top of page

Laureate Passwerk Lifetime Achievement Award 2024 - Pat Hamelrijck

Updated: Feb 28

Pat Hamelrijck grew up surrounded by music. At the age of fifteen, she already gave a music initiation class to young people at the Youth Music School of the Jan-Niklaas Foundation in Essenbeek. Her passion for music led her to the Lemmens Institute, where she graduated as a music educator in 1978. With her diploma in hand, she began her career as a teacher at a secondary school and as a lecturer in the teacher training programme at the KU Leuven Campus Brussels. She fulfilled this fascinating role for fifteen years. During that period, she also became the mother of eight children. 

However, Pat and her husband Jan Houthuys' lives took an unexpected turn when their second child, Godfried, was diagnosed with ASD and a mental disability in his early childhood years. Pat and Jan, still young parents at 25, had to adapt when it became clear that little Godfried needed specialised education. 

In 1985, when Siona, their fifth child, was only three weeks old, tragedy struck for Pat and Jan. Godfried, their seven-year-old son, died in an accident while searching for his mother, who was briefly away from home. The pink cloud filled with birth wishes for Siona gave way to a dark cloud of condolences. All happiness evaporated as they processed what had happened. Life and death intertwined. A white butterfly fluttered in the sunlight around the small white coffin, bringing some relief to the moment. 

Song of Hope There's no reason here to sing, but words evolve into a tune, of things that are beyond our knowing, of human sorrows deep as the moon. A little boy has left our sight, he lived, yet knew not his own light, that's the pain, in vain, we fight, echoing in this helpless plight. With gentle hands we held him near, with patience and love, we kept him dear, this fragile life we held so tight, with warmth and tenderness, in the night. Sometimes even the strangest things, in human lives find purpose, wings, something grand, that soars and rings, when we believe in what life brings. (Godfried's teacher, Heemschool, Neder-Over-Heembeek) 

The family experienced how their daily life was complicated and disrupted by Godfried's ASD. Due to the lack of specific (short-term) care, Pat and her husband Jan decided to start ‘De Okkernoot’ in 1989 with some friends. This initiative eventually became an essential support for people with ASD. In the early years, this initiative relied entirely on volunteers until it finally received subsidies in 1998 as a short-stay facility for ten people with ASD. Two years later, they opened a residential home in Vollezele (2000), followed by locations in Halle (2007) and Denderwindeke (2013). Later, De Okkernoot expanded with a lunch bar for daily activities in the former station of Herne (2023). The opening of a day centre and residential home for independent living, as well as residential units for permanent residence in Grimminge, are planned for the near future (2024 and later). 

Six years after Pat and her husband laid the foundation for De Okkernoot, she took a courageous step by resigning from her teaching position in 1995. Her next mission was to find young volunteers for De Okkernoot willing to support families regularly, even during school holidays. She recruited enthusiastic young people from the parish where she conducted the choir she founded and led for 25 years. A highlight in the choir's life was the performance of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana by one hundred non-professional singers, accompanied by two pianos and percussion, with all proceeds going to De Okkernoot. 

Over the years, De Okkernoot expanded its reach to a wide range of people with different needs. This included people with normal giftedness and stabilised and interned persons with disabilities, either in residential or mobile support.

In the initial phase of De Okkernoot, ASD was not recognised by the subsidising authorities of the time, and care recipients were catalogued under 'deaf and visually impaired' if they had any luck. Therefore, it was not easy to establish an initiative focusing specifically on people with ASD, but Pat's passion for social entrepreneurship helped her overcome these challenges. 


Pat (Patricia) Hamelrijck
Pat Hamelrijck



bottom of page