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Dozens of Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School students received their hard-earned diplomas on Saturday.

One of those graduates, 18-year-old Saniya Duley, took to Instagram and Facebook, on Thursday, to share her senior photos and to talk about what high school graduation means to her.

Her message on social media began, in part, “First, I most definitely want to thank God for allowing me to meet such a major milestone in my life that I didn’t think I would be alive to meet. At an early age I experienced some of worst trauma any child could go through and as I got older I dealt with even more trauma throughout all my years of school. Because my life was basically an open book for the whole world to see, I’ve had a lot of eyes watching me curious to know where I am now. If only y’all really knew my story and all it entails you would understand why this alone means so much to me.”

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Saniya Duley

Saniya Duley displays a painting inspired by her titled “Fire Heart.” Duley graduates in the Orangeburg-Wilkinson class of 2023. Thirteen years ago, her young brothers were killed by their mother in a case that gripped the nation.

The teen with the confident smile said she’s motivated by her two brothers – Devean Christopher, just a couple of weeks shy of turning 3, and Ja’van Tyrell, 18 months – who were killed by their mother on Aug. 16, 2010.

Saniya Duley was only 5 years old when her brothers were killed.

She has a decorative graduate cap topper that she plans to wear at graduation celebrations.

The topper says, “I almost gave up, but I remembered who was watching.”

Her brothers’ initials are also on the topper.

Shaquan Renee Duley was 29 years old when she suffocated little Devean and Ja’van at the Trumps Inn motel on Five Chop Road in Orangeburg before strapping their lifeless bodies into their car seats and driving them in her car to Shillings Bridge Road.

From there, Shaquan Duley put her Dodge sedan in neutral and sent the car into the North Edisto River, staging it to look like her sons drowned. Investigators said from the start that it didn’t look like an accident, as she’d initially claimed.

Orangeburg County Coroner Samuetta Marshall said then that the two little boys died of asphyxiation prior to when their bodies were submerged in the water.

As the investigation went on, Shaquan Duley told authorities that she was suffering from depression and that she’d gotten into an argument with a family member about her children.

Saniya Duley was at her grandparents’ house, where they all resided off of Whaley Street in Orangeburg, when the incident occurred.

Shaquan Duley is now 41 and she’s serving a 35-year prison term after she pleaded guilty to murdering her sons.

Orangeburg tragedy shocks nation in 2010

She’ll be 63 when she’s expected to be released from prison in August 2045. Saniya Duley will be 40.

Saniya Duley said she talks to her mom on the phone nearly every day.

“I love hearing her voice,” she said.

“Our relationship, we’re working on it,” she added.

The past 13 years have had its challenges, she said.

Saniya Duley has been working through depression episodes over time.

She even attempted to commit suicide a few times over the years, she said.

She also tried to cope with her emotional pain by cutting herself.

“When I was younger, I did have some failed suicide attempts and then cutting turned into a habit for me, so I did not think I’d be able to make it to graduation because I was just so overwhelmed with everything else,” she said.

“I got bullied for a long time because of this and my weight,” she said.

“So being able to walk across the stage after my failed attempts and wanting to give up, it really means a lot to me,” she said.

“Growing up, I felt like, in a way, I was suffering the consequences of my mom’s actions,” she said.

“But the absence of my mother and my father, because my father’s not in my life at all, that was really hard,” she said.

It was increasingly difficult when her peers talked about their moms and dads – and even their younger siblings.

“And then there’s me,” she said.

“My life was put on blast before I could really understand myself,” she said, “so dealing with that, that was really tough.”

Her brothers are fondly on her mind daily.

“Ja’van was very quiet, but anytime he was playing or anything, he would light up a lot,” she said.

“Devean, on the other hand, Devean was very interactive. He wanted to talk. He wanted to be active all the time. He loved cars, he really loved cars,” she said.

“He was kind of like my twin, he looked like me,” she added.

“Both of them, they were very smart; very, very smart. Very intelligent, quiet, didn’t cause any problems,” she said.

“I miss them a lot. I really do,” she said.

“Before, I used to get really emotional about it,” she added.

She’s found strength over the years, she said.

Where? Her trust in God and the love of her grandmother.

“My grandma. My grandma, she prays a lot. She prays a lot on my behalf. Even when I’m not consistent doing it, I know my grandma is always in her room praying for me,” she said.

“My godfather, Mr. (Hayward) Jean, he prays a lot too,” she said.

She also noted she has lots of support from family and friends.

“God has given me a lot of strength. I’m 18 now, so I’ve come a long way,” she said.

She said over the years, people have asked her questions about her brothers’ tragic deaths.

“You don’t know who’s genuine,” she said. “People even come up to you and ask you questions. People always feel like they’re always entitled to an answer. A lot of people care and also ask questions and they’re not so overbearing with them, but sometimes it’s just too much,” she said.

