COLUMBIA, SC — Kennedy Branham, whose sweet smile and upbeat attitude inspired countless prayers, lost her battle with brain cancer on Friday.
She was 14.
“Our sweet Kennedy is now with Jesus,” the family said in a statement. “She passed from this earth into His loving arms at 11:35 am today. She is now completely healed and pain free. Please pray for our family and our entire community as we prepare to celebrate her life!”
Soon after the Lexington girl was diagnosed with glioblastoma on her 13th birthday in February 2012, Pray4Kennedy signs and car magnets popped up all over the Midlands.
Pray they did – and more.
The Lexington High School baseball team dedicated two seasons to Kennedy, including this past year when the Wildcats won the state championship in a promise to "Finish It For Kennedy."
More than 3,000 people came together just a month ago to honor Kennedy and the inspiration she had been for others with a tribute at the new River Bluff High School. Chris Wooten organized that event.
At the USC-Clemson football game at the end of November, she was on the field, having her photo taken with several Gamecocks.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Wooten, a family friend for the past 10 years. “We know that she is not suffering anymore. We know she is better off. But the selfish side misses her.”
But on Dec. 7, she was admitted to Palmetto Health Children's Hospital after a series of seizures and fever spikes. She remained there for three weeks, until her death on Friday.
Beth McCrary, who lives across the street from Kennedy and her family, said Friday morning that the holidays had been "particularly tough" on the family. Realizing their beloved Kennedy was in her final days, unable to communicate or stay awake for long periods, left her family with no choice but to start making funeral plans.
"It feels like my heart is being ripped out of my chest," McCrary said Friday afternoon.
McCrary, who managed a "Pray 4 Kennedy" Facebook page with more than 11,000 followers, said friends and family learned just how special Kennedy was during the struggle.
Kennedy’s upbeat attitude and smile captured the hearts of the Lexington High School baseball team when, shortly after her diagnosis, she threw out the first pitch at one of their games.
“Kennedy came into our lives as this girl nobody knew, this girl who was going to throw out a first pitch,” said Lexington coach Brian Hucks. “And it turned into so much more. Our players attached to her. Our community attached to her. If you met her for two minutes, you saw what kind of spirit she had.”
The banner marking the Wildcats’ 2013 state title will feature a Kennedy reference, and “as long as I’m the coach here, every team is going to play for Kennedy,” Hucks said.
At the children's hospital, Kennedy used points she accumulated during treatments to "purchase" gifts and toys for younger children battling health problems.
She also asked to be allowed to distribute the free toys, books and games to other teenagers at the hospital through the "Happy Wheels" program. She was finally approved to be a part of the program, but was hospitalized two days before her first visit. She was never able to participate.
McCrary said people always asked what they could do for Kennedy or her family, and the answers never came easy.
"Don't ask," McCrary said. "Just do it. Whatever you are led to do, just do it."
McCrary said on Friday morning that donations to the "Happy Wheels" program would be one way people could honor Kennedy. The top shelf of the cart that travels the fifth floor, where children battling cancer and other blood disorders are treated, will be renamed "Kennedy's Kids." That shelf is for teenagers, who receive fewer gifts of books, games and toys than the younger children.
McCrary also said work is under way for a scholarship program through the Lexington Middle School PTA, probably for someone who wished to pursue an art career.
While too many children succumb to various forms of cancer, something about Kennedy especially touched everyone she came into contact with over the past two years.
When her cancer began to spread in November, about 3,000 people packed the River Bluff High School football stadium for a celebration to honor her.
Kennedy seemed happily awestruck by the attention throughout the past two years.
“I’m thankful that we have such a supportive community,” Kennedy said in an interview just days before Thanksgiving. “And I’m thankful for God. I’m thankful for family and friends. I’m thankful for the curiosity and the generosity, the love and support.”
From the start, medical logic said the cancer eventually would take Kennedy’s life. But instead, it gave her life more impact. At the River Bluff event, multiple speakers noted how Kennedy had brought the community together, prompting people to slow down and appreciate life.
On that frigid Sunday night, hundreds of cheerleaders and baseball players from several middle and high schools, along with the University of South Carolina, formed a corridor for Kennedy to enter the field on a golf cart. She sat in her favorite easy chair under a blanket, where she smiled broadly and waved to the crowd as she listened to tributes and songs.
“She’s never cried about it,” said Erin Branham, Kennedy’s mother. “She’s asked why, but she’s never crying or upset or been sad because she’s always taking the positive route. It’s never stopped her.”