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WEST HAVEN, Weber County — Ever since their daughter died of a rare and debilitating disease more than two years ago, Jason and Heather Hansen have been painfully aware of the empty chair at their kitchen table.

But it didn't take long after 16-year-old Kennedy Hansen's funeral for the couple to decide what to do with that chair.

Fill it.

As often and with as many different people as possible, the Hansens invite others to come and enjoy a meal with them. They come to share stories of their own lives, and to hear about Kennedy's.

Their guest Sunday bore a marked resemblance to their daughter, from her long brunette hair to her wide smile. Even her appetite reminds the Hansens of Kennedy.

They know that Tatum Chiniquy isn't their daughter, but after getting to know the 18-year-old as she portrayed Kennedy in a new film depicting her life, she feels like family.

"If you have an empty seat, fill the seat," Jason Hansen said. "As hard as it is, reach out and fill the seat, because usually what will happen is something wonderful. … We're far from being healed, there will always be an open wound, but there are a lot of people who can help."

The Hansens, their two children and Chiniquy all agree, their closeness is just another example of how Kennedy's story of love in the face of grief brings people together.

Sharing the message

Born a bright and active girl, Kennedy and her parents were baffled when she began struggling during elementary school with sight, balance and learning. What followed were years of questions as the unidentified neurological condition slowly robbed Kennedy of her vision, motor skills, speech, mobility and cognitive abilities.

Ultimately, Kennedy was left blind and unable to speak, with her mind like that of a child. No longer able to communicate, she spoke instead through the hugs she had always loved to give.

It wasn't until June 2013, when Kennedy was 15 years old, that she was diagnosed with juvenile Batten disease, a rare disorder that generally doesn't manifest itself for the first five to 10 years of a child's life, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Only 2 to 4 children out of every 100,000 are born with Batten's disease in the United States, according to the center, and those with the aggressive condition don't generally survive into their 20s.

Kennedy died of the disorder a year later.

For the last years of her life and continuing today, the Hansens have chronicled their experiences through journals and on a Facebook page that now has nearly 80,000 followers. Following a request from Kennedy before she died, their many detailed posts have been condensed into a book, "Kennedy's Hugs," released last month.

Through it all, a prominent message has been the family's faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Utah filmmaker T.C. Christensen, known for his faith-based films "17 Miracles" and "The Cokeville Miracle," has also taken the Hansens' story to be told on the big screen starting June 2017. The first trailer for the movie, "Love, Kennedy," is now playing in Utah theaters and is available exclusively on DeseretNews.com.

For Christensen, Kennedy's story is unique because it reaches beyond tragedy to offer a message of faith.

"What really interested me about the Kennedy Hansen story is the effect that she had on others, including missionary work and conversion, so the film we're trying to make is just as much about the effect she had on others as much as it is about what she went through," Christensen said.

He hopes that those who see the movie when it comes out next summer will also be impacted by Kennedy.

"I hope that people that learn about Kennedy through the film can come away feeling like, 'You know what, even for a girl who was dying, there was some kind of plan for her. God was aware of her and who she is, and if he was (aware) of her, maybe he is of me, too,'" Christensen said.

The film features actor Jasen Wade, who also starred in "17 Miracles" and "Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed" as Jason Hansen, and Heather Beers, known for her title role in the LDS favorite film "Charly," as Heather Hansen.

Chiniquy didn't audition to play Kennedy in the movie. Rather, she came to a call for girls to portray members of the Fremont High School cheerleading squad, who fulfilled Kennedy's childhood wish by bringing her onto their team in the last year of her life.

But something about Chiniquy stuck out to Christensen, Jason Hansen said, describing the call he got from the director right after her audition.

"She walked off and he said, 'That's Kennedy,'" Hansen recalled. "Everything about Tatum — her mannerisms, the way she acts, her hair, the way she talks … everything just fell into place."

After the first meeting with Chiniquy, the Hansens sat together in their car, prayed and cried.

"We knew that Kennedy, that she hand-picked Tatum, because how do you play that role?" Jason Hansen said.

Chiniquy, of Orem, reprised a supporting role in the Disney Channel movie, "Cloud 9" and the protagonist in a bullying film called "Nowhere Safe." Her first acting job, she recalls with a laugh, was a baby-sitting scene in a Mountain America Credit Union commercial.

Portraying Kennedy's journey was "sacred," Chiniquy said, drawing her close to Jason and Heather Hanson as well.