“But I feel like a lot of people want to know where I was now and a lot of people didn’t know what was going on with me for the past 13 years, so now I’m graduating and a lot of people are happy to see where I’m at now – see that I’m graduating – I feel that’s a good way to come back out in a way,” she said.

Even though the years have been challenging, she’s found healthier ways to cope with her emotions.

Instead of cutting, she resorted to writing.

She’s written over 100 poems. She also keeps journals.

While at Orangeburg-Wilkinson, she took honors English classes.

“So I got English over with by 11th grade,” she said.

“I had other honors classes in school, but I fell behind in school a little bit, given the fact that I was dealing with a lot as far as mental health is concerned and everything else,” she said.

She said she gets her love of writing from her mother.

“She wrote poetry too,” she said.

“I wasn’t always open to talking, I just wanted to stay to myself,” she said, “so I would write.”

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“It’s a lot. I could write a book about it and I plan on doing that,” she said.

“It’s going to take some time. I want to be patient with myself when it comes to that, take my time writing. I want to be in a place where it won’t hurt me as much or won’t be emotionally taxing on me to do it. I’ve got to dig up a lot of stuff in a deep, dark place. I want to wait until I know I’m ready to actually do it,” she said.

“I feel like healing is a process,” she said, adding that forgiveness is a process too.

“I’m very smart, but you know it was a lot to take in and a lot to try to understand,” she said.

She also said she wants to develop her public speaking skills.

“I want to get into motivational speaking,” she said.

She said she may take a year off from school, but plans to major in business management/administration with a minor either in mass communications or psychology.

She draws lots of strength from her friends and family.

“I’ll say I’ve had a lot of people that claimed they were my friends and I’ve lost a lot of friends, but I will say the small group of friends that I have now, that I’m graduating with that I’m close to, we have very deep conversations,” she said.

“And they always tell me about how strong I am, how they feel like I’m really strong no matter what I’ve gone through. I’ve had a lot of my classmates tell me, ‘You seem like you have a nurturing spirit, like someone’s mom.’”

“I thank God for the understanding and wisdom and maturity,” she said.

“I felt like I had to mature a little bit faster than everybody else, given my situation,” she said.

She knows there are other people her age who are experiencing life’s challenges too.

To them she has four pieces of advice: keep God first, don’t be closed off, keep yourself motivated and don’t be so hard on yourself.

She said she remained closed off from others for a while because she didn’t want to talk about how she was feeling.

“Talk to somebody because suffering in silence is not good,” she said.

She said expressed appreciation to two churches that are supportive.

When she was a child, she went to St. Paul Baptist Church and was supported by its pastor, the Rev. Charcey Priester, and his wife, Sarah.

She now goes to a new church, Conforming to Christ’s Image, pastored by Jean and his wife, Starlette.

She thinks of the couple’s children as her siblings.

She said the person who inspires her every day is her grandmother, Helen Duley.

“My grandma is a very, very strong woman,” she said.

“Keeping a roof not only over my head but other grandchildren’s heads, but of her daughters and taking care of herself,” she said.

She also has the support of Jean and his family. Jean is the director of student services at the Orangeburg County School District.

When she and Jean met, it was right after he started his first year working as a principal in a local elementary school.

Helen Duley said she went to Jean and explained to him about what her granddaughter was experiencing.

It was the first time Saniya Duley had returned to school since the tragedy.

He told Helen Duley, “I’ve got you.”

“And he’s been with me ever since,” she said.

She claims Jean as a son. He refers to her as “Mom.”

The Duleys and the Jeans have become close-knit over the years.

Helen Duley said, “My faith has kept me. It was tough to take a granddaughter at 55 years old and I was still working full-time.”

“I had to put all of my strength, my hope and my trust in God. There was some tough days, but God got me through it all and he blessed me with a granddaughter that I truly adore,” she said.

“She’s the only granddaughter I have and she means the world to me,” she said.

“I promised her it did not matter what she went through, that I would never ever leave her or abandon her or turn my back on her. She means the world to me,” she said.

She’s excited to watch her granddaughter graduate from her alma mater too. She graduated from the same high school in 1973. Her daughter, Shaquan Duley, graduated from the school in 1999.

As for Shaquan Duley now, according to her mother, she’s “Fabulous. It sounds funny for me to say that, but she has been very effective in prison.”

“She has been preaching, she has been teaching, she got her degree in prison,” her mother said.

“She has taught school and now she’s in the process of assisting the chaplain again,” she added.

“We talk every day. I might not see her face, but I hear her voice and I thank God for her. God knows what happened and why it happened and we have to accept what comes in life – but that’s life,” she said.

“It’s been a good while since I’ve seen her,” she said, noting that her daughter is no longer housed in a prison in Columbia, but is in one in Greenwood.

“It’s been a little difficult for me to get there, however, to hear her voice every day is beautiful, it’s amazing,” she said.

“In 2010, we were in the limelight and it was all negative; but in 2023, we’re in the limelight and it’s all positive. To God be the glory,” she said.

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