Ledford Automotive General Manager Debbie Melton said she sat with 12-year-old Amanda Swartout, the playroom’s namesake, a few short weeks before she died.
Even then, Amanda was happy and alert. “I said, Jesus loves you and she said, ‘and I love him.’” Melton recalled in a recent interview. “It really meant a lot to hear her say that.”
Amanda’s legacy reaches far beyond the bright orange walls of the children’s playroom at the automotive dealership. The vivacious young girl touched many lives in her brief lifetime and continues touching lives after her passing.
“I want you to be careful how you write this,” Melton said. “I don’t want Amanda to get lost in the story.”
For Ken and Debbie Melton, Amanda’s story began when they met Amanda, her parents, Jeff and Kay, through their children at a preschool program. It was through the children that lasting friendships developed.
Melton said that a few weeks before Amanda’s 10th birthday, she complained to her mother of numbness in her foot. The Swartouts found out on Oct. 19, 2009, that their daughter had a tumor on her brain.
“I’ll never forget when Kay told me her child was very, very sick,” Melton said. The phone call quickly put the loss of the auto center’s G.M. franchises into perspective. “We lost our business. We had no problems.”
Hindsight will never let Melton forget an early April morning about six months before Amanda was diagnosed with the brain tumor.
“She spent the night with us. She woke me up at 2 o’clock in the morning telling me she had a headache. I talked to her and tried to rock her back to sleep but she said, ‘Miss Debbie, my head is really hurting me.”
Melton called the Swartout home near Harrison Bay to tell them she was taking Amanda home.
“Jeff met me about halfway,” Melton said.
That was the last time Amanda stayed overnight with the Meltons.
Kay Swartout said that after the diagnosis, the family was immediately referred to a neurosurgeon in Memphis. Amanda underwent two unsuccessful surgeries to remove a tumor, one that grew “tentacles” that reached into the crevices in Amanda’s brain.
“It was impossible, even with one of the best brain surgeons in the world in one of the best facilities, and with all the prayers from around the country, he was only able to get 80 to 85 percent of the tumor,” Amanda’s mother said.
The family was then referred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in Memphis, where Amanda underwent seven weeks of radiation therapy and an experimental oral chemotherapy.
“The type of tumor she had, there is no known cause and no known cure for it, and it’s rare that it occurs in children,” Swartout said. “While she was undergoing therapy, she had to have a shunt put in her brain because her brain was continually swelling. After that, she underwent numerous surgeries to repair the shunt.”
The Rev. O. Wayne Chambers learned of Amanda through Melton in 2010 when he went to the dealership to buy a car.
“I didn’t know O. Wayne that well and I don’t know why I opened up to him. Amanda must have been weighing on me particularly hard that day,” she said. “I think God puts certain people in your life.”
Chambers, who blessed the playroom during a May 2 dedication ceremony, said he would always be grateful that Jeff, Kay, their 19-year-old son, Zachary and Amanda allowed him into their home.
“Your precious daughter made a mark on my life I will never forget,” he said.
He still uses the Swartout family as an example to help others, he said.
Amanda battled the tumor for exactly 18 months. She died April 19, 2011.
“From the day we were told there was a mass to the day she died was exactly 18 months,” Swartout said.
Amanda had a very strong sense of faith as can be seen from the quotes from Will, Jessica and Ella Marie on the playroom wall.
Jessica said, “Amanda taught me compassion, perseverance, and to always do my best. I miss my fearless friend.”
Ella Marie’s memorial quote reads, “I’m sad that I don’t have my best friend, but I am happy she is now better in heaven.”
Will’s statement is, “Confident of where she was going. A friend of faith...”
“She loved the Lord and had a lot of faith in Jesus,” Swartout said. “She was just a beautiful young girl who was always very vivacious, full of energy, active in sports and school, with lots of friends. She was toward the end of her sixth school year when she passed.
“Amanda touched a lot of lives. She loved the Meltons and spent every moment she could with them. This dedication is just so very heartwarming. Jessica, Ella and Will meant a lot to her and I know she meant a lot to them,” Swartout said.
Melton said it was a very difficult time for her three children as well as Ashton Jenne, daughter of Mike and Nann Jenne, who was also very close to Amanda.
“It was a very difficult time for all of the children,” she said.
Quite often, the questions of children make grownups search for answers. Will asked his mother one evening during prayer, “If heaven is so wonderful, why are we upset that Amanda is getting to go there?”
How do you answer the question of a child? The reason everyone was so sad, Melton recalled telling her son, is because Amanda would leave holes in people’s hearts who are left behind.
Swartout said, “Through it all, she was very brave and always laughed. She loved to laugh and laugh with others and up until the very end when the tumor had taken over so much of her brain, she was still finding joy in life, still finding ways to laugh and to bring joy into other people’s lives.”
And in Amanda’s Playroom, children are still laughing and having fun.