Canton honors the vibrant life of the late Raheim Nelson
By John Fitts
CANTON - That he was both a dream and a dreamer was abundantly clear as the Canton community gathered the evening of Jan. 5 to celebrate the life of Raheim Dantae Barry Nelson.
Since Raheim, 17, along with his mother, Faye Dawson-Judkins, 52, died in a Christmas morning crash in West Hartford, it’s become clear just how much he affected the Canton High School community, despite only coming to the school this fall.
“The tremendous impact he made was powerful, not only on the athletic field, but in the hallways, the cafeteria and the classrooms,” Canton High School Principal Drew DiPippo said at the community remembrance Jan. 5, also noting that the community was also mourning the loss of Dawson-Judkins.
Certainly, the soccer field – or the football pitch as they would likely call it in his native country of Jamaica - was a place of great joy for Raheim. His love of the game, the fundraising activities of his teammates and the tributes to #Forever14 in honor of his jersey number have been front and center in Canton and well beyond since Raheim’s death. Just a few days before the memorial, the soccer team organized a tournament and fundraiser to help the family with funeral expenses.
On the field he was “Raheim the Dream,” a name that came very early in the practice sessions this fall when Canton’s boys soccer assistant coach John Manners noticed his speed on the field.
“[John Manners] looked at the kid and said, ‘he’s a dream, do you see how fast he is?’” CHS Boys Soccer head coach Bill Phelps said at the gathering, which included a ceremony in the Canton High School gym and a candlelight vigil on the turf field. “And what a dream he was.”
Raheim’s trademark smile was full bore whenever he walked on the field and his love of soccer was infectious.
Science teacher Anthony Pereiro noted that he was never really a fan of the sport until he had Raheim as his student.
“The way he explained it was so enthusiastic, it made me want to get the know the sport a little more and I looked forward to watching him play,” Pereiro said.
Several years before he came to the United States in 2020, Raheim attended a soccer camp and didn’t do so well, his brother, Ricardo Allen, said. He came home and asked Allen, who served as Raheim’s guardian after their mother came to the United States in 2015, to buy him the cones and other equipment used at the camp. Raheim had observed the activities so closely that he was able to practice the drills on his own and vastly improve his game.
In the United States, Raheim furthered his soccer skills, first at Weaver High School and then in Canton, which he came to after hearing the positive feedback from his cousin Khalil Thomas, now a CHS senior.
“He was always smiling; he was always working hard,” Phelps said. “He never questioned why he came out of the game until after the game was over and then he asked 'what do you need me to do to get better?' so he could play more. He never took credit for a great play. He came to us with incredible talent, speed and love for the game of soccer. He learned very quickly that he did not have to do everything by himself. He had a team of great players with him.”
And Raheim’s joy for life carried over to every aspect of his life.
His English teacher, Leigh Connole, told those gathered about the “boy who dreamed” as she noted just how much Raheim brightened the room each day” as she talked about his humility, kindness, drive and dedication, sense of humor and knack for sparking curiosity in others.
At the end of her remarks, she summed it up: “What can you say about the boy who dreamed? You can say that he lived a beautiful life, and he bettered the lives of all of us who knew him. Raheim- we will miss you.”
Many of his teammates spoke at the ceremony and each one emphasized Raheim’s love of the game, and more importantly, his character and friendship.
Captain Jake Dean shared a story about a soccer game against Granby in which the score was tied 0-0 at half time. In the second half Raheim quickly scored two goals.
“Seeing Raheim celebrate by dancing and laughing with the team will forever stick with me,” he said. “Moments like this are the way that I and many more will remember Raheim.”
Khalil Thomas shared several thoughts with those gathered, including the world’s profound loss on Christmas Day.
“[The world] lost a hard-working, strong willed kind-hearted, curious young man that wanted nothing but the best for himself, his friends, his teammates and, above all else, his mother,” he said.
More than anything, Khalil said it was his cousin’s “appreciation for all that this life offered” that he would miss the most.
Khalil shared about the way his cousin’s life – and some encouragement from a classroom assignment – led to his deep reflection on that very subject.
“If there’s anything I’d like you all to gain from the life and death of Raheim Nelson, it’s to be thankful for each and every day, to be here and have a chance to live this life because, like Raheim, you never know when life will end. Not every day is a guarantee.”
According to Allen, Raheim even carried that over to his work as a waiter at Duncaster, where he made a habit of always talking to people about their lives, their work and what led to them down their chosen path. He was always trying to better himself as was his mother, who had just recently completed her Certified Nursing Assistant Certification and was working toward being a nurse, Allen said.
During the evening Phelps shared how as a teen he had lost his best friend to cancer. The boy’s dad told him that good would come out of what the two shared – words that have proved true in so many ways for Phelps.
Phelps also said he’s dealt with death far too often in his career as a teacher and a coach but also said that life is better having known Raheim.
“What if I never met Raheim? I would not have been here talking today but I would have missed out on a great experience, getting to know a great young man named Raheim. That is his gift to me and to all of us,” Phelps said. “The gift that we all lived - coaching, playing soccer, laughing with him, talking to him, dancing with him, a gift that will stay with me forever how lucky am I to have this gift. … Find the good in this tragedy because the good is he will always be with us.”
Raheim’s family is thankful for the overwhelming support the Canton community has offered.
His aunt, Latoya Gordon, talked about how that support goes back to when her daughter Kyra, a 2018 CHS graduate, first attended Canton and continued when Khalil came to the school.
“Tonight is a reminder that we really love it here and we never felt like that family from Hartford,” she said. “It felt like we lived here.”
She gave other specific instances – and thanks to individuals - and said she can never fully express her gratitude for how the community has come together for Raheim’s entire family in the wake of the tragedy.
“I just want to thank each and every one of you for the outpouring of support and love you have given to our family,” she said. “You have helped us through this process."
Raheim’s brother also expressed his appreciation to the community and the message about his impact at Canton High School.
“[Raheim] would always say that ‘I’m going to make you proud,’” Allen said. “That’s what he said but I did not know that he would make me proud in this manner - to see so many people whose lives he has touched in so many different ways. I did not know this is what he meant but ultimately, I am happy. I’m happy that he has made me proud … He has made us proud and he is somewhere out there looking down, smiling and happy that he did his part.”
Those who want to support the family can do so at https://gofund.me/f01e9f44.
Following are the words of Canton High School teacher Leigh Connole about Raheim:
‘What can you say about the boy who dreamed?
That his smile brightened the room each day you greeted him at the classroom door.
That he was charismatic and genuine; humble and kind.
That he was considerate to all, no matter the unlikely partnership or shy group dynamic.
That he could bring a smile to onlookers’ faces with a funny video, a quick-witted joke, or a gesture among friends.
That he could make you burst into laughter while donning a blue tutu and posing with friends for a game-day picture.
That it was easy to admire his drive and dedication to his education;
that his peers took notice, and he was a role model for them in this capacity.
That his desire to learn, to improve, to grow, made him a joy to teach.
That he consistently reminded me why I value my relationships with students and love being a teacher.
That he looked at life in ways that sparked curiosity in others.
That he reminded us to live every day with integrity and to follow our heart in pursuit of our dreams.
What can you say about the boy who dreamed? You can say that he lived a beautiful life, and he bettered the lives of all of us who knew him. Raheim- we will miss you.”