Good Neighbor Di Fillhart
Poet Joseph Addison once wrote, “No one is more cherished in this world than someone who lightens the burden of another.” If there ever was an individual who embodied this belief, it would be Di Fillhart from Bay Saint Louis' Starfish Cafe.
- by Kim Ranjbar
After graduating from Ridgway High School in Pennsylvania, she attended a vocational nursing school and became a Licensed Practical Nurse. Later, with children in tow and a divorce behind her, she moved back to Ridgway and, due to a nursing shortage at the time, became an Advanced LPN on the job.
Fillhart wasn't raised in a particularly religious family. In fact, it was through her nursing career that she professes her discovery of the true meaning of self-sacrifice, the power of prayer, and the essence of faith. While working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at a hospital in Sarasota, Florida, Fillhart experienced her “aha” moment and gained insight which affected the trajectory of her life.
“The nurses that were in the NICU were amazing, and they all played well together,” said Fillhart. “They were all different denominations or religions, and what caught me was they were calm and loving, and they would cradle the babies, and I saw miracle after miracle. After a while I was like, ‘I think I want to get in on this!’”
Opening herself fully to faith, Fillhart became ordained as a pastor and soon after began working as a nurse at Penn-York Camp, a non-denominational camp and retreat in Ulysses. While there, an elderly woman who had been cooking for the camp had to resign and Fillhart, ready for any challenge, took on that role in addition to her nursing duties.
“I’m always obnoxiously optimistic,” Fillhart laughed.
Though she jokes about it, Fillhart's cheerful demeanor and positivism is infectious. Over the years, she has become well known for her extreme willingness to go above and beyond, doing whatever she can to help ease hardships and bring people together. It was this unerring sense of compassion and determination that led her to disaster relief.
Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11, a priest named Father Carmello sought Fillhart’s help in providing socks to the fire fighters working tirelessly to find survivors in the rubble.
“I was known for washing feet and putting clean socks on homeless people,” said Fillhart. “For the next month, we brought socks and chocolate to the firefighters’ compound on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge.”
Though she didn't realize it at the time, looking back now, Fillhart can see how her time in New York was the first step she took towards Bay Saint Louis.
In July of 2005, one of the board members of PNEUMA – Winds of Hope, a non-profit community outreach organization, called Fillhart to report a vision she had of a decimated coastline. Fillhart and other members immediately started preparing, stocking necessary foodstuffs and goods for disaster relief.
“We didn't know where we were going yet, but we were ready. We had a garage full of stuff ready to go,” said Fillhart. When they saw Hurricane Katrina cross over South Florida and enter the Gulf of Mexico, they finally realized their destination.
Driving down to Louisiana from Pennsylvania, Fillhart and her group stopped to get gas in Baton Rouge. While there, a huge truck pulled up from CityTeam, a non-profit group from San Jose, California which provides programs to help members of their community receive the help they need, from groceries and housing to restorative programs and career help.
Like Fillhart, they had made the trip to help with disaster relief after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. “We were talking with the driver, and he asked us where we were going. We said we're not sure, but we knew it was a small place on the coast that needed our help,” said Fillhart. “He said, ‘I know the plan God has for you, it’s Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.’”
Fillhart and her missionary group made their way to CityTeam’s base at the Second Street Elementary School and, instead of staying at the makeshift distribution center, they packed up their truck and brought supplies to those in need.
“On the way to the school there were these two elderly women, and they were trying to carry a bag of ice between their shoulders,” relates Fillart. “I couldn't stand the thought of these ladies trying to carry the ice home in 100-degree heat, most of which would be melted down their clothing by the time they got there!” Fillhart and her ministry knew then they had changed their location.
The ministry remained in Bay Saint Louis, feeding and finding shelter for those in need for several years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Though need for their services was waning, there was another community outreach plan that had been forming inside Fillhart for some time.
“I had this burning thing in my heart to be able to give people job skills and things of that nature,” she said, “It was what I wanted to do while we were missionaries in Brooklyn, but the cost of even pondering the possibility was prohibitive.”
Fillhart’s resiliency plan came to fruition when her ministry found restaurant space on Main Street in Bay St. Louis and opened the Starfish Cafe on June 5, 2013.
For over 7 years, the Starfish Cafe offered the neighborhood healthful dishes created from locally-sourced produce and seafood, but their overall aim was to create “wellness for a lifetime,” by offering education in “life and restaurant skills” to those recovering from life’s unfortunate, and sometimes inevitable, hardships. Starfish Cafe provided revenue to fund programs and on-the-job skills for their students, many of whom went on to bigger and better opportunities after graduating.
Everything came crashing to a halt when COVID hit. A busy but bitty establishment, the Starfish Cafe was only 1,100 square feet. With the 6-foot COVID table spacing requirement, the cafe could only serve three tables at a time. They closed in March of 2020 and set out to find a larger space for their operation.
They found their current home at long last on Highway 603 and reopened to the public in April of 2021. With the help of a young social media manager, they’ve been able to introduce folks to the new space, which is much larger and gives them room to grow their community offerings.
Just this month, the cafe introduced several new classes taught by people from the coast community. They include a kombucha-making course led by Jackie from Honestly Beef (a cattle farm in Covington, Mississippi), a financial literacy course presented by Melissa Stapleton, and a course in emotional management led by Fillhart herself.
The Starfish Cafe is also excited to announce that after the new year, they'll be offering a class in air conditioning and refrigeration that upon completion will include HVAC certification.
“Zachary, my youngest son, has taken over as Executive Director. It's so exciting for me because he's going to take it further than my brain could ever have done.”
Although the disaster that brought Di to the coast is far in the rear-view mirror today, up ahead is a wide road of good things to be achieved, and the wellness wheel rolls on powered by the next generation.
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