40 Years and Counting: ‘God has kept us continually dependent on Him and expanded our vision.’ Elementary Teacher to Retire Full of Gratitude

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

pot2From left: Superintendent John Booy and 4th-5th-grade teacher Mark Van Zanten. “God went beyond what we could have imaged,” Booy says.After four decades of teaching hundreds of students, 4th-5th grade educator and co-founder of The Potter's House school, Mark Van Zanten, has decided the 2020-21 school year is his last. He's made his decision with heart full of gratitude.

"So many mornings I would get up and say, 'I love my job. I love my job,'" says Van Zanten, known throughout school as "Mr. Van" who turned 70 years old earlier this year. "I've got this fire in my belly. I can't wait to be here. I view myself as a rabbi. I'm learning myself. I just show them Jesus. There's so much to understand about His love, His compassion."

Another of the school's co-founders, Superintendent John Booy, isn't ready to call it quits.

"One of the things I like the most is the interaction with the kids," Booy says. "There's nothing I'd rather do. If I wasn't doing this, I would be doing something like this in connection to an urban school elsewhere or in another country."

Van Zanten, Booy and Nellene Duimstra, who died of cancer in the mid-1990s, were fresh out of Calvin College (now Calvin University) when they launched in 1974 a neighborhood ministry that operated out of their homes after moving to Roosevelt Park, a low-income area located in the Southwest Side of Grand Rapids.

God had other plans

Their initial outreach was to minister to adults and not children. But God had other plans, say Booy and Van Zanten. The number of kids drawn to their Bible study mushroomed to 150, which eventually led to launching Kid Power. In time they realized their two-hour meetings with the neighborhood children weren't enough to bridge the gapping holes in the their spiritual, academic and emotional lives.


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The founding educators — Van Zanten, Booy and Duimstra — decided to launch an interdenominational Christian school where its students were the clay and God was the potter molding their lives through day-to-day instruction, (hence the name The Potter's House).

Not a quirk of fate

None of these facts are considered a quirk of fate, say Van Zanten and Booy.

"In these 40 years, God has kept us continually dependent on Him and expanded our vision," Booy says. "Neither one of us knew we were going to be educators when we started at Calvin. Our goals changed quite a bit in college. It was God Who led us into this."

Van Zanten concurs. Even though the 2020-21 school year will be his last at The Potter's House, he is grateful for the opportunity to educate literally hundreds of children these last four decades, children who hail not only from Grand Rapids but from 30 to 40 countries.

"The staff is united," Van Zanten says. "We have devotions every morning. We're a community and I think the kids sense that, too. It's a family that's going to care and support them."

Shuffleboard anyone?

pot3Potter’s House students joined in celebrating teacher Mark Van Zanten’s 70th birthday earlier this year.Humility is baked into The Potter's House faculty, in the early years, as a well as now. That was the case for Van Zanten in the school's inaugural 1981-82 school year where a shuffleboard was smack dab in the middle of his makeshift classroom.

Roosevelt Park Community Christian Reformed Church, 811 Chicago Dr. SW, in Wyoming, agreed to allow its teachers to instruct students in its basement with one condition: They had to shuffle Van Zanten's classroom elsewhere so a group of seniors dubbed the "Golden Agers" could play shuffleboard on Tuesday mornings because the deck was in the middle of his "classroom."

"We were guests in the church so we had to be accommodating," Van Zanten said in 2015.

The ensuing years saw The Potter's House purchase buildings. The school first acquired the former Southwest Christian School where today its preschool-8th grades are taught.

Then there was the church with the shuffleboard. In 2015, The Potter's House purchased the former Roosevelt Park CRC where the interdenominational, multi-ethic Christian school got its start 40 years ago.

Sept. 1, 2015 is significant

On Sept. 1, 2015, the school's staff and children were led in a procession from its adjacent middle/high school at 810 Van Raalte Drive SW to the church where worship and prayers of blessing were held while the peal of church bells were heard throughout.

Sept. 1 is a significant date in the Potter's House history because that is the birthday of co-founder, Nellene Duimstra.

The Potter's House high school, located at 25 Newport St. SW in Wyoming, is the site of the former Calvin Christian Middle School. National Heritage Academies' founder, J.C. Huizenga loaned the building for free to Potter's House the first five years of its use and then donated it to school. The high school now has 230 students.

From its initial 12 students, the school has grown to an enrollment with an average 630 preschool-12 graders some of whom hail from 30 to 40 countries.

'We've seen miracle after miracle'

While changes and adjustments have been made through the years, reliance on God remains a constant.

"With this school, we've seen miracle after miracle in a society where you don't really have to be dependent on God at all if you have enough financial resources," Booy says. "We've literally had to be praying everyday for 40 years. We've literally had to pray for God to provide payroll. It's still payroll-to-payroll, after 40 years. God's taught us dependence. I don't think we would have chosen that but it changes you in so many ways."

Both Booy and Van Zanten smile. They've worked at the school long enough to have seen former students eventually enroll their children. That alone is a gift made possible only because they've worked at the same school for four decades.

"I think when you've hopped around from place to place, you don't get to see that growth and continuity and that faithfulness of God," Booy says. "God went beyond what we could have imaged. We have so many people whose lives changed and we've seen so many financial miracles so it's beyond what we could have hoped, dreamed or imaged."
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Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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