "You can't guarantee that somebody who said they have had a background check is who they say they are. You have to be careful. There are definitely safety tips involved with this as well."
Pepper said 80 percent of people surveyed have said they lied about some characteristic on their profile.
"It could have been something as simple as they're an inch taller and again I have to consider that part of it is also what the websites are providing. A lot of the websites give you specific characteristics that you can choose from, but they don't let you describe necessarily with your physical attributes other than hair color, eye color, and so not necessarily do they have something that really defines who you are," she said.
In her research, she said, she has seen characteristics that probably aren't true, including descriptions of "athletic and toned" yet a photo hinting of a potbelly.
"Knowing yourself and knowing what is a dealbreaker is a significant part of online dating," Pepper said, citing "nonsmoker" as one example of a dealbreaker.
"A lot of the matching services don't necessarily take that into consideration, so again you have to really be careful about who you are looking at in their profiles. Of course somebody can tell you something that is not true, but there are certain dealbreakers," she said.
That someone is not a fan of a certain football team, of a specific religious view or political conviction don't necessarily constitute dealbreakers, however, according to Pepper.
"It's not necessarily something that is going to drive the two of you apart," she said, acknowledging that dealbreakers can be a tough list to make.
"I definitely suggest everybody write a profile of what their perfect match would be so that they have an idea of what it is you are really looking for, but not to be tied down to being that specific because somebody might come along and be absolutely perfect and they are brunette instead of blond," she said.
"There are a lot of nice people out there, very nice, even if they are not your type. There's a lot of opportunity out there regardless of what kind of websites you use," Pepper said, pointing out that there are websites that zero in on specific interests or groups such as equestrian lovers, chess players and the over-50 crowd.
"There are a lot of specialty dating sites, but it limits you to a very small pool of people, but you're guaranteed at least having one thing in common," Pepper said.
"There is just so much to the online dating right now, I want to condense it so people get the best bargain and not waste their time," Pepper said. "I am trying to give them the best information based on the major players in the online dating world to give them a good shot at finding somebody."
Pepper hopes her own research and experience help eliminate the start-from-scratch beginning for newbies to the online dating website approach.
"I have taken a lot of time to go in and research blogs and advice columns and everything else about online dating and looking at numbers, statistics, who has more women, who has more men, those types of things, trying to condense it down to a small package for folks so they can say, 'OK, well maybe it makes sense for me to really focus on this one site because it fits me the best,'" she said.
Getting a date isn't always so easy - Internet or no Internet.
"We don't have the interaction even with people we love," Pepper said. "We don't have the same interaction anymore. We text people a lot. We don't send them actual cards. We don't send them gifts. We do so much online anymore, and it is very hard to find somebody that is compatible," she said.
Online dating can be a great way to connect with people, according to Pepper, and it can be a viable option.
"There are so many reasons why people don't have time to (find a) date, including the long hours that they work. I know I have worked in restrictive workplaces where you can't date anybody you work with. There are a lot of reasons people need to have another resource at their disposal, so that's what we're trying to give them."
(Kiaski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)