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A tough year ends: Roanoke County supervisor loses son to COVID, faces renewed cancer uncertainty

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For Jason Peters, moving forward is the only option.

Whether it’s dealing with his extended battle with cancer, or the recent death of his son to COVID-19, the chair of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors keeps chugging along as a means of coping, and a way to keep doing what he loves most, serving his community.

Peters is described by his colleagues as someone who is very focused and driven to help the county move forward, especially in the face of such adversity.

Richard Caywood, who has worked for the county for years and will become its county administrator in February, said he is in awe of not just the fact that Peters continues to carry out his duties to the county, but just how well he’s done it.

“I don’t know if I’d be capable of doing what he is doing with all the weight on his shoulders,” Caywood said recently. “Not only is he showing up and doing his duties, but he’s been instrumental in so many county initiatives over the last several years.”

Caywood said the economic development projects the county has engaged in throughout the last several years, like the 419 Project, the revitalization of Vinton and the development of Explore Park have been successful due to the efforts of many, but Peters has played a significant role as well.

“He’s always been one of those board members who’s had that vision that the right public investment at the right place, at the right time can yield a lot of investment from the private sector,” Caywood said.

A Roanoke native and William Byrd High School and Virginia Western Community College graduate, Peters has always called the Star City home.

“I grew up about a half mile from where I live now,” he said from his desk at First Citizens Bank in Vinton, where he is the branch’s vice president.

He joined the board in 2014, but his desire to give back to the community started long before he was sworn into office.

Growing up, he often accompanied his stepfather, who was a member of the Roanoke County Fire & Rescue Department, to different events and hung out at the station quite a bit, describing his time there as “very enjoyable” with a “family type atmosphere” to it.

He would also help his grandparents with some of the care of their elderly neighbors in Stewartsville.

“I’ve always enjoyed helping people. I used to stay at my grandparents a lot, and it was an older community … My grandfather helped a neighbor that was bedridden, and I always went with him. It was just something I always enjoyed doing.”

So when he was eligible, Peters became an EMT with the county in 1992 at the age of 16. Now 45, he’s been a member for 29 years and currently serves as the president of the Vinton First Aid Crew

Before being elected to the board of supervisors, he also served on the planning commission for several years, before being asked to run for a seat on the board as the Vinton District representative.

“It was something I was approached about and had great interest in. I wanted to serve the community and help the county reach its potential,” he said.

It was in 2016 that Peters found out he had papillary thyroid cancer that had metastasized to lymph nodes.

His team of doctors from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland removed his thyroid and 31 lymph nodes on the left side of his neck, 16 of which were cancerous.

Following the surgery, Peters also underwent radiation treatment, but the cancer never fully went away. Since then, he has undergone regular visits to monitor his condition.

The type of cancer Peters suffers from is slow growing and has to be monitored several years after treatment, he said.

It was from the dais of the county’s board room at a November meeting where Peters gave his most recent update on his yearslong battle with cancer, and the latest prognosis was less than ideal.

An emotional Peters shared with colleagues, and those in attendance, that his latest checkup revealed that the cancer that likely had been in his body for a decade before he originally was diagnosed, according to doctors, was upgraded to persistent papillary thyroid cancer that is treatment resistant.

He will go back to Maryland in January for a biopsy on the lymph nodes on the right side of his neck, he said recently.

“The best case is the cancer is there, and it can be removed via surgery,” Peters said. If not I’ll likely be sent to Sloan Kettering for further analysis and treatment options.

“It’s not ideal, but my team of doctors have been very positive. My doctor said not to get discouraged and that they have a lot of tools in the tool bag but it’s kind of hard not to. I thought I had this thing beat four years out of my initial surgery.”

Not long after his announcement to the community, Peters was faced with what he has described as “by far the most difficult time of his life.”

His son, Nick Peters, died Dec. 13 due to complications from COVID-19.

Only 23, the Roanoke native worked as a long-haul tow truck driver and was described by his father as a big-hearted, gentle giant.

“Hearing from many of the people he worked with that he was such a caring and giving person that would always help someone when they needed it, that was very touching, because that’s the person we’ve always taught him to be,” he said.

Peters explained that the loss of one of his children is something that was unimaginable even just a short time ago.

“The loss of a child is something no parent should have to go through,” he said. It leaves a void that nothing will ever fill,” he said.

Jason and his wife, Candye Peters, have a combined eight children together, six of them, including Nick, from previous marriages.

The couple married 13 years ago after meeting at the church of which they are members, Bonsack Baptist, and said faith has been instrumental in dealing with his diagnosis and the tragic loss of his son.

“I don’t know how people get through this kind of thing without faith and friends. It doesn’t wipe away the hurt, but you always know people are going to be there for you,” he said.

Peters also noted that the community support has been incredible for his family.

“I’ve had some hard days where I’m really down and people I don’t even know come into the bank and pray with me. It makes all the difference in the world.”

Candye said her husband is someone that has always been able to see the bigger picture, and moving forward despite the heartache is a necessity right now.

“There’s just so much I don’t think you can give up when you have younger kids … Now with grandkids as well, there’s too much here not to keep going.”

Fellow board member Martha Hooker said she is amazed by how Peters has been able to carry himself and uphold his commitment to the county.

She described him as a dear friend who is a faith-based person who adds humor to situations and is very enjoyable to be around and interact with.

“He’s juggling a lot right now, and I think he’s trying to handle it all with composure and grace,” she said. “But I also am confident that it’s not easy to compartmentalize all the plates spinning and all of the things that’s going on that are emotionally taxing. It’s a job few people can do and do as well as he’s done.”

Peters has used his job and position with the county as a way of coping with his diagnosis, but now the need for a “welcome distraction” is greater than Peters could’ve ever imagined.

He said the death of his son makes him want to continue on that much more.

“It definitely strengthens my resolve. It makes you realize how fragile life is and you have to use the time you have,” he said. “It makes me want to do all that I can while I’m still here.”

Peters has said that if his health ever got in the way of his duties he would resign immediately.

“I wouldn’t want to be a distraction and be a hindrance to the work the county is doing,” he said.

Caywood said that in addition to Peters’ ability to work through adversity, his caring for the community and for individuals has also been something that he admires about the public servant.

“He’s often one of the main board members to go out of his way to compliment staff, which I’ve always appreciated,’’ he said. “The fact that he thinks about the people on the frontlines doing the work is something that always stands out to me.”

Caywood said he could only hope to be as graceful as Peters has been through all of his hardship, and that it was really touching that the day following the death of his son, Peters still left a note for the board announcing that he supported Caywood’s promotion.

“I thought who would be thinking of someone else. I was touched by that,” he said. He set the example for how I’d like to be in those circumstances that I don’t think I could realistically achieve.”

Peters said while it’s hard not to think of the negatives in his life, he has so much to be thankful for and plans to continue his work for many years to come.

“I try not to dwell on it, because if I spend my time doing that, I’m taking away from other things that could be getting done,” he said. “I can’t control what I can’t control.”

“[Nick's death] definitely strengthens my resolve. It makes you realize how fragile life is and you have to use the time you have."

Jason Peters

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