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Family tries to "hold on to the happy memories' of 4-year-old girl who drowned in Hillsborough River

Photos by LUIS SANTANA   |   Times The casket of 4-year-old Je\u2019Hyrah Daniels is escorted out of the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church by her father and other family members. Police say she died after her mother carried her into the Hillsborough River and let her drown.
Photos by LUIS SANTANA | Times The casket of 4-year-old Je\u2019Hyrah Daniels is escorted out of the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church by her father and other family members. Police say she died after her mother carried her into the Hillsborough River and let her drown.
Published Aug. 12, 2018

TAMPA — Johnny Neal said he arrived home from walking his friend's dog Tuesday to three missed calls.

Je'Hyrah Daniels, who drowned in the Hillsborough River last week after police say her mother carried her into its depths, would be remembered in Tampa on Saturday, said the caller, Daniels' grandfather. He wanted Neal to sing at her funeral.

So Neal arrived at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church on Cypress Street on Saturday and sang at a funeral he said was unlike any he'd ever attended.

Neal began the service with a song, Soon And Very Soon:

"Should there be any rivers we must cross / Should there be any mountains we must climb /

God will supply all the strength that we need / Give us grace 'til we reach the other side."

***

Laying a child of 4 to rest is never easy, but Je'Hyrah's funeral was especially complicated. Complicated by the absence of her mother, Shakayla Denson, who remained in custody after a judge denied her bail on Wednesday. Complicated by the charges she faces surrounding her daughter's death: first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse. Complicated by the lack of an answer about what brought Denson to the waters of the Hillsborough, her daughter in her arms.

And about what brought Denson to leave her there.

"Shakayla's parenting would never have caused us to see her as an unloving mother," Grenisia West, said in an interview. She said she is Denson's cousin and spoke at the funeral. "It's hard to even formulate a complete thought at this point."

But by all accounts — media were not allowed into the service — the outpouring of love for Je'Hyrah shone through the fog of unanswered questions Saturday.

Dozens gathered in the church sanctuary to remember the joyful girl whose love of Disney musicals was reflected by the funeral program decorated with images of "Rio" and "Frozen." Many wore traditional black; others dressed in homemade T-shirts bearing Je'Hyrah's smiling face. Most sported colorful ribbons to raise awareness for autism — with which the non-verbal Je'Hyrah lived.

Virtually all of Je'Hryah's extended family, including her father, Jedaric Daniels, crowded into the church. Friends and well-wishers watched as a speaker remembered Je'Hyrah with a poem that told of the child lighting up at the song Let it Go. The service included a scripture from Pastor Brian Dozier about the need for a spiritual awakening and The Corinthian Song, sung by Neal.

"I am troubled, yet not distressed / Perplexed, but not in despair /

I'm a vessel full of power / With a treasure, none can compare."

***

After the 90-minute service, Je'Hyrah's loved ones followed the hearse carrying her body to her final resting place, Tampa's Rest Haven Memorial Park Cemetery.

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Attendees gathered there to comfort each other, take photos and reflect on Saturday's service.

"I've just wanted to hold on to the happy memories, because it was so tragic," said West, who said Je'Hyrah's mother was like a sister to her growing up in Tampa.

Now her family, which has been so irreparably torn, must face what comes next.

"Whatever information is presented to us, we just want to use that to raise awareness," West said. "And maybe we can use that to prevent another tragedy."

Although Je'Hyrah's death was a tragedy, Neal said, he believes God took her before she ran out of breath at the bottom of the Hillsborough River.

"I don't believe that he would let a child suffer," Neal said.