The power of prayer lifted Sunny Parker to volunteerism

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Sunny Parker isn’t one to cancel appointments.

But when brush fires are approaching Cave Creek and the town’s mayor, Ernie Bunch, comes calling, there’s no time to waste.

Parker founded Arizona Foothills 911, a 9,000-member Facebook page dedicated to neighbors helping neighbors in emergency situations. The target audience is Cave Creek, Carefree, Desert Hills, Rio Verde and North Scottsdale. However, if there’s a natural disaster, fire or flooding anywhere in Arizona, Arizona Foothills 911 and Parker are ready to help.

Parker is modest about her motivation behind Arizona Foothills 911. It’s simply the result of prayer.

Celebration turned tragic

Three years ago, Parker’s daughter named Arizona was a student at UA, while her son, Brian, worked at the university. Parker headed down to Tucson to take the family to a resort for dinner to celebrate Arizona’s 21st birthday.

“I thought we’d do something classy and nice,” says Parker, who most recently ran a hospitalist company. “That’s what she wanted.”

The evening was muggy and rainy and all three were struggling to breathe. But Parker noticed a bruise on Brian.

“I said, ‘How did you get that?’ He said, ‘I have no idea,’” she recalls.

He went to a clinic, which diagnosed him with cellulitis and prescribed an antibiotic. Parker questioned that diagnosis, saying, “It looked like someone beat the tar out of you with a baseball bat.”

The same weekend, Brian planned to move to a new place but felt fatigued and asked his mother if she could round up movers. Brian laid down and the bruise bothered Parker.

At 5:30 a.m., Brian awoke his mother. He was sitting on his bed, slumped over.

“I called my husband (Dr. Steve Parker) and told him Brian doesn’t look right at all. I asked Siri for the nearest hospital because I wasn’t familiar with Tucson. It was 1.5 minutes away. The story went from bad to worse.”

At the hospital, Brian profusely apologized to his mother, who had his power of attorney.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Brian, why are you saying you’re sorry?’” she recalls with tears. “He said he wasn’t going to make it. A few seconds later, he crashed. There were tons of people in that room.

“They forgot I was there. I literally backed up to a wall and they worked on him forever. They brought him back. One of the doctors said, ‘How is this kid alive? He doesn’t have enough blood in his body to be alive,’ not thinking I was behind him.”

She then heard segments of a troubling conversation: “Who’s going to tell the mother? I don’t want to do it.”

“They were discussing my son right in front of me,” she adds. “I said, ‘You don’t have to tell me anything. I’m right here.’ They were shocked that I was there. They forgot about me.”

Parker says she told the doctor she wasn’t going to leave Brian’s side until he walked out of the hospital.

“With all due respect,” she recalls him telling her, “that’s not going to happen.”

Parker disagreed, took a deep breath and told God, “If you spare my son’s life, the rest of my life I’m going to do something good.”

“He spared his life,” she says.

Brian has acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which progresses rapidly, with myeloid cells interfering with the production of normal white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. Symptoms include fatigue, recurrent infections and bruising easily.

Yearning to help

“I stood true to my conviction,” she says. “He got out and we stayed in Tucson. I was gone for about three or four months, maybe longer. Right after that, my daughter was the president of the equestrian team at UA. We would travel to California every month. Through all of this, the Paradise (California) Fire had started.”

Headed to California, Parker asked if there was anything she could do. She was asked to bring buckets. She doesn’t do things halfway. She brought 500 buckets.

“I didn’t want to go until Brian was stable,” she says. “He wanted me to go. I got involved with the Paradise Fire in my own little way. It was very tiny, compared to what other people were doing. I remember going to where we dropped the buckets off. There were thousands of buckets there, stacked up as high as the moon. The National Guard and other first responders got involved. They weren’t letting people go through with supplies. I was devastated.”

Residents told her their horses didn’t have food or water and they needed help. Help was there, but Parker and other volunteers couldn’t get to them.

“I was compelled to come up with a solution,” she says. “I came home to Rio Verde, where I used to live. I left Rio Verde because I felt trapped there. There was only one way in and out.”

She scouted new homes in Spur Cross, New River and Desert Hills for an entire day. Her heart sunk. She knew it was just a matter of time before fires would rage there, too.

