Cheering for Kennedy: Fremont High girls share dreams, friendship with new teammate

Published: Sunday, Oct. 20 2013 6:45 p.m. MDT

Kennedy Hansen, center, has fun laughing with Jaycee Gochis, left, and Kallie Edwards as the cheer squad was on hand for the Fremont at Viewmont football game on Wednesday, October 16, 2013 in Bountiful. Kennedy was recently diagnosed with juvenile Batten disease.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

PLAIN CITY, Weber County — From the moment Kennedy Hansen steps onto the field with the Fremont High School cheerleaders, the smile never leaves her face.

"For two hours, she's a whole different girl," cheerleading coach Jill Schofield said.

Two or three cheerleaders are beside the soon to be 16-year-old every moment once the team gets off the bus, laughing and singing Taylor Swift songs. They link arms with Kennedy, guiding her out to the football field, and lay her forgotten cane aside.

She won't need it as long as "her girls" are nearby.

Once a bright and active little girl who loved to dance, Kennedy was diagnosed in June with juvenile Batten disease, a terminal neurological condition that for the past seven years has been slowly robbing her of her cognitive abilities, motor skills and eyesight.

Kennedy now has the mentality of a 5-year-old, her body is weakening and she can speak only a few words at time.

But the disease hasn't taken away her dream of being a cheerleader.

An invitation

Kayla McCloy is a senior at Fremont High. When she and a few of her friends heard about Kennedy's dream, they told Schofield they wanted her on their team and spent the next week making all the necessary preparations.

Fabric was found to sew a uniform, and pompoms and a hair bow were donated. On Oct. 4, 27 cheerleaders headed to Kennedy's house to share the good news.

"It really was just the best experience," Kayla said of visiting Kennedy. "It's like a miracle of how everything came together."

Schofield presented Kennedy with a personalized warmup jacket, running the girl's fingers across the embroidered letters.

"I asked, 'Do you know what that says?'" the coach recalled. "She said, 'Name. Name.'"

Since then, Kennedy has attended one team practice each week and has joined the team on the field for each game, including Fremont's victory over Viewmont last week.

Her brows knit in concentration as she works to recall the words to each cheer, and she does the best she can to make her body perform the motions she has learned.

Kennedy has even learned to assist with stunts, carefully supporting Kayla's back or gripping her ankles as the girls hoist her into the air.

Cheerleading takes its toll physically, often leaving Kennedy exhausted or easily confused the next day, but her family said they are amazed at the difference they see when she is on the field or with her teammates.

"There's a total difference. She's lost a lot of her personality because her brain is dying, but when she is with these girls, it's like it comes back, like when she was a little girl," said Heather Hansen, Kennedy's mother, as she watched from the bleachers. "She's energetic and vibrant and just comes alive. She comes alive again. She's having so much fun."

Batten disease is full of unknowns, but two things are certain as Kennedy's health continues to deteriorate: She will soon be left in a wheelchair as she loses the ability to walk or move her limbs, and she will likely lose her life in the next few years.

"We're just starting to watch these declines happening, and they're starting to happen more rapidly now," Hansen said. "So to see her do this, it's like a little miracle, a little glimpse of heaven. … A month from now, she may not even be able to be out there."

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