Growing up, Jonah Gilmore experienced the worst of New Orleans—poverty, gun violence and Katrina.

When he was six, his older brothers were shot while walking home from a party. One was killed; the other temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. “It had a deep effect on me. Even though I really didn’t know what was going on, I knew my brother wasn’t going to be here anymore.”

Two years later, the family’s unit in a housing project burned down and they lost everything. After that, his parents split up. Then, just seven days into his freshman year of high school, Katrina struck. His mother had to stay on her job in a hospital kitchen, and Jonah went to his aunt’s house. When the water began rising, they made it to the Superdome.“

It was one of the worst times of my life—people crying and people dying. It was dark and very hot. It was horrifying.” They were there three days and then bused to the Astrodome in Houston. Jonah and his brother then went to Natchez, Mississippi, and he lived there until his mother’s house in New Orleans was repaired.

Despite the hardships, Jonah remained focused on education. He finished high school with a 3.4 GPA, was vice president of the student council, senior class president, and ROTC executive officer. “So many people I grew up with dropped out and there’s nothing there, nothing to look forward to. I wanted to have opportunities. I didn’t want to fall into the world of no future I saw around me.”

In his high school, not many students were interested in college. The guidance counselor knew that Jonah was but had no way to pay for it. She showed him a flyer about Beat the Odds. It was late in the process, and Jonah turned in his essay the last day. The principal personally drove him to the CDF office so he could turn it in before the deadline.

He said he would not have been able to go to college if it weren’t for the CDF scholarship and a scholarship from Dillard University. “It helped me tell my story. I think other people out there might have to hear it and think they could go to college too.”

Jonah graduated this spring, with a major in mass communications. He won Dillard’s Community Service Award for the most community service hours. He got some of the impetus from a Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT). “They taught us how we can have an effect on society” and he applied this to his leadership of a university social service organization.

This summer, he interned as a reporter at a New Orleans television station and has applied to televisions stations in smaller markets where he can get a start and then move up. Wherever he lands, he will “find an organization or something to do to help. That’s me. I want to give back.”