Customers at Starfish Cafe come to the colorful cottage in Old Town Bay St. Louis to enjoy healthful meals and catch up with friends among the tourists who eat at the popular Main Street spot.
The meals are prepared and served by students who are working toward a career in the culinary industry or wherever their job skills and passion lead them.
Starfish Cafe celebrated its second anniversary earlier this year, operating under Pneuma Winds of Hope, which was founded in 1998 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to serve the homeless and families facing the difficulties of poverty. The group responded two weeks after Katrina to help with disaster relief and recovery.
Di Fillhart, who heads the nonprofit, said the program helps to smooth out the hardships of young adults who don’t go straight to college, who have been incarcerated or have special needs. “They all bring something to the table,” she said. “We want to give them life and job skills so they will be employable, sustainable and be supportive for their extended families.”
In the past two years, 29 students started the program and eight graduated and went on to work in the culinary field. Among those who didn’t complete the course, some went to welding schools, joined the military and enrolled at Southern Mississippi. “They all found themselves ultimately,” Fillhart said. “We help the kids figure out their passion.”
The students who enroll in the 20-week program range in age from 18 to 30. They are taught how to prepare soups, sauces, dressings and bread from scratch and how to wait tables. They also get help with life coaching and learn anger management, financial literacy and writing skills. Community volunteers teach etiquette, resume writing and interview preparation among other skills. Tips and donations help support the training program.
“We are blessed to have some really amazing chefs volunteer at the cafe,” she said.
“Volunteers also come pull our weeds in the garden. Others show up with lemons from their garden or fresh organic blueberries. Community support makes this work, and people really are invested in our students, by eating here and helping sponsor the kids.”
Most graduates qualify for a six-month paid externship at Hollywood Casino where they are exposed to the entire food and beverage industry, Fillhart said.
Mandy Dupuy, Hollywood’s human resources business partner, said the casino and the cafe have a good partnership.
“We would like to hire more students who meet the pre-employment prerequisites, show they have the drive and that they can do the work,” she said.
Tobias Collins was the Starfish’s first graduate. His grandmother heard about the program at her church. He found the program “very eye opening. They taught me how to do a lot of things with my hands first in the kitchen and then the front of the house stuff.”
Collins liked cooking best and went on after graduation to work at a local beachfront restaurant and then at Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis, where he is a buffet cook.
If it hadn’t been for his Starfish training, Collins said, he would have been working in a fast food place. “They helped me from getting a minimum wage job to getting something that’s worth having,” he said.
Collins said his goal is to make money and save for his retirement. “I really save my money. That’s one of the things they taught at Starfish, how to manage your money and make a monthly budget and don’t go over your budget,” he said.
Adam Waites graduated from the Starfish program last year. His mother learned about it when she went to eat at the cafe. He lacked job skills and credits to get into college. “I didn’t really have many other options so I decided I’d do it,” he said.
He found he liked every aspect of the program, “from getting the recipe right to pleasing the customer. It’s a customer satisfaction kind of job. I enjoy all of it. You have to.”
After graduation he went to work at Hollywood Casino where he spent six months working in all the food areas, including fast food, fine dining and the buffet. “I figured I could grasp every type of restaurant experience in one go,” he said.
He now works in the casino buffet. “Eventually I want to get my degree,” he said.