You will never walk alone
How Friends of Portugal’s partnership project Re-nascer brought hope to a rural business owner.
Sammy van den Berghe had a lot to look forward to in 2017 before the devastating Pedrógão Grande fires hit. He had a budding hobby that he was pursuing: building tiny homes for sale.
Originally from Belgium, Sammy found a home in Portugal in 2006. Back in Belgium, he had studied hotel management but his real passion was building houses. After moving to Portugal, he fell in love with the country and dreamed of giving back to the nation that had welcomed him. His dream was to build houses as a hobby and maybe employ some Portuguese people in the process.
He had made some progress until the fires destroyed much of the materials that he needed for the building of the homes. That is when his dream took a nose dive. He lost a lot of money and after a little over 10 years in Portugal, he started seriously considering going back to Belgium, an alternative that many Portuguese were considering as well...leaving their country to find prosperity elsewhere.
“I became very unmotivated,” Sammy said. “I told myself that I would wait six months and if nothing changed, I would go back to Belgium.”
It was during this time of discouragement that Sammy describes an encounter with Hendrik Von Niessen, the European director for Friends of Portugal. Friends of Portugal was co-founder and lead sponsor of the Re-nascer Project, a partnership project founded right after the fires. The project sought to breathe life back into the region through economic, entrepreneurial initiatives.
“I met Hendrik and soon after that I started to have hope,” Sammy said.
Sammy heard about the new initiative and a contest called the Re-nascer Challenge, the first of its kind done in the region.
The Renascer Challenge (Renascer means “rebirth”) invited local entrepreneurs from the most experienced to the least experienced to be part of a program that would lead them through the creation of business pitches. At the end of the challenge, each participant would present their pitches and compete for prizes valued at 5,000 euros.
The Challenge provided each of the participants with mentors that would meet with them weekly about the development of their ideas. Participants would also attend monthly workshops taught by leading Portuguese business owners. They would learn more about business and entrepreneurship, addressing topics like finance and digital marketing.
Sammy jumped at the chance to breathe new life into his business.
“It was really nice to meet other people with a business mindset and with ideas,” he said. “The environment in Pedrógão can be quite depressive. It was already depressive before the fire and after the fire, it got worse.”
Sammy said that he learned a lot from the challenge.
“The challenge motivated me,” he said. “I learned so much about how to run a business from filling out paperwork to actually getting the business registered and started.”
Sammy officially started his business called “Tiny House Portugal” and created a website for it in June, a month after the final business pitch event for Re-nascer.
At the event, participants were able to present their pitches to some of the top business leaders in the country. The day culminated in prizes of nearly 7,000 euros being awarded as Montepio, one of the largest banks in Portugal, offered an additional 1,000 euros to help with some of the business ideas and another anonymous Portuguese business owner donated another 1,000 euros. The President of Castanheira da Pêra, a neighboring region of Pedrógão Grande, also offered free office space for some of the business ideas presented.
As a result of the event, Sammy was approached by several national media outlets and had his story featured on television and in a prominent national newspaper.
That’s when the requests started pouring in.
“At first all I wanted was to have at least one or two housing building projects going,” Sammy said. “But now, I’ve gotten so many requests coming that I couldn’t even take them all. I’m completely booked for the next year.”
Each of Sammy’s homes are customized, that is why it takes so long to build them.
“This makes the process very fun for me,” he said. “I can be creative and try different things.”
Sammy currently employs several locals and he hopes to continue growing his business and hire even more locals so that they don’t have to leave the region. His next big project is to create a tiny house village, a project that would attract many tourists to the region and help the local economy. The project would be the first of its kind in Portugal.
Through it all, Sammy expressed his sense of joy at having someone walk alongside him in his journey.
That is what Friends of Portugal wants to achieve through our partnerships and support, we want to make sure people know that they don’t have to go it alone, that in Friends of Portugal they can find a community of people willing to walk alongside them and provide them with hope.