At this summer's Northwest Natural Street of Dreams event in South Hillsboro, a 204-square foot "tiny home" was dwarfed by the massive, mansion-esque homes most people can only dream of buying. It was the event's first "tiny home" but its significance was recognized at a veterans event last week.
On Wednesday, Nov. 7, Clackamas-area resident Gerald Rowlett presented three checks totaling $30,000 to three local veteran groups during non-profit Remembering America's Heroes' annual veterans event. That money came from auctioning off the tiny home.
"I'm honored to represent our industry and the work that we put forward to donate that $30,000 to the three charities we have selected," Rowlett said. "I'm really excited that we can make a difference."
Rowlett, a luxury home builder and owner of Westlake Development Group in Portland, has had homes in the Street of Dreams event for years, but it took just one conversation with a veteran for him to decide he needed to do something with the event to give back.
"It started when my daughter picked up a friend of hers coming home from Iraq, and she asked if he could spend the night because nobody was there to pick him up at the airport," Rowlett said. "The next morning, we were having a cup of coffee and I was sitting with him at my kitchen table and he had these field crosses on his shoulder tattooed and I asked him what those were, and he said those were people, his partners, that were killed in Iraq and I could tell, just sitting with him having coffee, that he was broken. That's when I (realized), we need to do something about this."
In 2014, Rowlett presented the idea to designate a day at the weeks-long home tour extravaganza to recognize veterans and active military members and their families. After bringing the idea to the Home Builders Association — which produces the Street of Dreams — the 'Celebrate Veterans' event began, offering free tickets and lunch to veterans, with special additions like flyovers. The event has grown each year, Rowlett said, with more than 4,000 attendees in recent years.
"I'm appreciative of us being able to bring that to the public," Rowlett said. "And it's all about bringing awareness over veterans who really need help."
This year, Rowlett wanted to do something bigger.
When the Home Builders Association suggested showcasing a tiny home at the Street of Dreams, Rowlett was onboard.
"I said, 'I have an idea,'" Rowlett said with a laugh. "I would head up building the tiny home and orchestrate it and bring in the sponsors and the fundraising and the labor to build it, but the caveat would be that it would be for charitable donations to our veterans. ... They loved the idea."
The tiny home was the first ever built with natural gas in the country, Rowlett said, and it stood out at this year's event, just a fraction of the size of the massive homes throughout. The home was set to be auctioned after the show. The winning bidder, Mike Premi, a Hillsboro veteran who has dedicated his life to giving back to veterans.
Premi knew he wanted to purchase the home as soon as he learned about its mission, Rowlett said.
"(He) was touring through the Street of Dreams when I told him about it, and he came back and said, 'I want to buy it. I'm going to bid on it.'"
Premi, a virtual reality software innovation manager at Intel's Jones Farm campus in Hillsboro, won Intel's 'Global Hero' award earlier this year and was recognized for his outstanding service giving back to his community. Premi spent nearly two decades in the U.S. military himself.
"(He's an) amazing guy," Rowlett said of Premi, who declined to speak with this newspaper for this story. "I tell you, these guys just humble me. I'm so impressed. I'm honored to know them."
Premi purchased the tiny home for $83,000. The profit — $30,000 — was donated to three local veteran organizations: Remembering America's Heroes, based in Canby; Forward Assist, based in Wilsonville and Hillsboro's local Veterans of Foreign Wars group, Post 2666, where Premi volunteers.
"Small non-profits do not have the marketing horsepower to do commercials and raise money," said John Steinbaugh with Forward Assist, a non-profit organization that works to integrate veterans back into their community. "We live or die on local contributions and fundraisers. The outstanding support from Westlake Development Group and all the people involved with the Street of Dreams has allowed small organizations like Forward Assist (to) get our veterans back into a positive social circle, such as group fishing trips and retreats centered around (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) type discussions."
All it took was one conversation, Rowlett reiterated, that inspired him to help veterans in the community. That led Rowlett on a "personal endeavor" to assist veterans in the community, spreading awareness of the need and encouraging people to simply say 'thank you' when they can, he said.
"If anything, we can say 'Thank you' and maybe we can bring some awareness, and that's where it started," he said. "Nothing feels better than giving back. The idea that you can give back to people that really need it means a lot."
Rowlett said he doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.
"I just heard a saying the other day that sticks so true, 'People will not remember what you did, they won't remember what you said, but they will definitely remember how you made them feel,'" Rowlett said. "It's just a passion, that give-back thing. There is no better feeling."
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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