Hjalmar van Winkel - BUas Hotel Alumnus

A hero’s journey

11/16/2023 - 09:43

Alumnus Hjalmar van Winkel started his addiction care company soon after graduation. Read his extraordinary story here.
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Six years ago, Hjalmar van Winkel graduated from the Hotel Management programme at Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUas). Soon after, he started his addiction care company. 

Although he himself says that he does not like being "in the spotlight", Hjalmar did stand on stage at the beginning of this academic year – at the invitation of BUas. That was in the Chapel of the BUas campus in Breda. There, he told his story to a group of first-year Hotel and Facility Management students.


What was it like telling your story in front of such a large group?

‘Very special. I think it's very good that you’re doing this for new students, such a lecture on addiction and peer pressure. There’s still too little attention to it, even though everyone knows it's there. I have no illusions that I can prevent it, but I do think my story can contribute to more awareness of the impact addiction can have.’


You told the story of your years of struggle with drink and drugs. I can imagine such a lecture touching you deeply when you are just starting what is supposed to be “the best time of your life”?

‘It was quiet indeed. They were clearly impressed. I didn't make it too heavy and also definitely talked about the fun side of studying. We used an interactive way to involve the students. With a two-part question each time to make it approachable. Whoever feels lonely or unwelcome every now and then? Raise your hand if... In this way they see that they’re not the only ones with those feelings. That creates a bond. And then you notice that someone suddenly wants to share something.’


What was it like for you to be back at BUas for a while?

‘That felt really good. I’m sometimes asked to collaborate on a programme by SBS or RTL or something and I actually always say no. But when Hermien Schippers asked me for this lecture, I immediately said yes. I really wanted to do it and that has everything to do with the fact that I’m grateful to BUas. They always gave me space. I mean, they could also have sent me away. After all –especially during my graduation internship in Mallorca – I’d made quite a mess.’


And yet, you eventually graduated. How did you manage that?

‘I’d first started a study programme in Amsterdam. I aborted it and then went to Australia for a year. Before I started Hotel Management, I was in a clinic for the first time. Once in Breda, I moved into a student flat and plunged into student life. Still, I just passed everything in the first three years. I wasn't doing well, but I did pass it all. Just like I had just finished my pre-university education, despite a number of suspensions, in six years. I also succeeded in completing my second-year work placement. I was in Beijing, going out four or five times a week and went back to work in the morning as usual. I was a functioning addict, as they call it. I needed the kick of booze and drugs. I think otherwise I found life a bit boring or something. I was always looking for the edge.’


And did you eventually go over that edge? What was the turning point?

‘I’d really sunk to a new low a few times before, but at the end of my studies, things really went wrong and I lost control. I’d spent two months trying incredibly hard to get a good work placement. I was going to be assistant manager at a hotel in Mallorca. When I arrived, things actually went wrong immediately. I went to see what there was to do, went to the pub and couldn't stop. That's addiction. I was under the influence of drink on the shop floor every day, so you get the picture, after a fortnight I was back home. A week later, I was in rehab in South Africa.’


How did you experience that time in South Africa?

‘I’d been in a clinic before, always voluntarily by the way, but I must say, the experience in South Africa was the most intense. I had porridge with bread in “the bloody middle of nowhere” every morning. And everyone who arrived there was shaved bald. Everyone is equal here, they wanted to say. I could only communicate with my parents by letter. It was not a gentle approach, but it worked for me. That’s also where the idea of starting my own clinic was born. In the aftercare process, I spent some time in an assisted living environment in Cape Town to stabilise. During that period, I wrote my business plan, which I eventually graduated with.’


Good that that was possible. It’s a very different topic than usual in this study programme, isn’t it?

‘Yet there are similarities between Hotel Management and healthcare. I always say that in the job interviews I have with potential new colleagues. Taking care of each other, hospitality, customer orientation, that's what it's all about in our clinics. The way I was in South Africa, that would not even be possible here in the Netherlands. The environment impacts the recovery process. Clients go through deep troughs and work hard; the environment should feel like a safe living room. I think it’s important that the experience with our care is positive. Many clients – fortunately – never come back; a small percentage do; then the threshold should not be too high to start again.’


A hero’s journey. Do you know Joseph Campbell? Do you see yourself as hero or helper?

‘I had to prove myself on all fronts; I had to show that I’d really changed. I went through quite a development. So in that sense I'm the hero of the story, right? But I don't know if I’d have succeeded without the help of the people around me. My father gave me the confidence by investing in my business. In the first period, I worked full-time seven days a week. I felt a great responsibility for a vulnerable group. In that sense, I feel I’m mostly a helper.’


Hjalmar’s company now employs over a hundred professionals and has five locations in the Netherlands and South Africa. If you would like to know more about it, just check out connection-sggz.nl or contact Hjalmar via hjalmar@connection-sggz.nl.