BAY ST. LOUIS A new restaurant managed by a former nurse in the heart of Old Town is transforming lives while serving great-tasting healthy meals.
The Starfish Café, 211 Main St., opened in June, and the restaurant doubles as a work force training program for at-risk young adults, ages 18 to 30.
Pennsylvania native Dianna Fillhart, who goes by Di, worked 14 years in health care and lived and worked in New York City when the Towers were attacked on 9/11. In 2004, she chose missionary work full-time over nursing, and shes never looked back. You can run from a life of service or you can embrace it, she said. My heart is in relief work.
She came to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She discovered Bay St. Louis specifically when she ran into Cityteam President Pat Robertson at a gas station in Baton Rouge.
It was a chance meeting when we were in transition, and he told us the place where we could make an impact was Bay St. Louis, Fillhart said. I had never heard of it. Fillhart hit the ground running and was moved by the grace of the people she met in Hancock County. She discovered Southern Hospitality in the face of disaster. We were bringing water, ice and supplies to people and they were concerned about our needs, she said. It was truly remarkable.
So Fillhart knew she found a home. While assignments have been completed and recovery groups have moved on, she keeps searching out and discovering new challenges.
This most recent one, an outreach arm of PNEUMA Winds of Hope, a 501(c)3 charitable nonprofit organization, addresses what she considers to be an ongoing recovery need: helping vulnerable 18- to 30-year-old young adults, who came of age in families that were directly affected by Hurricane Katrina. The restaurant had its first graduate in September, and Fillhart said the transformation that potentially happens to participants is amazing to witness.
Its nothing they dont already have within them, Fillhart said. They come to us with the complete package. All we do is facilitate their discovery of the amazing, wonderful people that they are.
Students receive free hands-on training in restaurant, job and life skills. They work as servers, cooks and cashiers at Starfish Café and they help maintain the restaurant building and the grounds. The program also includes life coaching, anger management lessons, financial literacy and writing workshops.
Our graduates are trained to be experienced and ambitious individuals who show initiative and dedication in all life challenges, Fillhart said.
The 20-week program includes 18 weeks working at Starfish Café and two weeks at an externship with a local restaurant. The programs first graduate, Toby, worked an externship at 200 North Beach in Bay St. Louis and soon after he accepted a job in New Orleans.
Currently, students are referred from churches, schools, law enforcement or just from word of mouth advertising. The platform is a restaurant, because Fillhart said, restaurants are forgiving to people who may need a second chance in life or simply a new start.
You try to identify people who really want to make a change in their lives, Fillhart said. They have to want it for themselves in order for the program to work.
Starfish Café had a 1-in-3 success rate in its first class and Fillhart said that is about the average success rate in similar programs.
There are no fees for students accepted into the program. Uniforms, books, drug testing and training are provided. Students accrue $100 each week, earned through tips and donations as part of the earn to work incentive model. It costs the program a total of $3,200 to train each student of 20 weeks at no cost to them, so the program is always in search of generous Star Thrower sponsors who recognize the value.
Fillhart said patrons of the restaurant arent sure what to expect, but most are pleasantly surprised by the quality of both service and product.
Our slogan is Wellness for a Lifetime, and word got out that we serve healthy food, said Fillhart. Not everyone equates healthy food with good-tasting food. So far, everyone has been pleasantly surprised and we have several flag bearers out spreading the word.