“We have all these washes, all of this dead brush,” she says. “There was chamomile globe (also known as stinknet). I went to a couple people who are movers and shakers in our community. I told them we needed to get rid of this (fuel). I put out a video of this chamomile globe. I had three fire extinguishers. I wanted to show what happens when this stuff lights up. It was insane how that chamomile globe literally exploded. The flames went 6 feet in the air. It just burned really hot and real fast.”

She thought if she started a Facebook page for the neighborhood that maybe 300 people would sign up in five years. Then, the Woodbury Fire near Superior erupted in June 2019.

“I didn’t get a lot of postings on it,” Parker says. “Instead, I was asked to do things like take prescriptions to people, grocery shop for them, check in on mom—those kinds of things. I didn’t know what Arizona Foothills 911 would evolve into.”

Things picked up with the COVID-19 pandemic. Arizona Foothills 911 teamed up with another Facebook page, Cave Creekers Infamous Bulletin Board, to reunite a disabled young man with his emotional support cat, who was out of state.

“People were really fearful of getting on an airplane,” Parker says. “I said, ‘I’ll get him.’ The trick was finding a plane because everything was canceled. This poor cat needed to have his human back, and the young man needed the cat for his health. It was the weirdest, yet coolest, thing I’ve ever done in my life. There was nobody at the airport. I was calling my daughter, saying, ‘Look at this. This is insane. There’s not a single soul anywhere.’

“I got to my gate. I looked around and I was the only person there and on the plane. On the way home, it was just two pilots, myself and a cat. I met them in the parking lot by Sprouts, and when I saw this kid’s face and the cat, I said, ‘This is cool.’”

East Desert Fire

When the East Desert Fire ignited last May, Parker kept her promise. She helped evacuate animals and their owners from the path of the fire. She looked to Marc Peagler, who owns Frontier Town.

“He said, ‘Oh, Sunny. I’m on board. Frontier Town is yours,’” she recalls.

“I gathered up 185 trailers and we were able to get so many horses out, which was fantastic. It was the prelude to our second rodeo, which was the Ocotillo Fire. The Ocotillo Fire was the one where our membership got up to 6,000 members. We moved a lot of animals. We weren’t even really organized yet. We were just starting. I remember staying there with Mayor Bunch, and he said, ‘Young lady, what can I do for you?’ I had no idea. I said, ‘Just pray and hope this gets better.’

“Of course, later on in the day, he comes back and I said, ‘Sir, we have a problem. I’m standing here and this fire is taking off. We’ve evacuated that side of the road, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of these people. I’m responsible for their lives.’”

Bunch says it was then that the value of Parker’s project because “real apparent, real fast.”

“I am so impressed with what she’s done,” Bunch says. “I think it was the Ocotillo or Aguila fire, and I said, ‘Sunny, go home and go to sleep.’ She didn’t. We gave her the rodeo grounds because (with trailers at Frontier Town), trailers were getting to be a hassle in the middle of town. They were blocking the first responders from the fire.

“I looked at the town’s director of planning and we decided on the rodeo grounds. That’s been the staging place since then. She has a key to the rodeo grounds now.”

Parker was preparing to file for a 501(c)(3) when the Aguila Fire started burning just east of I-17. They opened the rodeo grounds again.

“By the time we got there, people were lined up,” she says.

Peagler says Parker’s organization is desperately needed in the foothills.

“I’ve been up in Cave Creek over 50 years now,” he says. “This is an organization like we’ve never had. It’s all because of Sunny. That’s what it really comes down to.

“She had this brilliant idea, and it’s taken off like crazy. I can’t begin to tell you the number of people who have rallied around her to help her get stuff done when the community needs it. When it comes to fires and having to rescue horses and other animals, it’s amazing to me.”

Having rescued 500 animals, Parker doesn’t look forward to another fire but knows she will be prepared. She hopes to have her 501(c)(3) nonprofit status by December.

“Brian is great now. He’s clear,” she adds. “I do this because this is my promise to God, and this is why I’m doing good now.

“I just hope we will be able to grow into a larger organization. I just purchased the property we’ll live in. I could build out areas for emergency treatment and raise enough money to have two to three veterinary stalls. We’ll have vets on staff who volunteer.

“We were very blessed this last fire that we didn’t lose any domesticated animals. We don’t know what the next one’s going to bring.”   

Arizona Foothills 911

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