Vila da Marmeleira – Rural Centre of Non Formal Education by Jo Claeys / Produções Fixe

This image shows the increased involvement of the local community over the past couple years

Context of Author

I am a Non-Formal Educator, believing strongly that ‘if you talk the talk, you walk the walk’.




This is not a story of one person, this is the story of a village. A story of how non-formal education and youth work has and is continuing to change the life of this small rural village, ‘Vila da Marmeleira’, some 70km north of Lisbon.

Story in Full

Produções Fixe (Cool Productions) is a company with social responsibility at its heart. It has been operating out of Vila da Marmeleira for the last 4 years and consists of 5 employed people from the community itself, with a wide diversity of experience, education level, age, and life adventures. We target the whole community of this small rural village of 450 inhabitants. The village itself has become the ‘Rural Centre for Non-Formal Education’ where all the stakeholders – inhabitants, companies, NGOs, and local authority are active elements of this centre. The Rural Centre is not a building, it is a concept… the village is the Rural Centre.

We aim to be a fully self-sustainable ‘centre’ and an example of good practice. Facing desertification, increasing unemployment, demotivation, social isolation and financial crisis as a rural village, we started the process of re-inventing our own community on the local level and finding answers towards a more sustainable micro community for the future. Through creating an inspiring model which can be applied on and in other communities, we hope to see this re-produced in other places, based upon our successes and failures along the process. On a local level for local people we managed to increase employability for many, directly and indirectly. We have introduced and opened doors to Life Long Learning and Non-Formal Education among the people of this small rural community and increased recognition of these areas in the community and its wider surroundings.

We are a training and creativity organisation, working a lot in the European youth field and with a particular focus on the creation of educational board games. While conducting a variety of projects under the Youth in Action Programme (now Erasmus+), we noticed increasingly that a big majority of those events were happening in a closed environment (e.g. a hotel), where local impact and involvement was most often reduced to the minimum. We believed it could be so much more and so much richer for all involved with more time and effort. Our decision was taken: international groups we receive, needed to be ‘properly’ inserted in the community life.

It was impossible not to have an impact on the community we were living and working in. Such a small community notices when 30 or more young people arrive and live there for a week or 10 days. From the local shops, the café bars, the neighbours (in a village this small everyone is a neighbour), to the local municipal officials, everyone is involved to some degree whether they want to be or not. Because there are limited facilities in such a rural location we started accommodating the participants in ‘empty’ houses besides the local inhabitants. We used the only restaurant in the village for meals, besides one or more evenings where small groups were received in (by now) more than a dozen of the families in the village. ‘Of course’ everyone noticed what was going on, ‘of course’ everyone was influenced by these happenings. It suddenly seemed crazy not to involve the village in a bigger way. Not just to be Produções Fixe operating out of Vila da Marmeleira, but to be Vila da Marmeleira as the organisation. Realising there could be a multiple win-win situation for all involved, we looked to European projects through the glasses of the community as a whole, and not merely from the glasses of the main promoter or host.

One of the first things we did was to analyse the current situation in the village at that time using SWOT. This lead to the creation of this community project, taking Non-Formal Education as main motor. An instrument to promote empowerment, to create employability, encourage entrepreneurship, re-invent community life, re-shape solidarity and cooperation at the local level, to fight desertification of this and other villages in this economic crisis of our times, and to engage with disaffected rural young people.

As youth workers/trainers within youth work, we found ourselves challenged to contribute as ‘citizens’ to the local reality of which we are part. We defined our citizenship challenge as needing to be coherent with what ‘we preach and promote’ on training courses and so practice in our own daily life.

We started hosting national & international events (training courses, seminars, etc.) supported by local institutions, National Agencies, etc. with the full involvement of all local stakeholders. When realising that this had a strong impact (not only monetary, but especially in soft skills of our community), we decided to take it all a step further. We organised a public meeting with the local population, presented a long term vision, and our permanent win-win philosophy. We made a project proposal to a national foundation and were granted some financial support to start with this social project and work towards a sustainable existence.

Over the past 2 years, besides the growing enthusiastic support, we have also felt waves of resistance and misunderstanding. We were confronted with the disbelief that such a project is for the benefit of all, and thus not fitting the nowadays’ often standard capitalistic approach of community life. With ‘weapons’ as transparency, consistency, step-by-step growth, bottom to top approach, modesty, authenticity and information, our local supportive group has grown massively. A change has been made, now it has to grow and confirm itself. Every change brings resistance and so far, it has pushed us to explore carefully and with each project, stretch the change a bit further.

So far it has been a very positive development with repercussions of the success going beyond our wildest dreams. Not only in, with and for this community, but beyond as well. The community project is not only having an impact and recognition at local level, but has reached national interest as well. Besides the multiple visits of several Ambassadors representing countries who had taken the brave decision to (co-)finance an international event in Vila da Marmeleira (e.g. National Agencies of Finland, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium/French, Ireland, Denmark & Sweden), also the Portuguese National Agency expressed their wish to implement this model in other rural villages in Portugal. We also enjoy some international recognition with this community model being implemented in a Belgium village for a Partnership Building Activity in February 2015, hosted by the National Agency of Belgium/Flemish.

This story is not a story limited to the context of a clearly defined geographical rural area with a precise defined population… we believe it is the story of a different approach to build the world we want to live in. According to our experience, it can be implemented everywhere.

It is a step by step community empowerment process, where patience and determination are key ingredients. We hope to welcome you one day in the Rural Centre of Non Formal Education. Einstein once said “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice they are not”. We look to prove him wrong.