Herb Start ’55 has always loved to sing—and he was good at it. At Calvin, he was in the A Cappella and Radio choirs and named the recipient of the Anna Bruinsma Award for outstanding senior vocalist. 

“I believe that was a cash award,” he said. “Ten dollars.”

But Start’s longest performance was in an entirely different field. Hope Network, the organization he directed for 37 years, has opened doors for thousands of developmentally challenged persons—and serves as a model for similar agencies from coast to coast. Today, Hope Network helps 20,000 people throughout Michigan in 240 locations through the dedicated work of 2,500 staff members.

Recently, the Michigan-based organization has been called in to do work in Georgia and Arizona as states grapple with deinstitutionalization.

Interestingly, Start’s impressive career in health care administration began when he was experiencing a rare out-of-state experience: an Army assignment in Alaska.

“[Calvin alum] Don Lautenbach called me in Alaska, asking if I could take a spring semester teaching stint at South Christian [High School] to replace someone going on maternity leave. I was about done with my commitment and was able to go a bit early,” he said.

That teaching assignment brought Start back to Grand Rapids, and while back in the area he became active in singing again. He joined his South Christian High School students on stage as a soloist for a presentation of “The Seven Last Words of Christ.”

Start caught the attention of a member of the audience that night, Dr. Gelmer Van Noord ’33, head of what is now Pine Rest Christian Hospital. Van Noord contacted Start and asked him to switch careers—from teaching to health care for the developmentally challenged.

Start was tasked to develop an “activity schedule” for every patient in the hospital, something Start knew nothing about. He went to the famous Menninger Clinic in Kansas for training and began structuring occupational, work and music therapy for patients.

The effort grew quickly, and eventually Hope Network became its own independent organization in 1983.

Deinstitutionalization brings out the critics,” Start noted. “There are a lot of not-in-my-own-backyard folks out there. But that’s always been a motivator for me. Despite the odds, we’re going to make this happen.”

Start retired in 2000, but keeps an active schedule as a consultant, a board member and, of course, a singer (with the Kentwood Senior Chorale; find them on Facebook).

“Really, I’ve enjoyed every minute of what God brought my way. In the same day I got to spend time with a Down syndrome child and interact with a state representative. Inspiration and challenge, the politics of health and disability issues,” he said.  

He recalls that one of the most stirring moments of his life occurred on the day President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. Start was at the Rose Garden reception for the signing of the bill.

“I remember jogging that morning and stopping on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the sun came out over the Capitol. I was thinking about the emancipation of all people, and that this was a day for those with disabilities to join all Americans in using their gifts to the fullest.”