At his Celebration of Life concert, Jason Potsander reads from Cycles of Life during an interlude in the music provided by Shiny, Shiny Black. Photographer: Ángel Campos.

By Lynda Hollinger-Janzen
Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Heather and Jason Potsander's lives were shaped by Mennonite Mission Network's Service Adventure program. What they learned in Service Adventure continues to sustain them as they traverse difficulties and face death. Their response is celebration.  

Although Service Adventure isn't a match-making service, it was effective in bringing soul partners together. This Mennonite Mission Network program shaped Heather Graber and Jason Potsander in significant ways before they knew each other and has continued be an important part of their lives for the 25 years since they began journeying together. In fact, their mutual desire to continue with Service Adventure was one of the signs God used to lead them to marriage in 2001. What they learned while serving continues to inspire the Potsanders' resilience and hope in the face of a 10-year battle with various cancers. 

Service Adventure expands horizons 

Having graduated high school, both Heather and Jason Potsander were unsure of what lay ahead.  

Heather was looking for a change of scenery. She had been working in Goshen, Indiana, while taking a full load of classes. She said, "Service Adventure sounded great! And it was! That break was really what I needed." 

She enjoyed getting to know the people, and their cultures, in her Service Adventure unit in Philippi, West Virginia. From the Appalachian community, she learned about hammer dulcimers and ramps, a wild plant in the leek family and one of the first green things to spring through the ground as the weather warms. As the Service Adventure participants learned to make decisions together about shopping, what kind of food to eat and how to worship and relax together, Heather became intrigued with different ways of cooking and the variety of family systems represented by her new housemates. 

"I made a lot of good relationships in my household, in the church, at my job and in the community," Heather said.  

Service Adventure permits career exploration and provides community 

She had two work assignments. One was with a social service agency, and the other was at an elementary school. Her experience at the school changed the course of her life. She thought she wanted to be an elementary school teacher, but the reality of the classroom convinced her that this wasn't her calling. 

"I ended up going into art special education, which suits me better," Heather said. "But I'm glad I had that experience [in the elementary school classroom] instead of going to college and then deciding, 'Oh, I don't want to do this.'" 

Jason attended Iowa Mennonite School (now Hillcrest Academy) in Wellman, Iowa. 

"I grew up in a broken home. My parents divorced when I was 13," Jason said. "I knew I wanted to go to college. I knew I wanted to study something, but I was really confused as to what." 

He was drawn to the Service Adventure unit in Albany, Oregon, partly because of the vibrant running community there. He was eager to hone his running prowess, which he had begun on the cross-country and track teams in high school. Like Heather, Jason was also interested in being an elementary school teacher and was able to try it out during his work assignment as a kindergarten assistant. The dream of being part of "one happy family at home" in the Service Adventure unit also appealed to him.  

"Service Adventure changed me," Jason said. "It helped me learn a lot about myself, both in the house and with my work experience. I was scared, but I felt very strongly that I was called to go. I'm an introvert, so I would have never branched out. But I felt like I was spreading my wings in the [Albany] community, in the Service Adventure household and the work assignments! Wow! It was an incredible time of exponential growth as a unit participant." 

Service Adventure provides safety net while moving out of comfort zone 

Both Heather and Jason Potsander described Service Adventure as a way to explore and take risks — with a safety net. For Heather, the program provided security. She remembered working through messy situations and seeing life with its raw edges in her work. 

"[The Service Adventure household] was a place to come back to," Heather said. "You could come back to your safe place at night and process that [difficult] experience. Things would have been hard without that. You experience hard situations, but you have that support system that is just so, so important… [It gives] you the energy to continue on." 

Philippe, WV 1993 Service Adventure unit: Back row: Mark Bechtel, Lowell Eastman. Middle row: Natalie Stutzman, Heather Graber, Cheryl and Mike Miller. Front row: Kim Stauffer, Tina Miller. Photo provided.

From Service Adventure participant to leader 

After their year of Service Adventure, Heather and Jason found themselves in Goshen, where their paths crossed at three intersections: They had two classes together at Goshen College, they attended the same church, and they both worked at a group home for adults with disabilities. Heather said that her Service Adventure experience in communal living prepared her well for being a caregiver at the group home, and she was interested in pursuing that lifestyle. 

"I had a really good experience as a [Service Adventure] participant," Heather Potsander said. "So I started thinking, 'Maybe some day I could be a leader.' Although, I thought it would be hard to do it by myself. So, when I met Jason and he was saying the same thing, I thought, 'Oh, yeah, we should do this!'" 

Heather and Jason both felt drawn to Alaska. So, in 2003, less than two years after they had gotten married, when the Service Adventure unit in Anchorage unit needed leaders, the Potsanders said "yes" to the call.  

At the airport in Anchorage with the new Service adventure unit in 2004 (from left to right): Samuel Huerta, Jonathan Mille,r Peter Friesen, Dirk Leichty, Heather and Jason Potsander, unit leaders. Photo provided.

