When we got here, it took four people just to sit her up,” he said, “Now she can sit up on the side of a bed on her own. ... She talks, she remembers. —David Levine
STANSBURY — The crowded, chaotic gymnasium where she played high school basketball wasn’t exactly the homecoming Kendal Levine dreamed about when she was serving her mission in Australia.
But watching his daughter sitting in her wheelchair, fist in the air, grin on her face as she soaked up the cheers from hundreds of people, some of whom spelled out her name in giant letters, her father realized it was perfect.
“It was really touching,” said Kendal’s father, David Levine. “This was the greatest welcome home that anyone could expect. It was the best homecoming.”
Last Thursday’s festivities weren't anything that Kendal Levine envisioned when she returned to her alma mater — ever.
If her life had gone as planned, she’d have returned about 48 days from now to a few hugs and high-fives from the coaches, players and teachers who knew her at Stansbury High.
Instead, she returned — a testament to fortitude and miracles — to the cheers and adoration of hundreds of people she’d never even met.
The 2012 graduate began dreaming of her homecoming celebration almost as soon as she decided to give up a college basketball scholarship to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She’d come home from Casper College in Wyoming to watch general conference with her family when church officials announced that female missionaries could now leave at age 19.
“As soon as they said 19, she broke into tears,” David Levine said. “She said, ‘This is what I have to do.’ ... It changed everything.”
She and several friends submitted their paperwork, and she reluctantly told her college coach of her decision. He couldn’t hold her scholarship, but he said he’d welcome her back if the circumstances were right.
Her only brother came home from a mission just a few months before she left for Australia, and she talked about how much she loved the familiar gatherings at the base of the airport escalators.
“She was really looking forward to coming home, to have that experience of coming down the stairs, seeing her family,” David said. “Her brother (had that) experience in May, and it's just part of it.”
The possibility of that moment was stolen on Sept. 5, 2014 — almost exactly one year into her mission. Kendal Levine pulled about 15 feet off the road, past a row of trees, so she could take a picture of a double rainbow. As she was getting back into her vehicle, another car careened off the road and into the 20-year-old. That driver apparently fell asleep, something David Levine said he understands.
When Melody and David Levine visited the place where their daughter was injured, in part to thank a resident who saved her life, they were struck by the “randomness” of the accident.
“It was, I guess, kind of surreal,” David said. “It made absolutely no sense. ... One foot to the right, and he’d have hit the tree and not her. I don’t know if any of us really thought about it. He fell asleep. That could happen to any of us.”
Levine was in a medically induced coma for three weeks. Then her parents took her to their home in Hawaii, where they’d moved after Kendal left for college. After five weeks in Hawaii, she couldn’t move or communicate, and a neurologist told them, “She’ll never get any better.”
“They don’t have anything for TBI (traumatic brain injury),” he said. “So we were thinking, ‘What do we do?’ We’re not going to park her in front of a TV.” Melody Levine happened to hand Kendal a ball one day and she did what she’s done since she was small. She threw it. That was enough to get her admitted to the University of Utah’s rehabilitation program where Kendal has flourished.
“When we got here, it took four people just to sit her up,” he said, “Now she can sit up on the side of a bed on her own. ... She talks, she remembers.”
She even gave her dad the first missionary discussion.
The family discussed the possibility of taking Levine on some outings, just to see how she held up physically. They went to dinner, to an aquarium, and to see the Christmas lights at Temple Square. They even spent Christmas in a hotel.
But last Thursday’s trip to the community that helped raise her was her biggest outing to date. Her family knew Stansbury's girls basketball team planned to honor Levine by wearing No. 10 warm-up shirts. But they had no idea the extent of the night’s celebration.
“We had no clue,” David said. “It was so fantastic.”
Their extended family collected donations, about $1,700, for the family as neither Melody or David have worked since Kendal was injured. Players from Tooele offered Kendal flowers, she spent time with her former teammates before the game, and she was introduced with the team (and she received a standing ovation).
Kallie Stewart was a freshman when Levine was a senior. She said it was a “crazy, emotional” night.
“She came into the locker room with us, and it was just so cool to see her interact with us,” Stewart said after the Stallions managed to beat Tooele in their best start of the season. “That played a big part for us. It felt so good. The start was so uplifting and it kind of got everyone going.”
The players dedicated the game to Levine, and then they played like they knew she would have.
“It was emotional, and I think at times, they were thinking, ‘Play for her,'” said Stallions head coach McKenzie Newton. “It brought out a bit of tenacity and intensity from our bench.”
It was inspiring for the players, and Newton hopes it will inspire and uplift Levine.
“Hopefully it triggers something for her,” Newton said. “It was emotional. I thought it was just awesome for her to be here. It brought back a lot of memories. ... I remember not very long ago her being out on the court and me screaming at her ‘Defense!’ or “Run the offense!’ But it was really neat for her to be here tonight. ... And our community, you saw that. That’s the most fans we’ve ever had at a girls basketball game. I think that is just awesome.”
And the fact that Levine's first big outing was a trip to see her former team take on its rival only made it more meaningful for Newton.
“I take it as a huge compliment,” Newton said. “You always hear you make differences in players’ lives. And you see them and it’s rewarding. But her family, you can tell, it was important to her. As a coach, I was totally honored that it was the first big thing they wanted to do with her.”
Levine's family said the support means more than they can say — to them and to Kendal, who continues to exceed expectations.
“We’re grateful to the community who came out and supported Kendal,” David said. “We know it’s helped with her memory. ... She constantly wants to rewatch videos. ... She just loved sports. She didn’t care what sport it was as long as she was playing it.”
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