I’m sure most, if not all, of us have experienced the loss of a loved one. My mom and I are no different. February 1st, 2008, my brother – Johnny Leroy Dawkins, Jr. – turned 25 years old. While we sent our birthday wishes and celebrated his day, there was no way of knowing this would be the last birthday we would celebrate with him here with us physically. On July 26th, 2008 – only five, almost six, months later – my brother’s life was abruptly and tragically taken as a result of gun violence.
Anyone who knew my brother knew he was Mr. Popular! He had an infectious personality; he was the life of the party and could make just about anyone feel comfortable around him. Knowing Johnny for even one day you’d think you knew him for a lifetime. He was an all-around athlete, homecoming king, great son, brother, nephew, cousin, friend and two of his greatest accomplishments – the father to two amazing children (Jayden and Leeleean). So, as you can imagine, our lives took a drastic turn when we learned of his tragic death. We all knew our lives would never be the same. If I didn’t understand it then, now as a mother myself, I certainly understand now that no parent wants to receive that call about the fatality of a child. Parents plan for their children to bury them, not the other way around, so I can only imagine the pain my mom and dad felt in that moment. For my mom and me, time almost stood still. It was as if the first week after Johnny’s death was one long day. It felt as if God had literally wrapped us in a bubble full of comfort and peace that protected us from being consumed by all the emotions that could potentially take us out. After the dust settled, funeral arrangements were made and carried out, all the well-wishers and guests stopped coming by so frequently and we had to get back to “life as we knew it.” That’s when the reality hit us that Johnny was no longer on Earth with us physically and it truly sunk in.
During my brother’s funeral service, we made sure there was no sad songs to create a gloomy atmosphere because that did not represent Johnny’s life. He was vibrant and full of life and that’s what we wanted on display. We couldn’t hold the service at a church because there was not one large enough in Lexington that we had access to that could hold all the people who planned on attending. So, we held it at the Civic Center where hundreds of people attended. Johnny’s classmates showed up in great numbers and were so supportive. At the end of the service the pastor made an altar call inviting attendees to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior – there was over a hundred people who came to the altar that day. It was such a heartwarming experience for my family and me. It was a reflection of the impact my brother had on people; he had this effect on people that just drew them in. My mom and I realized we couldn’t just let Johnny’s life be a vapor of smoke – here one day and gone the next. We had to find purpose in the loss. We had to find a way to allow his legacy to live on with a genuine and heartfelt impact. After much consideration, we decided how we wanted to honor him, and the Johnny Leroy Dawkins, Jr. Scholarship Fund was born.
January 2010, almost two years after my brother’s death, my mom and I were hard at work bringing this idea to life. We decided our first fundraiser would be a community fish-fry. That April, we carried out our plans and were so humbled by the support we received from the community, family and friends. We raised enough to give two young men $500 each in scholarship awards. The fish-fry has become an annual event, and over the past 10 years, the community has not let us down. We’ve been able to raise between $1000 – $1500 each year, and now as we complete the process to become an established 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we are confident we will double, triple, quadruple our efforts.
Our mission states, “Honoring the legacy of our loved one by investing in the higher education of male graduating seniors – African American, Indigenous and People of Color – while joining the fight against gun violence.” We intend to carry out this mission as long as the Lord allows and as we continue to receive support. It is our heart’s desire to also encourage anyone who is dealing with the pain from the loss of a loved one and you find it difficult to move forward with a purposeful life full of joy. After you’ve given yourself a sufficient amount of time to mourn, take a moment to find purpose in the loss and find a way to honor the life of that loved one. It will bring healing to your soul and, even in death, bring purpose for that life.
Dia Nyarko was born and raised in Lexington, NC graduating from Lexington Senior High School and receiving her bachelor’s degree in Finance & Banking from Appalachian State University. She now works in project management for a financial institution, is the Co-Founder of the Johnny Leroy Dawkins Jr Scholarship Fund, a YouTube Content Creator, a certified notary, and more proudly a wife and mother enjoying her journey every step of the way!