Shining the light and sharing the love

0(This story is part of Habitat International seeking affiliate stories involving National Women Build Week.)

0-2Diana “Di” Fillhart is a bright beacon of light and sheer love in the face of life’s disasters.

From her residence in Pennsylvania, Di founded a small, grassroots non-profit organization called Pneuma – Winds of Hope in 1997 (formerly Door of Hope Ministries) to help fill a need for community rebuilding, including community outreach and support, life coaching, and disaster relief.  Things would change on July 13, 2005: a fellow Board member of Pneuma had a vision that there would be a storm.  No one then could have ever imagined the vastness of havoc that storm would wreak.  So, following their faith, Di and Pneuma began collecting supplies.  Following a pre-scheduled Board meeting on August 29, 2005 – the same day that Hurricane Katrina forever changed the Gulf Coast – Di left two days later with a trailer full of medical and cleaning supplies and clothing and arrived in Lafayette, LA, for a week, via a cab driver she had met back in January.  But she prayed to be sent to a small place that hadn’t received a lot of help.  Then, she met Cityteam at a Baton Rouge gas station.  A Cityteam representative sent Di and her fellow Board member to the small town of Bay St. Louis, MS, where over 70% of the housing stock had been obliterated.  Cityteam was already doing distribution of ice, clothing, etc. through the grounds of a shattered elementary school there.  “Tell Richard that you’re the girls we’ve been praying for!” he said.  

Di became Cityteam’s Director of Community Outreach in September of 2005.  Under her leadership, 5,000 volunteers mucked, gutted, and rebuilt 121 homes as well as built 10+ new homes for area Katrina victims.  Approximately 1,500 families came through the distribution center until July of 2006, benefitting from $5 million worth of goods in the wake of the largest natural disaster to strike the United States in history.  In January, 2009, Cityteam desired to move Di out of Bay St. Louis as a National Disaster Leader – but Di knew where home was.  She instead took a position as Executive Director of St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church’s Outreach and Recovery where she continued her disaster recovery efforts for another 2 years to the struggling city of Bay St. Louis and its surrounding, hurting communities.  In 2011, Di again focused on professional life coaching through Pneuma, as the need for emotional and mental healing in the community was still great following the storm’s long-gone physical destruction.

Meanwhile, Di had rekindled a like-minded acquaintanceship with Habitat for Humanity Bay-Waveland Area’s Executive Director, Wendy McDonald, whom she had first met at a long-term recovery meeting in November of 2005.  Because Di’s housing situation – along with her accompanying son, Zac Fillhart (who had moved down from PA in 2010) – was temporary and not sustainable, Wendy encouraged her to apply for a Habitat home.  Reluctant and feeling unworthy of Katrina-related funding, Di resisted.  But when grant funds not delegated to Katrina-affected families arose, Di was the first to be notified.  In March of 2012, Di Fillhart became Habitat Bay-Waveland’s 193rd new homeowner.  In the time immediately following her own home build, Di continued to recruit family, friends, and colleagues to accrue an additional 1,700+ hours of “sweat equity” time which she donated to multiple Habitat Bay-Waveland families awaiting homeownership!  

With a stable home environment, Di and Zac were able to focus on bringing a new vision to life: the Starfish Cafe.  In October, 2012, Pneuma – Winds of Hope signed a lease for the future restaurant and positive life-altering place on Main Street with a $1.00 bill.  Di, self-titled as “Servant” at the Starfish Cafe, and Zac, Executive Chef, continue to make a difference daily in many “lives recovering from hardships of life. “  The cafe provides experiential life education, preparing its students ages 18-30 (known as employees in traditional cafes) in restaurant, job, and life skills such as finance and anger management to completely reach their potentials.  Furthermore, the Starfish Cafe is committed to wellness, purchasing food from local growers and stores and tending to gardens onsite featuring fresh herbs, vegetables, edible flowers, and even honey bees that contribute to their unique recipes.  Once, Di even hosted a beloved Habitat volunteer group for lunch “on the house.”  (With the success of the cafe, Zac was also able to focus on another dream of his own: becoming a Habitat Bay-Waveland homeowner in December of 2014.)

But Di’s community service efforts still aren’t finished.  She continues to selflessly aid victims of other national disasters beyond Hurricane Katrina nationwide as they occur.  Partnering with Habitat Bay-Waveland for most excursions, Di and Zac have provided aid (delivered supplies, distributed food, performed outreach, restored homes, and given emotional care) to thousands of families since 2008 following tornados in Gatlin, TN, and Lake Mack, FL, Hurricane Ike in Cameron, LA, Hurricane Sandy in Coney Island, NY, locally in Hancock County, MS, following Hurricane Isaac, and most recently the unprecedented floods in Denham Springs, LA.  Zac and Di have at least 2 additional trips planned to southeastern Louisiana following the floods.  And they’ll keep going.  As stated on Di’s profile on the Starfish Cafe’s website, “Each day is dedicated to serving and loving others…” without regret.

A blessing to each life she encounters.  A beacon of light.  Sheer love.