There was a time in Di Fillhart’s life when she was not the cheerful mentor her students and peers have come to know. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Fillhart had learned that life was full of conflict and emotional turbulence — and she was never one to back down in the face of it.
“I had this experience of life as out of control,” she said. “I used to say I was a verbal arsonist — If you started the fire, I could blow it up.”
Fillhart worked for years as a pediatric nurse, then in 1985 moved to Sarasota, Fla., and took a job as a nurse in the premature unit at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. It was there that a group of women showed her a different way to live.
Her colleagues at Sarasota Memorial were Christian women who belonged to different denominations but all demonstrated a kind of love and serenity Fillhart had not encountered.
“I watched them,” Fillhart said. “How they treated each other. Prior to that my home environment had a lot of noise and a lot of emotional challenges. All of a sudden I had a new perspective on life.”
Fillhart describes the years she spent working with the nurses in Sarasota as transformational. It wasn’t long after she met them that she decided to devote herself to a life of service. She began looking for the place where she could serve, setting off on a journey that would eventually lead her to Bay St. Louis.
From Brooklyn to the South
Fillhart made her way to New York City, where she lived with her family on top of a church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. She worked to help the homeless community there, living in the city for six years.
Then, in 2005, her family broke up.
“My husband left — ministry and marriage,” she said.
Around the same time, a friend of hers had a vision, she said, of a “devastated coastline.” Hurricane Katrina struck soon after, and Fillhart and the friend loaded up a 4x4 Dodge pickup and began driving south. A call for help from Lafayette, Louisiana, drew Fillhart and her friend to that city, where they handed out clothing and cleaning supplies.
After working for a little while in Lafayette, another relief group told her the small Mississippi town of Bay St. Louis needed help. Fillhart headed east.
“We got off the interstate,” she said. “There was a big orange sign that said, ‘Hancock County, Still God’s Country.’ It seemed like this sign — this must be it.”
A home in the Bay
Fillhart moved into a tent on the old McDonald ballfield — and ended up staying there for four years. She remembers having trouble getting a Mississippi driver’s license because she didn’t have a street address. Eventually, though, she got one.
“My first driver’s license said ‘McDonald ballfield,’” she said.
She got involved with St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church and became its director of outreach and recovery in 2009. The following year, she began to act on a nagging idea she’d had since she lived in New York City: a cooking school that provided opportunities for people in need and served food to the public at the same time.
That idea would eventually become Starfish Cafe, the Main Street restaurant distinguished by its colorful decor and fecund gardens.
Students at Starfish Cafe learn kitchen skills, and also life skills. Fillhart mentors around five students at any given time, and has had about 45 people start the program. Around 60 percent of her students go on to graduate.
“We’re a ministry first and a restaurant second,” Fillhart said.
Fillhart emphasizes certain core skills in the program: self-evaluation, decision making, positive emotions and accepting responsibility.
“It sounds really basic,” she said, “but for a lot of people that’s a world they haven’t been in before.”
Kim Johnson is one of the students Fillhart has helped.
“I went through a bad part of my life,” he said.
Johnson, who is older than most of Fillhart’s students, joined her course and stuck with it for eight weeks, graduating. Now he cooks at the Starfish Cafe.
“It’s got my life back on track,” he said. “She’s so full of spirit. She’s helped so many people get back on track.”
Erin Page is a friend of Fillhart’s from 2005, when she first arrived in Bay St. Louis. Fillhart eventually convinced Page, a graduate of the prestigious Johnson and Wales University culinary school, to come work full-time at Starfish Cafe.
Page said Fillhart is the kind of person who follows through when she has an idea.
“She’s got something she’s determined to do?” Page said, “She’s ‘You either come on with me or I’ll see you next time.’”
About the series:
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.