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Photo: Hope Network
Photo by Hope Network

When I learned last week that Herb Start had died on Nov. 13 at age 86, my thoughts immediately turned to a day I had spent with him in late 2000.

A self-effacing man, Herb was at that time CEO of Hope Network, a growing organization that met the needs of people with a range of mental, physical, and health challenges. I would meet a few of them during the trip Herb took me on during that cloudy day in Grand Rapids, Mich. My aim was to write a story about Herb’s retirement for the Grand Rapids Press, where I worked as a reporter.

Even though that day-long journey to Hope Network sites took place nearly 20 years ago, I still recall Herb greeting me with a soft smile and a slight sparkle in his eyes as I slid into the front seat of his car that morning. He talked, and I took notes as he drove. Our first stop was a group home for persons with serious intellectual disabilities. He walked me through, and I got to meet a couple of the residents.

Next we visited a state-of-the-art brain injury rehabilitation program. Although he was eager to show me the fruit of his labors, he did it without a hint of pride in his voice. Later, he brought me to what was called a sheltered workshop where persons with disabilities were working — placing light bulbs and other items into packages.

In the days after Herb died comfortably at home with his family nearby, I have also learned a few things that — even nearly two decades later — help to fill out the picture of the man. People who were close to Herb told me  how he had dreamed big right from the start in 1960, when he became the first director of the work-experience program that was just getting started at Pine Rest Christian Hospital in Cutlerville, Mich.

“The thing about Herb was the vision he had to help people who face social and physical and other barriers,” said Bruce Vaandrager, a Christian Reformed Church minister who serves as executive director of pastoral services for Hope Network.

“When people many years ago said they couldn’t help, Herb said ‘Yes, we can’ — and Hope Network is still doing that today.” Hope Network, once only in West Michigan, now is at work in many locations across the state.

Speaking of a more personal memory, Vaandrager recalled growing up in Burton Heights CRC, Grand Rapids, Mich., and hearing Herb Start sing in the choir. He had a strong voice that carried a compelling sense of faith in it. “Herb had energy and enthusiasm for everything he did.”

Jim Tuinstra, who worked directly under Start for many years at Hope Network, recalls how his boss came on the scene right when the entire mental health and disability services system in Michigan was being transformed.

Until the 1960s, many people with various challenges were housed in hospitals and other facilities. Until then, said Tuinstra, the thinking had been to essentially care for people who couldn’t care for themselves — and to do this far from the mainstream of society.

Start was among those who stepped in to create programs and find homes in the community for people coming out of the institutions. For 40 years, Start helped lead the charge to assure that people with disabilities and other challenges had a more inclusive place in society. And Herb did this because of his faith.

“Herb strongly believed that all people are born in God’s image and that whatever differences there were between us didn’t really matter,” said Tuinstra.

Herb Start was an innovator who often grabbed onto ideas and asked Tuinstra to find ways to pay for them. Not all of the ideas worked out, but that was Herb, said Tuinstra. Herb was an innovator who saw the big picture and always pushed to develop programs for people on the margins of society.

“Herb was a very hands-on type of guy. He wasn’t above going out and talking to and meeting with the people in the different programs,” said Tuinstra, who followed Start as CEO of Hope Network and worked in that position until he retired in 2008.

During the day back in 2000 that I spent with Herb Start, it was clear to me that both Hope Network employees and their clients liked him. They smiled when they saw him and greeted him warmly. Last week, I was also struck by some words a former employee offered in a comment to Herb’s online obituary in the Grand Rapids Press:

“I worked with Herbert for over twenty years and have very fond memories of working together,” she writes. “On one occasion we finished a proposal with only minutes to get the proposal postmarked. Together we jumped in the car, and Herb drove faster than I ever imagined a man of Herb's stature. The post office had just closed, but I banged on the door and begged them to accept our package. They did, and we won the proposal.”

In reading the obituary, I learned other things about Herb. He had helped to draft and had lobbied for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He had been the choir director for Burton Heights CRC, the Calvin Seminary Choir, and the Pine Rest Singing Men. He had also sung with the Calvin College Alumni Players in productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

Start was also an avid runner, participating in the Grand Rapids River Bank Run from its beginning in 1978 and in many marathons and fun runs. After retirement, he continued his work as a surveyor of programs, in the U.S. and beyond, for persons facing a range of challenges.

Mark Stephenson, director of the CRC’s Office of Disability Concerns, didn’t know Start personally. But he is aware of the legacy he left.

“Though every child of God leaves a mark of God's purpose through that person's life, when some people pass away, their legacy is easier to see,” said Stephenson.

“Herb Start's work in founding Hope Network and his work on the Americans with Disabilities Act have positively impacted the lives of people with disabilities and their families and will continue to do so for generations to come. I thank God for the work of Hope Network: Disability Concerns continues to partner with them, including a recent training event for church leaders in ministry with people with mental illnesses.”

I didn’t know all of these things about Herb on the day we visited Hope Network sites back in 2000. Even so, I learned a lot that day, especially that Herb Start was a man with a resilient spirit. He may have seemed shy and soft-spoken, but this was a person with deep dedication to helping “the least of these brothers and sisters” of Jesus (Matt. 25:40).