BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (WLOX) - After Hurricane Katrina, a woman from New York saw an opportunity to help the coastal community. She fell in love with the area and decided to make it her home. Now, years later Diana Fillhart is continuing her efforts to make South Mississippi strong.
In 2013, Fillhart opened the Starfish Cafe on Main Street in Old Town Bay St. Louis. The restaurant has become popular because of its healthful, farm-to-table approach in preparing food.
But when you go to Starfish Cafe, you’ll notice there are no prices on the menu. Diners are asked to pay whatever they want. That money goes towards operating costs and to pay for Fillhart’s special programs.
The kitchen staff at Starfish Cafe is made up of students in a program Diana designed to make a difference in the lives of people recovering from a variety of hardships.
Every day Fillhart gives her staff the opportunity to learn about the restaurant business and experience lessons that teach life-skills.
“Right now, we do job and life-skills training, anger management, financial literacy, resiliency training. We do all that. In the back of the house, they learn knife skills, sauces, how to create a recipe. They’re with us [between] eight to twenty weeks. It depends on them. We life coach them and teach them how to reach goals and all that,” Fillhart said.
It may appear as an ordinary restaurant from the outside, but the staff at Starfish describe the place as a life changer.
“I’d like to say Starfish saved my life,” said student Amanda Reed who tells a familiar story. I was homeless. For years, I looked for something to help me out and get me off the streets. I was on drugs, had no life really. [I] Didn’t know my kids or my family. I moved here to get a new start,” Reed said.
Amanda is now drug-free, has an apartment, is seeing her family and has become a volunteer at Starfish in an effort to help others.
There’s nothing like seeing the light of success shine on someone who was enduring dark times.
“People want to do better," Fillhart explained. "They want to live a different life, and those are the students who prosper greatly. It’s cool. It makes you get up every morning and do it again.”
The Starfish experiential learning program carries a hard cost of $4,000 per student.
That covers expenses for uniforms, course books, materials, required drug testing and meals during training hours. $100 each week is placed in a work incentive account for disbursement in the year following graduation from the program. That is contingent on employment or community service of 25 hours a week.
While the Starfish program requires students to be at least 18 years old, 17-year-olds can apply with permission from a guardian or court officer.
Fillhart was running a street ministry in New York in 2005. She came to Bay St. Louis after Hurricane Katrina ripped the community apart. Fillhart says she’ll never forget what she saw when she arrived.
“There were mountains of debris. The reality, these were neighborhoods. These were houses. This is where people lived,” Fillhart recalled.
At the time, Fillhart made a one year commitment to stay in the Bay and help with recovery efforts. She fell in love with the city and the people and decided to stay and start a new life here.
“The heart of the people, the gratitude of the people, is like why would you want to live anywhere else? This is how the world should look like,” Fillhart said.
Fillhart believes anyone can make a difference regardless of how big or small.
“You don’t have to do great big things. You can do little things and just put a little love behind it and make somebody’s day different. I’ve always believed that, and I still believe that,” said Fillhart.