Leyla Wengari Dubs being congratulated by one of the Live Like DJ Scholarship Fund founders, Dwon Fields, Sr. TIM WOOD

Leyla Wangari Dubs has already made her mark on Bluffton as a standout for the Bluffton High School girls soccer team. Her accomplishments on the field and in the classroom were likely enough to win her many local scholarships.

But it is the courage to reach out for help, to share her story of loss and perseverance, that makes Dubs stand out as a next-generation community leader. She is one of six area high school seniors chosen to be part of the inaugural class of Live Like DJ Scholars.

Dubs joins fellow Bobcats Rita Ella Anderson (headed to the University of Miami) and Robert Brown (USC), Hilton Head Island High School’s Ella Maldonado (Vanderbilt), May River High School’s Alora Orr (Duke) and Wade Hampton High School’s Charmane Orr (USC-Upstate) as the 2022 recipients of the scholarship named in honor of Dwon Fields, Jr. – or DJ as everyone knew him.

Fields died in March 2021, the victim of a drive-by shooting as he was driving home with friends on Bluffton Parkway.

As Bluffton High School classmates dealt with the overwhelming loss of their native son and star of the Class of 2021, Dubs was one of those trying to deal with the grieving process. She reached out to her long-time dance class teacher, Beth Herring, to share a secret she’d held in for too long.

“I had taught Leyla since freshman year; she was the light of any room she was in, just like DJ,” Herring said. “But around the start of junior year, she went inward, became much more quiet and started missing a lot of school. So we knew something was up, we just didn’t know what.”

Leyla’s secret was immense. She was dealing with depression as the result of losing her father, Michael, a Bluffton firefighter who died of heart failure and pneumonia in September 2020 at the age of 56.

“Just to get out of her head with all that pain, I think it helped her recalibrate – but then the unthinkable happened,” Herring said.

In August 2021, her mother Leah died four days after a drunk-driving accident near their Red Cedar Street home, leaving Leyla and her sisters, 12-year-old Sarah and nine-year-old Keyla, without family.

“My Mom, she was a wonderful woman, but she battled addiction for much of her life,” Leyla said of her mother. “My Dad, he’s my hero. He tried to shelter us from as much as he could. He got me in to soccer and gave me an outlet and place to really shine and focus my energy. Losing them … me, Sarah and Keyla, we had no one else.”

The idea of college at that point was a distant pipe dream. Her immediate mission was to graduate, turn 18 and file for custody and a kinship adoption of her sisters.

The family’s long-time neighbors, Maggie and Zach Yelton, wanted to step in and adopt the three Dubs girls to join their two biological kids, nine-year-old Napp and four-year-old Sally.

“It was just this blessing that is so hard to trust and truly believe. We always loved them as people, but for them to want to do this for my family – there are just no words to express the gratitude,” Leyla said of becoming this new blended family.

Once word spread of this new family unit, Michael’s extended family at the Bluffton Township Fire District began holding fundraisers to support the new Dubs-Yelton family.

In many respects, it is a storybook next chapter after years of struggle and loss. Dubs lost much of her childhood playing surrogate mother to her sisters as her Dad’s health failed and her Mom battled her inner demons.

But the past year has presented a whole new set of challenges.

“I was still battling this depression, so many dark days. So much shame in feeling this way, so many mixed emotions,” Leyla said. “I missed my parents so much, I was angry for not having them. I was thankful for the Yeltons, but we didn’t grow up with much structure in our house. I set the rules a lot of the time. Now, we had structure and religion and it was just a lot to process. I felt guilty for feeling happy about this new life, I felt guilty about feeling resentful of this new structure. It was just so much pressure.”

Herring and a host of other friends and supporters from Bluffton High School showed Dubs that everything she was feeling was alright to feel.

“You know, when I first heard of Michael dying and then Leah, my first thought is, ‘I will take these girls in. They deserve to thrive,’” Herring said. “To see Leyla show up to fall registration with the Yeltons and to hear they had taken her in, I just broke down in tears of joy right there in the hall. But it’s a lot. She has been through so much loss, so much pain.

“We just all let her know we didn’t have the answers for what’s next, for the why of it all. But she just needed to talk,” Herring said. “It’s OK to be sad, to be grateful, to be mad, whatever the emotion, it was OK. There was no playbook for this. But she created her own path. She is the strongest person I have ever known.”

The first holiday season without her parents, the first Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were brutal for the teen. Dubs said that even with all the support, all the positives, she still cries herself to sleep many nights.

“I’m excited to go to college. I want to open my own physical therapy business back here someday,” she said. “But the thought of leaving my sisters, it’s paralyzing at times. But I know it’s all for a bigger good, a better life. And most of the time, the thought of that makes me smile.”

Dubs will be joined at USC-Upstate by fellow Live Like DJ Scholar Charmane Orr. DJ’s dad, Dwon, said that on top of her new blended family, Dubs now has a slew of new families.

“She is part of my family now, these six kids that are DJ Scholars, they are amazing kids, such bright futures. This is a bond now for them,” Fields said. “I have family up in Greenville that are going to be her guardian angels. She has a tentpole, she has folks she can lean on wherever she goes now.

“All of these kids, they shared incredible stories of perseverance and reaching for their dreams,” Fields said. “To be without DJ, it is hourly pain. It never goes away. But to see the idea of his legacy living on, to see it coming true through these young adults, it is truly something special.”

Dubs said that being given the chance to honor DJ with the scholarship is an amazing honor and a chance to show others that dreams are always within reach.

“Losing DJ, losing my parents, it is crippling, it is not right. To see the strength DJ’s Mom and Dad have shown, it helps push me to keep seeing the bigger picture of the life that’s ahead for us,” Dubs said. “The why, the past, it hurts, it’s hard to process. I will always keep the memory of my parents alive and honor them like I will honor DJ and the Fields family. I’m so happy for what’s ahead and so grateful for the chance to experience it.”

To donate to the Live Like DJ Scholarship Fund, go to djsdayofgiving.com.

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.