WCU dance team coaches create scholarship in memory of former member

Amber Parker

Funny, funny, funny. That was Amber Parker in a nutshell, say those who best knew the vibrant young woman who graduated from Western Carolina University in 2016 and passed away Nov. 18, 2018, at age 24 from a rare form of ovarian cancer.

Parker, a dancer since childhood in her North Carolina hometown of Denver, was a member of the WCU dance team during her junior and senior years and helped propel the 2015-2106 team to a third-place finish at national competition — WCU’s best showing to date. To honor her big heart and generous spirit, Parker’s former dance team coaches — Jessica Graning, Lindsi Cauley and Amy Manshack — created the Amber Parker Memorial Annual Scholarship, which offers $1,000 in scholarship support to a qualifying dance team member each year.

“Amber was full of life. She was so much fun. She always had a joke to tell or something to say that just made you laugh all the time,” said Cauley, a WCU dance team member and coach, and a 2013 graduate of WCU. “She was such a hard worker. She never complained about anything we asked her to do. She never hesitated if we asked her to do something. She led the pack with everybody following suit behind her. I truly appreciated that about her, being her coach.”

Tamia Miller, a sophomore integrated health science major from Charlotte and member of the WCU dance team, is the scholarship’s first recipient. Like Parker, a dancer since childhood, Miller said she was honored to have been chosen for the scholarship because she had heard “nothing but positive things” about Parker. “Dancing is something I wanted to continue through my college career. It has helped me get more involved with school,” she said.

Parker’s mother, Kelly, said she and her husband, Tom, naturally were devastated at the news that the youngest of their two daughters had ovarian small cell carcinova of hypercalcemia type. Their oldest daughter is intellectually disabled, so they had to be strong for her while processing their own grief.

“We knew there were no survivors of this,” Kelly Parker said. “Our motto throughout the whole thing was ‘We laugh, we cry and we know God is with us.’”

Parker spent much time at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, alternating between there for chemotherapy treatment, and Duke Medical Center, where she prepared for a stem cell replacement.  But to no avail, as the chemotherapy was too much for her and her organs started to fail. She never recovered. “There were very few days that she was not in a hospital, an infusion center getting fluids or doctor’s office getting blood work,” Kelly Parker said.That kid never complained, never refused anything — and with everything they threw at her.”

Graning tells a similar story. “Not many people knew this, but she had a pretty significant hip injury she battled for a long time,” Graning said. “She was getting physical therapy and still dancing, and so she was always in a lot of pain. Nobody really knew that because she never really let it affect her. She never sat out. She never had a negative attitude or felt bad for herself or anybody else. She always just pushed through it, pushed through the pain, had a smile on her face and had a positive attitude and just worked really hard. That was something I always really appreciated about her.”

The family responded to Parker’s death by forming Amber’s Army — a group comprised of her dad’s golfing buddies and others named after the late golf professional Arnold Palmer’s “Arnie’s Army.” The term was originally coined after the GIs who started supporting Palmer at the Master’s golf tournament early in his career. Amber’s Army sponsored golf tournaments that eventually raised about $22,000, $8,000 of which the Parkers have already donated to Amber’s high school for scholarships and to cancer research.

Graning said Parker — who was a dance squad captain her senior year — was responsible for setting the tone for the team’s dance that won them third place at its national competition in 2016. The year before, one of their team’s youngest members lost her mother to colon cancer, which was Parker’s first year on the team.  In 2016, when the team was planning its routine for national competition, Parker wanted to dedicate the routine to the girl’s mother, Graning said. “The girl was featured and we wore blue, which is the ribbon color for colon cancer. The story we created with that dance was really partly Amber and partly the other captains’ and the coaches’ desire to do something to honor this person. Watching that routine was very moving. We got all kinds of awards for that,” Graning said.

Kelly Parker said it moved her family to hear of the WCU coaches’ desire to honor Amber’s big heart and generous soul. “It made me feel proud to be her mom. If Amber made that big of an impact, then the scholarship will help her continue giving back,” Kelly Parker said. “That’s one of the things we learned after she passed away, was how much she gave.”

For Graning, knowing someone like Parker, who left an indelible mark on campus, requires others to help sustain her memory. “When I think about Western and this place, she was just the epitome of what you would want here,” Graning said. “She was just a good person, a good student. People just flocked to her naturally.”

To make a contribution to the Amber Parker Memorial Annual Scholarship Fund, visit the website give.wcu.edu/parker.