"I returned to Service Adventure as a leader for many of the same reasons that I went as a participant," Jason said. "I was looking for an experience, a challenge, an adventure! But I wanted to do it in a safe place, where I had a program and support to help guide me."  

Heather agreed that it is easier to take on the responsibilities of leadership, knowing that an agency and a congregation were walking alongside them. The Potsanders spoke about Prince of Peace Mennonite Church, the host congregation for the Anchorage Service Adventure unit, with great appreciation. 

The Potsanders shared about the abundance they experienced during their time in Service Adventure leadership. 

"Mennonite Mission Network provided a house, a well-maintained vehicle and a grocery budget," Heather said. 

"We had instant social connections [through Prince of Peace]," Jason added. "and inside knowledge to the best places around town!" 

"And a closet full of sports equipment — skis, skates, sleds," Heather continued, "and people who were apparently eager to take us places!" 

Service Adventure helped the Potsanders develop life skills 

At one point during their time in Service Adventure, Mission Network asked to interview the Potsanders about simple living. Heather was taken aback, because she felt their life was so incredibly rich in relationships and fulfillment. However, both Heather and Jason said that participants and leaders do come face-to-face with hard situations during Service Adventure. One of those difficult things is that they have to face themselves. 

"[Before Service Adventure,] I thought life was like a formula," Jason said.  

Jason's formula for "a happy, successful, God-fearing, disciple-led, Christ-Jesus life" was to do his best academically for security and "pray for a good wife." But through living in Service Adventure households, he realized that while this might be his path to following Jesus, it wasn't the path that everyone is called to. 

"You've got to know yourself," Jason said. "I learned that I can be bossy at times. I can be Type A. I can be driven. I can be focused. Sometimes that is good. It can really help me meet a goal or draw people together for a common purpose. But, sometimes, that focus is too intense. Sometimes that drives people away." 

Jason said he started to "latch on" to the life skills of listening to people and being open to a variety of cultures and behaviors while he was part of Service Adventure. 

"When I'm meeting someone, [I tell myself], 'Don't go full-on Jason-focused; just temper it back a little until you know they are ready for [what you have to say.] Or just don't go there at all.'" 

He said he finds this self-knowledge remains invaluable in all areas of his life. 

"[This awareness has] continued after Service Adventure," he said. "That's something I want to impart on my kids, too."  

Passing Service Adventure on to the next generation 

Service Adventure plays an important role in the lives of the Potsanders' three children — Selah, 16, and twins, Analise and Solomon, 13. They said two of their favorite vacations were to Alaska, the place where they were born. There, they got to visit the Service Adventure community. 

"Service Adventure sounds really cool, and I might do it someday," Solomon said. His sisters agreed that they would also consider a Service Adventure assignment when they are older. 

Cancers throw shadows across family life of action 

All this positive energy now takes place in the shadow of cancer. Jason was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2014 and was being treated. But in 2017, pancreatic cancer took over. 

One doctor described kidney cancer as "the kitten in the room, but pancreatic cancer is the lion," Jason said. As his procedures turned to focus on fighting pancreatic cancer, the kidney tumors continued to grow. Now, they are so large that it is difficult for Jason to sleep on his stomach. 

Through all the medical procedures, Jason continues to push himself physically through the training regimes that have defined his life since he started running in middle school. When running was no longer possible, he switched to bicycle racing and triathlons, setting lofty goals for his own performances and coaching his children. Selah, Analise and Solomon carry on their father's love of pushing their minds and bodies to the limit. 

On June 27, 2020, Jason "climbed Mt. Everest," through an event known as "Everesting," which consists of choosing an incline and biking up and down until achieving the altitude of Earth's highest mountain. Jason and a group of friends, whom he calls the "Cancer Be Damned (CBD) team," were aiming for 29,029 feet. After cycling 238 miles in 21 hours, Jason achieved his goal, despite being in his 12th cycle of chemotherapy. 

This spring, by the end of the Melting Mann race near Vandalia, Michigan, Jason's nerve pain was so intense that he ended up hospitalized for two weeks. However, Jason and the CBD team set a course record in the 24-mile event. The day he got out, he went to watch his kids compete in an 18-mile mountain bike race. 

In 2022, the Potsander family added whitewater kayaking to their passions. Now, as Jason is experiencing weakness and diminishing mobility on his right side, he relies on the community to train his kids. But, he says, watching his children compete gives him the same excitement as he experienced when competing himself.  

"No matter what my children pursue in life, I will never get tired of cheering them on," Jason wrote in a Facebook post on August 2. "My passion is to equip and guide them, so they can succeed! I'm learning that I can still do things with my kids and share my passions, even while I'm in a less than superman-like state." 

Superman and Jesus guide Jason in Cycles of Life 

Jason has been fascinated by Superman for as long as he can remember. He recalls going to the grocery store with his mother while wearing red underwear over his blue jeans and cape with an "S" hand-stitched on it. When his cancer journey began, he latched onto his childhood hero again.  

