By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
When Sara Elizabeth Kennedy passed away on March 23, 2005 – just months before she was to graduate from Berea Community High School – nobody could predict what an impact her life would make on individuals seven years later and more than 2,000 miles away.
Sara’s parents, Eddie and Norma Kennedy, were contacted this summer by Damian Sullivan, executive producer of Couples Therapy, a reality television show on VH1.
The show chronicles celebrity couples as they receive relationship counseling. Sullivan also is the creator of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
As part of the way the series is created, Eddie said, real-life stories are chosen for special segments to show celebrity couples “the power of love — how through being together, couples can get through tragedy.”
The Kennedys flew to Hollywood in August to tape Sara’s story for VH1. Eddie spent two sleepless nights reviewing home video of Sara filmed before and during her illness. The home video would become part of the segment and was shipped overnight to Los Angeles prior to the Kennedys’ departure.
Eddie and Norma watched the completed package for the first time while sitting down with the five celebrity couples at the former home of Frank Sinatra, where the show is taped. This episode will air Wednesday (Nov. 21) at 10 p.m. on VH1.
But the story doesn’t end there.
One country song serendipitously brought together all the right people to catapult Sara’s story to a national audience.
That had been their goal all along, Eddie said, to take Sara’s story to a national level and help children and families who have been through similar situations.
A fund was established shortly after Sara’s death to initially help the family with medical bills, Eddie said. A benefit was planned by friends, family and community members at Union Church in Berea.
The event took off, and the annual SaraCare Celebration continues to raise funds to support the work of the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital and the Pediatric Oncology Clinic.
One project, initiated by Sara before her death, was to provide remote-control televisions with DVD/VCR players in all rooms of the children’s hospital. As of May 2006, the SaraCare Fund has done just that.
By November 2007, more than $50,000 had been donated through SaraCare.
“It’s about our Sara, but it’s bigger than Sara,” Eddie said.
How it all came together
When brainstorming about a segment for Couples Therapy, Damian Sullivan recalled the Rascal Flatts hit single “Skin” — unofficially named “Sarabeth” after the song’s young heroine.
The song tells a story of a girl who discovers she has leukemia.
“Sarabeth is scared to death/ To hear what the doctors will say,” the song begins.
Later in the song, Sarabeth loses her hair. Through a show of solidarity, Sarabeth’s prom date shaves his head and “Softly she touches just skin … And her very first true love is holding her close/And for a moment she isn’t scared.”
The producer went home that afternoon, typed “real-life Sarabeth” in the online search bar and the SaraCare website popped up, Sullivan said Friday.
He immediately dialed the SaraCare phone line and left a message. Days later, the Kennedys tracked him down.
“Skin” had been a hidden track at the end of Rascal Flatt’s 2004 album, Feels Like Today, but eventually became a single that peaked at No. 2 on the US Billboard Country Chart in late 2005.
The song had striking similarities to “our Sara’s” story, Eddie said.
After just ten months, “our Sara” succumbed to Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancerous tumor of the muscles, with no known causes and only several hundred new cases reported a year in the U.S., according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
“Our Sara” also was crowned BCS homecoming queen in the fall of 2004 and was pictured wearing her crown with no hair and no wig, similar to the girl in the song.
However, the song was not “the true story of a girl from Kentucky,” as suggested by Wikipedia.
But someone from Madison County thought there might be a connection, so they wrote a letter to the editor of Country Weekly, a country music magazine out of Nashville.
The song was not about the girl from Kentucky, the editor wrote, but it had been associated with her.
Eddie and Norma contacted Country Weekly and the editor agreed to pass along a letter they prepared for the writers of “Skin,” Doug Johnson and Joe Henry.
In their letter, the Kennedys asked for an autographed photo to auction at the 2006 SaraCare Celebration.
Doug Johnson and his wife Lisa contacted the Kennedys just a few days later and said, instead, Doug would autograph the handwritten lyrics to “Skin” and would like to come to Berea and be a part of SaraCare.
The Johnsons brought along Lee Brice, who performed the demo of “Skin” and whose version is used in the Couples Therapy segment, Eddie said.
Lee Brice’s song “Hard to Love” is No. 1 on the CMT Top 20 Countdown as of Friday.
“The Johnsons have become a great part of our lives,” Eddie said. “We love them, they love us, and they will do anything for SaraCare — that’s just who they are.”
Years later, Sullivan didn’t know it when he first dialed the SaraCare line, but “something about Eddie and Norma just opens doors,” he said.
Trying to incorporate famous music in his show would be difficult, the producer said. “When dealing with giant recording industries, ordinarily it’s a daunting task to get clearance for usage.”
However, permission was hastened by the friendship that began between the Kennedys and Johnsons six years ago along with the inspirational message of the story of “our Sara.”
“These were total strangers, whose lives were intersected by accident, but had parallel connections in every single way — it was almost eerie,” Sullivan said.
“The extra element is really the twist,” he said. “It is a testament to the fact, in this life, there are no strangers, just friends you haven’t met yet.”
Celebrities in Berea
Viewers will have to wait until Wednesday to see the Kennedys hanging out with Hollywood celebrities. But Hollywood celebrities were not the only things Eddie was “rubbing elbows” with.
“The idea of me rubbing my elbows on the Rat Pack’s bar,” Eddie remembered with a smile.
This season of Couples Therapy was filmed in a home Sinatra occupied for nearly a decade. Sinatra famously used to sublet the guesthouse to Marilyn Monroe.
In a December 2011 Forbes article, the home’s Realtor, Lynn Teschner said, “If walls could talk, this house has had more celebrities in it than just about any other house in Los Angeles.”
The celebrities in Couples Therapy live in this home for several weeks and are counseled by “Dr. Jenn” Berman, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles.
The show featuring the Kennedys will be the ninth and last episode before the second-season finale.
“The celebrity couples were all in tears,” Sullivan said. He discussed the episode with Dr. Jenn a few days ago who told him, “Statistically, the majority of couples that lose a child, their marriage ends in divorce. But it’s just the opposite with Eddie and Norma. They are stronger than ever and they rely on each other.”
One of the couples “sent a really big check” to SaraCare, Sullivan said. And “there may be more celebrities coming that way this year” to attend SaraCare in April.
“A lot of people think Hollywood is a magical place to be, but I look at Eddie Kennedy and his life, and he seems to be the happiest and most successful man I’ve ever met,” he said.
Doug Johnson told Eddie he always thought “Skin” had a higher purpose and that he realized now that it is “our Sara’s” song.
So when Eddie called his friend to say a Hollywood producer wanted to use the song in a reality show, he said “Doug, you’re not going to believe this, but the power of your song eight years later …”
But Doug replied, “What it is really — is that Sara’s not through with her work.”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.