Typically in this space here we tell you about Holland Christian alumni who are off doing amazing things in exciting destinations of the world elsewhere—like improving education in Honduras (Spring 2017), or saving AIDS orphans in Lesotho (Spring 2016). Exciting and important work for the Lord.
But we also recognize how many of you HC grads stay local and impact our place here for the better. Quietly remain “average” West Michigan Joes who help make our community pretty great. Do God’s work here, maybe get married, maybe raise kids, run successful businesses to pay the bills, go to church. You show up when needed, pray for us when we beg you to, donate items we didn’t even realize we needed until you give them, cheer our kids at sporting events.
There are a lot of you like this, but one such stand out is Robb VanderZwaag (’92), the owner of Hamilton Pullets, in, you guessed it, Hamilton, Michigan. A pullet, to preempt those of you reaching for your phone’s Google search engine, is a young hen, a guaranteed female egg-layer under six months old. Robb has close to one million of them, ranging from one day to four months old, all comfortably and cleanly housed in the most up-to-date chicken barns possible.
Basically out of his barns come chickens that eventually lay eggs for super markets and restaurants like McDonalds all over America. And if you drive up to buy a few pullets for your own back yard, he’ll sell you those, too, gladly—because his pullets have been vaccinated for things like salmonella to keep your kids healthy. Since all of these chickens need to eat, Robb also owns a feed mill, MD Farm Supply, with his brother Jon VanderZwaag (’98) and Doug Dreyer (’78), where they mix up over a thousand tons of feed for his farm and other local farms every week.
You don’t have to do big things, but just by your way of life, be someone who takes care of others. You can be just as impactful as a farmer, as a bank president or a college professor. We need a good blend of both.
Talking to the man is like talking to a self-made audible walking chicken encyclopedia. Everything from chicken economics (Why are eggs so cheap right now? Only $.35 a dozen?) to chicken trends (What’s the difference between free range, cage free, and Eggland’s best?) and chicken biology (Why do they sell brown eggs in Europe, but white eggs in America?). Inside the barns, the air is always a balmy 70 degrees, supported by blowing fans and generators. They don’t stink, since all the chicken droppings fall onto a moving conveyor belt below, where they are fan dried and then shipped off as powdered fertilizer. Zero waste, zero smell. But biosecure, because they don’t want a disease to run through the whole flock.
All this, and no college degree.
“I’m a firm believer in the fact that a four-year college degree isn’t for everyone,” Robb says, explaining his one-and-a-half unfinished years at Davenport College. “Status means nothing—it’s what you do with life that’s more important. Making sure you’re treating people right, and living in a way that is God-honoring so that other people look at you and say, ‘They are different!’ You don’t have to do big things, but just by your way of life, be someone who takes care of others. You can be just as impactful as a farmer, as a bank president or a college professor. We need a good blend of both.”
I’m a firm believer in the fact that a four-year college degree isn’t for everyone.
It all started when Robb did not make the Holland Christian basketball team his freshman year—funny how God has a plan different, and so much more far-sighted than ours? Suddenly he had more time on his hands, and began working for a chicken farm on Holland’s north side, enjoying having the extra spending money. The farm also had its own feed mill and Christmas trees, and was soon running out of space in its north side location.
So, once he graduated HCS in 1992, Robb was the one to be shipped south, moving all the way to Hamilton, to run the new start-up location there. A young bachelor living on his own, he didn’t cook a whole lot, but ate out often at the Trestle Stop Restaurant in Hamilton, where the really cute daughter of the owners would wait on his table. Add in a few years of dating once Lisa Lampen graduated from Holland Christian in 1994, a wedding in 1997, and three darling baby girls followed.
Meanwhile, the farm took off, too, grew like crazy, and in 2000, when the original owner, a 1978 HC grad, wanted to give Robb the chance to advance, he sold him the farm in Hamilton, thereby creating Hamilton Pullets. For the first several years, Robb was it—the only guy running the show, and worked like crazy just to keep up. Slowly, though, he added employees as he could, eventually rising to his current payroll of 22.
Life seemed happily ever after.
Lisa, busy with their three girls, helped her parents as needed at the restaurant, but was also following her life passions— singing on their church, Central Wesleyan’s, praise team, helping with children’s ministries and with Bible Study Fellowship, besides busy caring for orphans whenever and wherever she could. She even flew down to visit and volunteer at an orphanage in Mexico in 2007.
“She was an awesome person—the best you can get,” Robb says of his wife. “Her number one goal in life was to be able to help others.”
The girls, Brylynn (’15), Mady (’18), and Tryna (’23), were nine, seven, and two years old in the summer of 2007, when the VanderZwaags started the process of adopting a nine-year-old boy, Irwin, from Mexico.
But before the adoption could be finalized, Lisa learned she had breast cancer—and on Brylynn’s birthday to boot.
You can’t pack all that pain into a paragraph—of innumerable trips to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for one treatment tried after another, repeated arrangements for the girls to be cared for while they were gone, Robb trying to be there for Lisa and still run the business. If there was any comfort, it was that they didn’t do it alone.
“We had so many different friends fly us out of Holland airport,” Robb says, listing one HC family after another. “There’s a reason these girls are at this school—there was such a huge support system here. There still is.” For seven years Lisa and Robb managed to fend off the cancer. “She just kept plugging away, in and out of bed. With no complaining, ever…” he trails off.
But then came spring of 2014. Lisa realized the treatments were no longer working, that she was just getting worse, and she decided she just wasn’t going to fight it anymore.
“How do you tell your kids that ‘Mom is not going to do this anymore?’” Robb says. “The kids were just used to her having cancer; I don’t think Tryna ever really saw Lisa with hair.”
Lisa died in May of 2014. Her funeral filled Central Wesleyan, and Robb had people coming out of the woodwork telling him how Lisa had blessed their lives in ways he had not known the 17 years he had been married to her.
“My biggest fear was that my girls would lose what their mom had instilled into them. How do we make sure our girls keep that same giving and loving spirit?”
So Robb and his daughters together started Lisa’s Legacy, a nonprofit committed to charitable giving, “so our girls could look for people struggling, and help them. It’s amazing once you’ve been through it—you become so much more aware of others going through it,” he says.
Robb and his girls took money donated at Lisa’s funeral, invested it, and pull it out when they see a good cause they want to give to. When Robb worried that the girls were getting lost in themselves, not paying enough attention to others with needs, he contacted a couple of HC teachers, asking them to look out for not only his daughters, but also for worthwhile needs they could donate to. Sometimes it’s a couple chick incubators for the elementary schools, or for another family who is walking through cancer and needs some distraction relief, maybe a family who can’t make tuition payments.
And so these girls of Lisa’s are learning to give generously just like their mother—who was excited at one time to see the pullet business grow only so that they would have the means to help more people.
“When your wife dies of cancer, you get a very good perspective of what’s important in life,” Robb ends. “You know, paying for Christian education can sometimes be a struggle, but it’s been one of the best decisions we’ve made. Lisa always said, ‘Don’t worry about the [money]—it will just come. I don’t know how, but it will be there.’ She always said it was because we have faith. And we were once told, ‘If you do business and live life with generosity and integrity, you will be taken care of,’” he says matter-of-factly with a shrug. “And so far it’s been true.”
It’s amazing once you’ve been through it—you become so much more aware of others going through it.