Lawrence community mourns loss of Free State alum, athlete; his ‘light’ represented at vigil

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Following the recent sudden death of a young Lawrence man, friends on Saturday held a vigil at one of his favorite places, their cellphone lights symbolizing who he was to them.

Damani “Dash” Cleveland, 20, died unexpectedly last week in Lawrence, according to his grandmother, Njeri Shomari. He graduated with Free State High School’s Class of 2022.

“He lived a big and very bright life,” Shomari said. “When something happens unexpectedly like this, you know, we’re left with questions and no answers.”

Cleveland’s exact cause of death is undetermined, but Shomari said he “went to his heavenly home on Thursday, May 23, 2024.” Cleveland felt convicted about his faith and wanted to share it with others, something she said many found remarkable about him.

Damani “Dash” Cleveland (Contributed photo)

He was also a volunteer at Homeworks USA, which is co-owned by his great grandmother, Barbara Sabol. Located on family-owned land at 26050 Chieftain Road, the organization works to create and maintain affordable housing units for 18-year-olds aging out of foster care.

That’s where family, friends and community members gathered Saturday for a cellphone light vigil — because that place was “dear to his heart,” Shomari said.

“He believed in the mission and vision of Homeworks USA,” she said. “He was the heavy lifter. We used him for his strength.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Njeri Shomari, grandmother of Dash Cleveland

Takisha Derritt and Shauna Downing co-organized the vigil as a way to comfort the young people grieving. They’re both mothers of boys in a group of six best friends that included Cleveland.

“These kids are hurting,” Derritt said. “They are missing their brother, their friend, you know, and they need support right now from the community. They need these adults to love on them, you know, and hug them and tell them everything is going to be OK.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Friends and loved ones of Damani “Dash” Cleveland hold their cellphone lights up in tribute to Cleveland during the vigil Saturday.

More than 100 people in attendance Saturday exchanged hugs and words of comfort. Organizers shared grief and mental health resources with those in attendance.

Shomari, Derritt and Downing each spoke about memories of Cleveland, how proud of him they were, and what a light he was in their lives. Several family members also spoke.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Takisha Derritt speaks at the vigil.

‘His smile was so contagious’

An origin story goes that Cleveland and the five other boys in the group had a known hangout spot in high school — Downing’s basement. Eventually it earned them the name, “Basement Boys,” from students at their cross-town rival, Lawrence High School. The name just stuck, so Downing made it official with T-shirts.

Hosting the Basement Boys came naturally, Downing said. Her son and the other boys had played sports together and been friends for years, and their families looked out for each other. 

“Dash always brought the energy,” Downing said. “He is so bubbly, like he always had a smile on his face. He could come in and he’d be doing flips, and that was his presence when he entered the room. He might come in doing somersaults. That was him. He was a kid, so I would never say he’s perfect, but he definitely gave off love and positive energy.”

Dash isn’t his nickname solely because it’s an acronym for his full name, Damani Amiri Shomari Hughes Cleveland — his speed is also undeniable, his family and friends say. 

A concerned grandmother, Shomari remembers his early years of playing football and being worried he’d get hurt from getting tackled.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry, Nonna, they can’t catch me,’” Shomari said. “That spoke to his confidence in himself, and in his ability to play even before he was 10 years old.”

Cleveland continued playing football, and he played on a traveling basketball team, too. He lettered in both high school sports at Free State before graduating in 2022. Previously, he attended Liberty Memorial Central Middle School.

Dash Cleveland, center, cheers on his Free State teammates during a Feb. 18, 2022 basketball game against Lawrence High. (Courtesy of Mac Moore / KSHSAA Covered)

A post on the Free State football team’s Instagram page last week says, “Free State and the Firebird Football Family are heartbroken by the news of Dash Cleveland’s recent passing. Our thoughts go out to his many family and friends as they process this very difficult loss. Dash was a Free State alum from the class of ‘22 and will always be a (memorable) part of the fabric of Firebird Football. #2 on the field, #1 in our heart today.”

Several people from the Lawrence school district community were present at the vigil, including Demetrius Kemp, a Free State security guard who also volunteers throughout the community.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Demetrius Kemp speaks at the vigil.

Kemp said he’d known Cleveland since his freshman year at Free State in 2018. He was one of many who posted on social media about Cleveland following his death.

“I’m dealing with a death right now that is just not sitting right with me,” Kemp wrote in his Facebook post. “I just lost one of my young bulls Dash Cleveland, a young man that always had a smile on his face and was always willing to step in and lead … Whenever there was a problem in school with other students in a class or just in school Dash would step in and calm down the situation.”

During the vigil, a slideshow flicked between photos of Cleveland, showing him over the course of his life.

“We just love him and miss him so much — we really do,” Derritt said. “He was such a light, and his smile was so contagious and infectious.”

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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