Community unites to help Coney Island ownerBy BUSTER WOLFE,
The Hub City area has joined in an effort to help the owner of one of Hattiesburg’s oldest businesses as he and his family try to find medical resources in a battle against one of the rarest forms of cancer.
Billy Fokakis, the owner of the 95-year-old Coney Island Café in downtown Hattiesburg, has been diagnosed with Signet Ring Adenocarcinoma – a rare and aggressive cancer that affects about 1 percent of all cancer patients. Because of the unique and deadly nature of the disease, medical expenses are especially expensive and difficult to obtain.
Because of the impending medical expenses and time for recuperation, the restaurant has closed.
Billy’s daughter, Kayla, said getting a medical facility that will accept his insurance or offer treatment has been hard.
“If we can get in any place, we are going as soon as possible,” she said. “We need to start the process. … The only option is treatment, so he needs to get in somewhere that has trials, clinical trials.”
Longtime friend Bobby Walters said Fokakis at first thought coughing and lung soreness came from a leak in the roof.
“There was some mold from the leak,” he said. “So he thought that was where it came from. Then he started having shortness of breath. They took x-rays and found it.”
The cancer usually forms in the stomach and metastasizes throughout the body.
Kayla said a PET scan of her father’s body and an MRI of the brain on Jan. 4 showed where the cancer was located and where it originated.
“We received the news on Jan. 5 that the cancer has not spread to his brain, kidney, liver, spleen or pancreas,” she said. “However, we are certain it originated in his stomach, went up into his lungs, spread into his lymph nodes and neck.”
Kayla said her father’s insurance is considered “out of network,” so the costs escalate because of that. Medical centers like Ochsner’s in Baton Rouge, University of Alabama-Birmingham and M.D. Anderson in Houston would require $54,000 for a consultation visit and as much as $400,000 for treatment, she said.
A Gofundme account has been set up for Fokakis and has raised more than $20,000 in three days. Kayla and Walters said Fokakis will fight the cancer if he has a chance.
“He is the most generous, selfless, honorable, kind hearted, lovable teddy bear of a man who would do anything for anyone without hesitation or expectation of anything in return,” she said. “If you know him, you know I am not biased because I am his daughter. You know this because it’s all so very true. I just want to ensure we can provide the very best care and doctors that he deserves.”
Walters said he and Fokakis have been lifelong friends.
“I love him like a brother,” he said, adding that he – like Kayla – feels helpless to aid Fokakis. “I don’t know what else to do. He is a close friend. I have known him since the 1950s when I used to have a paper route for The Hattiesburg American. All of the paperboys would take our bikes and get the papers out of the window in the back of the building and then stop at Coney Island on the way to deliver papers. I would go inside and get a paper sack of curly fries and eat them while I threw papers.”
Walters said the whole family has been an asset to the community since the diner opened in 1923.
“I think the business started as a fruit stand,” he said. “I believe it was remodeled in 1959. My dad used to take me there and we would get a hamburger or a hot dog. There were wooden chairs in there that looked like old school desks.
“He never misses a day of work,” Walters continued. “He is as fine a guy as you will ever meet. I makes me sick in my heart.”
Kayla said her father has not missed a day of work in 33 years. He is the third generation in the family to run the Coney Island Café.
Hattiesburg restaurateur Robert St. John featured the Coney Island in a Mississippi Bicentennial documentary that included Hattiesburg. Each of the eight participants filmed a three-minute segment.
St. John spoke about Arthur Fokakis, Billy’s grandfather and the original owner, who immigrated to Hattiesburg from Greece.
“Greek immigrants like Arthur were the early pioneers of the restaurant business in Mississippi,” he said. “They were our culinary forefathers. … There has been a member of the Fokakis family manning the grill at The Coney Island Café since Calvin Coolidge was in the White House.”
St. John said the history of Coney Island Café is important to the area.
“Some restaurants take on the personality of their owner, some take on the collective personality of the staff,” he said. “Still others adopt the characteristics of their customers or the town itself. The Coney Island Café is a little bit of all that wrapped up in a small dining room filled with stools, booths, and memories.
“The Coney probably won’t ever win a James Beard award, or get special recognition in any of the national culinary trades. But it has done so much more. It has fed all of the people of a town— black, white, young, old, rich, poor, local, tourist— for almost 100 years— a feat that can’t be measured by ribbons and trophies, or accolades.”
St. John said he ate at the Coney Island Cafe as a kid.
“My father brought me there,” he said. “His father brought him there. I bring my son there. I hope that he’ll do the same. The Coney Island Café is a survivor.”
Kayla said she has had to divert her attention from her original plans – starting nursing school this week at Pearl River Community College.
“I was supposed to be a nervous wreck about so many other things,” she said. “I quit my job on Dec. 29 to get ready for school, but the school said that I would be able to defer my studies for a semester.”
Kayla added that she hates being unable to do anything for her father.
“I feel so helpless,” she said. “If I could, I would give him my lungs. If I could, I would give him my stomach. I would do anything.”
Brandon Thaxton of The Burg shirts is offering a brand new Coney Island pocket T-shirt to help out with treatment expenses. “The Fokakis family has been so kind to let us feature the business on T-shirts over the years, so we are this shirt. One hundred percent of profits will to to Fokakis’ treatment. You can preorder your shirt at www.theburgshirts.com and pick up at The Lucky Rabbit Feb. 1-4.
Another fundraiser that has been organized to raise funds for Fokakis’ medical expenses is a benefit softball tournament Feb. 17 at Tatum Sports Complex. Teams are composed of six men and four women and the entry fee is $200 per team. Plate lunches will be sold, raffles will be held and donations will be accepted.
For more information, contact Sarah Walley at (601) 325-7657.
Anyone who wants to contribute to the Gofundme account for Fokakis’ medical expenses can go to www.gofundme.com/eahtkv-medical-funds-for-billy-fokakis.