"There were so many moments that I felt Kennedy so strong," Chiniquy said. "I've done films, I played a bully and I was on a Disney show, but this was different. This was family."

Some moments making the movie, much of which was filmed in the Hansens' house, were painful. Heather Hansen recalls a day coming home from the grocery store to find Wade, Beers and Chiniquy working on the scene depicting Kennedy's first seizure.

"I heard and I saw it, and it just brought back so much emotion for me, I had to turn around leave," she said, describing the pain and fear that came rushing back to her. "It was like reliving that moment, and it was scary to begin with."

For Jason Hansen, writing the book the couple authored together forced him to face the emotion left after his daughter's death. He would write every day, he said, finding it just as difficult as it was cathartic to record Kennedy's life.

The couple has occasionally faced criticism as some have suggested they are profiting off their daughter, but Jason Hansen asserts their only mission has been to share her message.

"We want her story shared to the world," he said. "Kennedy is not a business plan to Heather and I. She is a business plan to other people who are involved, and that's OK, to the production companies and the publishers and things like that. … (The story) is doing exactly what we want it to, it has touched lives."

'28 daughters'

When filming for the movie got underway, the couple never imagined how much the girl playing their daughter on screen would come to mean to them.

"(We didn't know) that we would come to love her as much as we do," Heather Hansen said. "She doesn't replace Kennedy, of course, because she's Tatum, but we feel like she's another one of our children now. Like we're blessed enough to have another little adopted daughter."

Heather Hansen called Chiniquy "as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside," with a kind heart that reminded her even more of her daughter, while her husband said Chiniquy "brought Kennedy with her" whenever she came to their home.

Now, Chiniquy moves easily through the Hansen house, scooping up their 9-year-old son, Beau, when he comes running for a hug, then tickling him until he cries "Uncle!" At dinner, Chiniquy sits across from the Hansens' daughter, Anna, 19, and offers a prayer giving thanks for the Hansens and the influence Kennedy has had on all their lives.

"I tell people this is my 'fam,' because that's who they are," Chiniquy said.

While her dream would be to act full time, Chiniquy's immediate plan is studying business marketing at BYU. She started her first semester in August, partway through filming for "Love, Kennedy."

Jason Hansen recently stopped by Chiniquy's BYU apartment, delighted to see in her the future he once imagined for his daughter.

"I dreamed of seeing Kennedy there, in college," he said. "I was so excited (Chiniquy) started school, and I thought that I just wanted to go over there, hug her, see her apartment, and just experience that."

Heather Hansen called Chiniquy a blessing for her family.

"We're just grateful Tatum wants to continue a relationship with our family so that we can see those precious moments in her life, that are important to her and will be important to us," she said.

During Kennedy's time on the cheerleading squad, the members of her team came and went from the Hansen home daily, visiting to help Kennedy practice or to simply spend time with the childlike girl. Today many are still in contact with the Hansens, sending messages, updating the couple about their lives, or dropping by the house for a visit.

"We truly adopted those 27 cheerleaders, we love every single one of them equally. And now I've got 28," Jason Hansen said, pointing to Chiniquy across the dinner table. "That's how important she is to me."

"And she's just a nice person," Beau chimes in.

Keeping Kennedy close

Kennedy is still present in every room of the Hansen house. She appears in dozens of family photographs, in paintings gifted to the family depicting her with Jesus Christ, on a list of assignments for family night, and in mementos scattered on shelves.

But nowhere is her influence more visible than the bedroom that has barely changed since her death.

The room at the end of the hall is decked in bright pink and green, Kennedy's favorite colors, with cheerleading memorabilia in every corner. While some changes were made for the movie, the Hansens say they were all updates Kennedy would have liked, so they kept them in place.

On a dresser, the Hansens have displayed a copy of their book — "We gave the first copy to Kennedy," Heather Hansen said — alongside a large album where visitors can sign their name or write messages.

Just as the Hansens hope their home is a sanctuary for many, Kennedy's bedroom is a place where those who knew her can come, either to remember her or to simply meditate about things happening in their own lives.

"Sometimes people just need a place to go and be alone, and our door is always open for that," Heather Hansen said.

And as the family, including adopted members like Chiniquy, keep Kennedy's memory with them during the important moments in their lives, her parents promise that their daughter is still nearby.

"She's aware of us, and I'm sure there are many times she can be with us, and we feel of her often," Heather Hansen said. "That brings comfort and peace to me."