When Love, Kennedy came to theaters in June, everyone was drawn to Kennedy Hansen, a girl with juvenile Batten's disease who had a faith and love that conquered trials, who believed in the power of prayer, and who still fulfilled her dream of being a cheerleader despite all she faced. Her influence and testimony have changed many lives for the better, including the Velasquez family. And while the Velasquez family's conversion story is a subplot in Love, Kennedy, there's more to the story than meets the eye.
A Struggling Family
Though Lance Velasquez grew up a member of the Church, life events led him down a path of anger towards God and onto a precipice of almost not believing in any Higher Power. "I grew up in Brigham City, and there was a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of people that I know drank and smoked and then they would go to church on Sunday," Lance explains. "So I had a very bad impression of the Church."
But there was another reason for his reluctance to believe in the gospel. He explains, "I have pancreatic cancer, and my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer. I was extremely mad at God for that, and I wasn't afraid to tell anybody." This longtime perspective meant missionaries and talk of the gospel were not allowed in the Velasquez home. Little did the family know, however, that a friendship with one teen would change everything.
Getting to Know Kennedy
When the Fremont High cheer squad made the decision to fulfill the dreams of Kennedy Hansen, whose health was rapidly declining, by making her a part of the team, none of the girls anticipated how much Kennedy would impact their lives.
Kennedy's spirit of positivity and her faith made a huge impact on many of the cheerleaders, particularly on Lance's daughter Alexis (Lexi).
"[Kennedy] was very spiritual and she did talk about Christ a lot," Lexi shares. "She was always, always praying, so that's how I was introduced into all of it."
But Lexi wasn't the only member of her family who felt there was something special about Kennedy.
"I was drawn to Kennedy for some reason," Lance says. "I would see Kennedy every day when I dropped my daughters off at school and I was drawn to her."
"It all started when [Kennedy] asked me to pray," Lexi says. "Me and a couple of other cheerleaders were at her house, and Jayden [Kennedy's not-so-secret-crush] wasn't calling her back and so she said that we had to say a prayer that he would call her back because she missed him. And so she made me do it—she pointed to me and she was like, 'you have to pray' and so I did and I had no idea how to do it because my family had never been religious. So I did, and then Jayden called her. I was like 'What? There's no way . . . that's not a coincidence.'"
Lexi's interest in her friend's religion and faith continued to grow, until the day Kennedy passed away. "The day Jason [Kennedy's father] believed that [Kennedy] was going to die, the whole cheer team came. We all gathered around her and we each got a turn to go up to her and tell her whatever we wanted to say to say goodbye and we all sang to her our team song." Lexi continues, "There's something with this situation with Kennedy because she had talked to me. She wasn't speaking at all when we circled around her and each got individual time with her. [But] I asked her, when it was my turn, 'Did you choose this?' and she said clear as day, 'Yes.'"
That was a turning point for Lexi, who determined that anything Kennedy felt that strongly about was something she wanted to know more about. She remembers telling her mother that exact thing after leaving her dying friend's house: "On the way home, I was in the car with my mom and I told her, 'I want to learn more about the Church, Mom. . . . We need to learn more about this. I would love if we did it as a family, but personally, I'm going to, even if I have to do it by myself."
The Velasquez family at the screening of Love, Kennedy, in which part of their conversion story is told.
The night that Kennedy passed away, Lexi's desire to learn more about the Church was confirmed in a very sacred way—through a visit from her friend Kennedy. Lexi recalls, "I came home crying, and I was crying forever. I felt pressure on my bed like someone was sitting next to me, and I felt my hand being grabbed. I was scared at first, I was really scared, [but] without real words coming out, I heard [Kennedy's voice] in my head that missionaries were coming, that we needed to listen to them, and that so many blessings would come. . . . I felt the pressure go off the bed and I felt my hand being released. I sat up in my bed. [Kennedy] wasn't facing me, but she was facing the other way and was just crying. She [said], 'Be strong, Alexis. You just have to be strong.' Then I closed my eyes and she was gone."
Though Lexi kept this experience close to her heart, little did she know how quickly her friend's words would be fulfilled. A month after Kennedy passed away, the missionaries knocked on the Velasquez door. With Lance not at home, Lexi, her mother, and her sister invited the young men in to share their message. But things got a little heated when Lance arrived and saw the missionaries in his house. But as the two elders bore testimony to the family, Lance's heart was softened. "There was a missionary from Finland that told me that he was not told to come to my house, he was guided. He also told me that the adversary had me exactly where he wanted me," Lance says. "Now I understand when I get upset that it's the adversary working on me."
The family started taking the lessons soon after, and Alexis, her mother and sister, LaTaschia and Alyssa, were baptized.
The Velasquez family still has their challenges, with Lance still battling terminal cancer, but all in all, Lexi says their family is more unified and knows that Heavenly Father is watching out for them.
Her father agrees. "Through [Lexi's] cheer, I met Jason and Heather [Kennedy's parents]. Jason was my power and strength and I would run into him in the strangest places. And every time I got discouraged, it seemed like he would show up and help me. . . . Our stake president shows up the same time when I need the most help. You know, it's a true meaning, that God's there and He's watching out for me."
As they are striving to go to the temple as a family, the Velasquez family continues to push forward with faith and love each other. And they remain extremely grateful for the testimony and love of their angel friend.
"I feel very lucky that it was me [that Kennedy visited]," Lexi says, "but I really do think that [my family] needed it. I know we needed it, from where we were to where we are now."
To watch more of the Velasquez family's conversion and the life of Kennedy Hansen, don't miss Love, Kennedy, a new film now available at deseretbook.com.