"Joining this Church was something I never thought I'd see him do in this life," says Jason Hansen, the father to Kennedy Hansen, whose life story was featured in Love, Kennedy. "And that's why it's such a beautiful story."
The man Jason is talking about? His friend Steve Palano, a battle-hardened soldier raised in a family where whoever could squeeze the most "f-bombs" in an argument usually won. Though he wasn't raised Mormon and certainly wasn't expecting to convert to Mormonism, something, or more accurately someone, changed his mind. That someone was a 16-year-old Mormon girl named Kennedy Hansen.
Kennedy, a teenager from New Haven, Utah, was diagnosed with juvenile Batten disease when she was 15. Over time, the disease robbed her of her sight, speech, and ability to move on her own. A year to the day after she was diagnosed, Kennedy passed away at just 16 years old.
But before she passed away, Kennedy made what would be a prophetic, though seemingly impossible statement. "She told Heather and I that her story would be shared with the world," Jason says in an LDS Living video.
And she was right. After her death, her parents wrote the book Kennedy's Hugs, a story of their daughter's love and optimism. And on June 2, 2017, Love, Kennedy, the movie of Kennedy's battle with Batten disease and the miracles that took place after her death, was released.
The Hansen's invited their friends, including Steve, to watch the movie. Though Steve said he wasn't especially close to Kennedy, he watched the movie with Heather and Jason—and it changed his life.
"There's just so much in that story that somebody can take out of and apply to themselves with the example of how she was working through the disease and still maintaining the positive, peaceful attitude," Steve says. "And you watch somebody who is brave in the face of death. . . brave and at peace at the same time and you have to look at yourself and go. . . what's your problem?"
This experience stuck with Steve until one morning he decided to offer a selfless prayer. At first, there was no answer, so he left his apartment to smoke a cigarette. But as he was climbing the stairs back to his door, he was hit with what he calls a "download" of information.
"It was like, from the bottom stair to the top stair, someone had downloaded 40 gigs of memory into my head," Steve remembers. "A lot of it had to do with weird stuff that I had never thought about like foundations and what I had done wrong my entire life and it all hit me. . . . I dropped the cigarette out of my mouth."
He knew then that he had to accept it, the Church and its teachings. And it was hard, Steve admits. The battle-hardened soldier who had served eight years in the military had to give up drinking, smoking, and not "chase after women" or "punch people in the face" anymore, but he did it. Steve changed his life for the gospel.
"I have personally seen how he has been softened by the Spirit," Heather says. "And I tell him, I say, 'It's not in a sissy way, Steve. It's in a Christlike way.'"
Eventually, Steve was baptized and joined the Church. And though he isn't sure what the future holds for him, he knows he has to keep trying, moving forward with the gospel and live its teachings. And it all started with the brave example of one 16-year-old girl.
"In the end of all things, and you die and your standing before God, what do you have left but your integrity?" Steve says. "And if He sees that throughout the entire time, you really tried, I think that's about the best you can do as a human being."
Learn more of Kennedy's incredible story in the life-changing movie Love, Kennedy.