Freda Rides Again: Mo. woman diagnosed with cancer vows to spend final days in Bay to help give others a second chance
By Geoff Belcher
Jan 18, 2013, 17:41
Missouri-native Freda Swigert, on the front porch of the Starfish Cafe in Old Town Bay St. Louis. Swigert, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, says she will spend her remaining days helping the Starfish Cafe get completed and begin operating.
At 43, Freda Swigert is fresh off a 7,986-mile, cross-country bike ride. She's hearty and boisterous, quick with a quip, a sly smile or a welcoming hug.
You'd never guess she came to Bay St. Louis to die.
Freda has terminal pancreatic cancer and a brain tumor. She isn't sure how much time she has left, but the doctors say it isn't much. Though she has no family in Mississippi and had never even visited the Gulf Coast before last October, she has vowed to spend her remaining days in Bay St. Louis.
"This is as close to heaven as I'll ever get, right here in Bay St. Louis," she said. "This is where I'm supposed to be."
Freda was first diagnosed seven years ago while living in her native Glasgow, Mo. Her father had died of a brain tumor years before.
"I was scared to death," she said, frightened not so much for herself, but for her two children.
"They're 23 and 24 now," Freda says, "but they were still fairly young then."
She dealt with the fear and the pain and the dread by loading up her iPod with Sinead O'Connor songs and walking, but quickly found out that chemotherapy and radiation treatments make your skin blister quickly.
"I ended up riding my bike," Freda said. "That's where I found my peace."
Cycling became not only a therapeutic exercise for her, but a motivation to keep on living.
She began riding in bike-a-thons for various charitable causes and continued to do so even years later, after she was declared cancer free.
Last July, Freda and her friend Misty Penix, also of Glasgow, embarked on the cross-country ride. They rode down to California, then picked up I-10 for the trek east across the U.S. to Jacksonville, Fla.
"By the time we reached Albuquerque," Freda said, "I wasn't feeling so hot."
She stopped in at a New Mexico clinic.
"That's when the doctors told me my cancer was back," she said.
She decided to push through and finish the ride.
When she and Misty reached Mississippi, they decided to come on down to the Coast.
"As soon as I rode into Bay St. Louis, I felt like God was telling me this is where I need to be," Freda said.
They stayed in the Bay for three days, then continued their journey to Jacksonville, reaching the east coast by October before heading back home to Missouri.
Once there, Freda started packing, loaded up her car and made it back to Hancock County by Nov. 8. She stayed in a tent at McLeod Park for a few days until someone hooked her up with "Lady" Di Fillhart, who arranged temporary housing for her.
That's when she discovered what her true mission was, she said: To help Fillhart get the Starfish Cafe off the ground.
Fillhart, whose PNEUMA-Winds of Hope organization has been active in Hancock County since 10 days after Hurricane Katrina struck, began working on the Starfish in October and hopes to have it complete and open by March.
The cafe, located at 211 Main Street in Old Town, will be a non-profit restaurant and a training ground, both for local high school students and for adults who are looking to build career skills. It will reach out to people who have suffered from abuse or drug or alcohol addictions.
"There are a lot of amazing, wonderful people here," Freda said. "This project is giving people a second chance. This building is here to help people change their lives – there's no greater gift in this world than to be able to do that."
"Freda is probably the most courageous, inspirational person I've ever met," Fillhart said Friday. "She kind of gives the word 'overcome' a whole new meaning."
Since November, Freda has spent nearly every day at the Starfish, from morning until night, sanding and painting, helping to get the facility ready for business.
"We all face the same end," Fillhart said, "but Freda kind of has a clearer sight of it, but no matter if she's in pain, no matter if she has a headache, she's at the Starfish Cafe working."
When the pain comes, Freda says, "I just try to work through it. ... There are a whole lot of people in this world who have gone through this. You can overcome it.
"For me, the Starfish Cafe is about establishing a legacy for generations to come. It's providing an opportunity so that people ... can make a better life for themselves and their children.
"This is where my heart is, right here at Starfish Cafe. I look forward to coming here every morning and putting my heart and soul into it.
"I set a goal for myself and I don't like the word 'can't,' so I do it. I might not be as fast as some of these other people, but I do it. ... If I can get this accomplished, I can rest in peace."
Despite her advancing illness, Freda wants to do another bike run to help raise money for the Starfish. Since she can't stray too far from home, she said, she determine that she was going to ride her bike over every 580-plus miles of paved road in Bay St. Louis.
She's looking both for sponsors and for people to ride with her. All proceeds will go to PNEUMA and the Starfish Cafe. She said she’d set the dates once she has some participants.
"Anybody is welcome to ride with me for as many miles as they want," she said. "When they want to stop, that's okay, I'm gonna keep on going."
To participate in Freda's ride, call her at 228-363-8077.
Donations may be mailed to:
PNEUMA Winds of Hope, 113 Cecilia St., Bay St. Louis, MS 39520.