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.
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."
Doctors can't provide an estimate of when Kennedy will lose mobility or how much longer she has to live, leaving family and friends carefully watching her condition and enjoying each day. They hope she has enough time left to be able to cheer at a few basketball games, and they share her experiences on a Facebook page.
"It's so exciting to see her dream come true," Hansen said. "I can't get my smile off my face. I come home after every game and my cheeks are sore."
One of the girls
Kennedy responds instantly when asked, "Who are you with?"
"Friends. Nice," she says firmly. "Cheerleaders."
When Kennedy joined the team, the girls took turns going to her house to work on cheers. Now, they go in groups to the Hansen house each week just to spend time with their new friend.
"We just kind of hang out with her. I went and visited her Monday (and) we played Barbies. It was so much fun," said Jordyn Chandler, a senior on the team.
One thing about Kennedy surprised teammate Kayla: "She loves boys."
Like any teenage girl, when Kennedy is with her friends she loves to sing along with the radio, talk about boys and plan for the Sadie Hawkins dance she will attend in two weeks, Kayla said with a laugh.
For Jason Hansen, seeing his daughter be "one of the girls" with her new friends has filled a need in her life that no one else could.
"I always felt like we would never see that, (that) I'll never see her go to a dance, I'll never see her cheer," Jason Hansen said. "A lot of these girls were inspired. It's relieving for our family because we get to see her doing what she always dreamed of doing."
Watching Kennedy cheer is one of many precious memories Jason Hansen said he's storing up for the future.
"I just call it our bubble," he said. "I feel like we have this big bubble surrounding us, filling up with all of these experiences with her — this being one of them. One day the bubble will burst and she will be gone, but all of these wonderful things will rain down on us."
Lessons from Kennedy
Despite her declining mental state and difficulty speaking, Kennedy has no trouble expressing love for her family and teammates, communicating mostly through hugs. When teammates walk up to Kennedy, they announce themselves by saying their name and accepting her embrace.
"She gives some of the tightest and best hugs I have ever felt," said junior Britton Lucas, who likes to take her guitar to Kennedy's house for singalongs. "She is just so sweet and willing to get to know everyone and just hug them."
Each member of the team has learned something different from Kennedy's example.
For Kayla, it has been gratitude for her health and the strength to improve the cheer and tumbling moves she knows Kennedy would love to be able to do.
Jordyn said she has been inspired by Kennedy's enthusiasm after watching her cheer without complaint on cold, rainy nights.
And love for Kennedy is spreading through the student body at Fremont High, Britton said.
"I've seen a lot more people start to open up and be kind to others," she said. "And I think more people are starting to realize who (Kennedy) is and how sweet she is. They just come up to her and say 'hi' and introduce themselves, and they all want to get to know her."
But the hardest lesson is still ahead.
"I think that as Kennedy continues to change and her health gets worse, I think some of the girls will struggle with it," Heather Hansen said. "The great thing is we're kind of like a new family, and we're there for each other."
Knowing that someday soon Kennedy won't be on the team brings tears to Kayla's eyes, but she finds strength in the love and faith the Hansen family has shown her.
"Her family is really comforting. They know and (Kennedy) is aware of what's going to happen, and she's still as happy as can be. They comfort us when we should be comforting them," Kayla said. "Right now she's living the moment and living her dream, so it makes it easier for us to know that she's really just going to go home. She's going to be OK, and we're going to be OK."
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