Brandon Gassaway says that his “entire life changed in the blink of an eye” at age 16 when his mother was stabbed to death by his father while attempting to leave the marriage. Brandon didn’t see the murder but he was in the house. “After he did it, he came up and told me.” Brandon said he was equally attached to both parents and was “as surprised and shocked as everybody was.”

Within one week, Brandon was forced to leave everything familiar behind—school, house, and sister. Custody battles between the two sets of grandparents put him and his sister in separate households. He moved from Dallas to Houston, lived with his maternal grandparents and began attending a school there.

The teachers and students at his new school didn’t know about the tragedy in his life. “I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it. Then I found somebody I trusted who helped me out.” This advisor just happened to be a social worker. He kept focused on school, played basketball and kept his grades up. Asked why losing both parents in such a violent way didn’t crush him, he said, “I wouldn’t let it. That’s just the type of person I am. I don’t give up.” He visits his father in prison because “he’s still my father.”

Receiving a Beat the Odds award in 2008 and getting involved with CDF “helped me get through college and showed me different avenues of how to help others.” He’s spent summers as an intern in CDF’s Houston office and participated in the Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT) at Haley Farm.

Brandon is a senior at the University of New Mexico, studying architecture with a focus on urban design and historic preservation. He was recently selected as one of the 2012-2013 scholars of the university’s Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. He regularly mentors other young men, starting with a cousin who is like a younger brother. “I always try to help out with the younger guys. A lot of them don’t see the importance of education. This is a lifelong commitment.”