"I needed to have fun," Jason said. "I'm tired of being professional and wearing black. Life is too short to just be boring … all the time. Sure, there are times for black — I'm not discrediting that — but I like having fun with color." 

On days that Jason knows will be difficult, he wears a Superman shirt, or a Superman belt buckle.  

"For much of my life, I thought I was invincible," Jason said. "I could do almost anything I wanted. With hard work and dedication, I could make it happen. Now, with cancer, I realize that I am not Superman. I am drawn to Superman, because I face death every day and night. I need a superman to save me, and I find that in my faith. I find that superman in Jesus." 

Jason described his monthly MRI scans, in which he places himself in a "tomb." His ears are inundated by banging sounds. 

"I realize how weak and frail I am," Jason said. "I automatically begin to pray. I pray that God will move cells in my body and re-arrange my DNA. I pray for healing and wholeness. I pray that God, like Superman, will make the world right." 

Another way Jason copes with pain and insomnia is through writing. In 2022, Jason compiled his reflections and poetry in Cycles of Life. One the poems, "Superman," was written when Jason was "deep in cancer and doing some really hard things." 

Making meaning out of challenges 

Jason and some of his friends brought in the New Year with an indoor version of Everesting, in response to his doctor informing him that his chemotherapy regime was no longer effective. In a January 1 Facebook post, Jason wrote: 

"Whatever 2023 holds, we had … [an] experience that no one can take away from us. We explored the edge of our limits … We know there will be a day when all of us cannot do such things. We know that this striving is a privilege of time, money and resources that some never get to experience because of fear or simply trying to survive in this broken world. I thank God that we get to carry one another in this world and that I have felt carried by so many." 

Half a year later, in a June 1 Facebook post, Jason wrote about being alive six months longer than his doctor had predicted:   

"I've been … trying to process many endings and new beginnings. I will continue to make meaning in my challenges. I'm continuing to outlive any statistic, which is empowering, but it is also bewildering when I see options and abilities narrowing. I will continue to rise again.  

"One major point of rising for me is the backyard living celebration of life deck concert I'm having on June 17th! I'd rather you come celebrate this night with me and enjoy good people and music than come to my (eventual) funeral. That is how important this night is to me. So come if you can!" 

"Open Hand, Clenched Fist" celebration of life 

And what a celebration it was! The event took its name from one of Jason's poems, "Open Hand, Clenched Fist." 



On a beautiful evening, about 300 of Jason's friends gathered to listen to poetry from Cycles of Life and soak in the music of one of Jason's favorite bands, Shiny Shiny Black, as they played from the back deck of the Potsanders' home. Jason talked about biblical accounts of worship musicians going ahead of warriors into battle and how often this band's music has helped him in his struggles to overcome what seemed like insurmountable challenges. 

The words, "A champion rejoicing to run the course," referencing Psalm 19:5, are burned into the crossbeam above the steps leading up to the deck. And, each of the 12 posts, proclaims a name of God — Jesus, Alpha, Omega, Prince of Peace and Emmanuel, to name a few.

Jason's celebration of life was kid-friendly, with a trampoline and a ramp for bikes. Kayaks lined the canal that flows behind the Potsanders' property and were available to anyone desiring to escape the joyful noise for a time of contemplation. There were arts and crafts, a book to write prayers in for the Potsander family and food in abundance. 

Jason described the impulse that prompted the writing of "Open Hand, Clenched Fist," as a longing for a more naive stage of life, in which things were either good or bad, and he could have "one emotion at a time." 

"[This poem] is my expression of the battle of surrendering and fighting. What does it mean to fight? What does it mean to surrender? Sometimes, surrendering can feel like a fight. I can now no longer feel just one pure emotion. Everything has two sides to it. There's a blessing and a curse. There's an opportunity, and there's a challenge." 

Not being able to reconcile the good and bad parts of life will tear a person apart, Jason said. A person needs to express the angst, and maybe, they won't ever get over it, but they will carry it with them as they move on. 

In response to the question of what advice he would give to others on a hard journey that was not of their choosing, Jason said, "I've always tried to run with passion and drive. You need to do something outside yourself to push yourself and to give hope to yourself and encourage others. And you have to step back once in a while, out of your nitty-gritty deep passion … into the big picture [and ask,] 'What could this lead to?' Sometimes, your end goal might not be what you want or how you envisioned it. But you have to start somewhere."  

Jason spoke of the beauty he finds in the balance between the clenched fist of fighting for control and the open-handed of acceptance and letting God be God. 

"God, just lead me, just show me the way. Let things happen. Help me adapt and adjust," is one of Jason's frequent prayers. "It can all be beautiful." 

"Can I speak of death, but not hasten it? 

Can I be joyful in the midst of pain and yet as mad as hell for the reasons that caused it? 

Is a fist not a hand and a hand not a fist? ... 

My hand is open, but my fist is clenched." 

From "Open Hand, Clenched Fist" in Cycles of Life 



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