As a kid, Sonny Gasco didn't think he would live to be 18.
He grew up in Pacoima with constant pressure from relatives to join local street gangs. When he was a preteen, his dad got out of prison and taught him "all the wrong things," like how to steal a car.
But with support from his mother, Gasco was able to avoid falling permanently into a life of by studying hard and making it to Pierce College. On Wednesday, El Nido Family Centers, a nonprofit serving Los Angeles' needy, honored Gasco and 43 more of their brightest students with $1,000 scholarships.
"Every single one of them has demonstrated they have what it takes. They have the strength and the commitment to further their education," said Lisa Carloss, director of development and partnerships for the organization.
Many of the students honored at the Wednesday's ceremony have been victims of child abuse, parental neglect or gang violence. Nevertheless, they have managed to maintain excellent grades throughout high school.
Another scholarship recipient, Zoe Gonzalez is graduating high school early at age 16, despite growing up homeless. She said it's often been hard to focus on school when she's scared she won't have a place to stay at night. But late nights of worrying where her next meal would come from or where she'd lay her head, led to late night study sessions.
"I love school. I've always loved school and, being homeless, the one thing I carry with me all the time is my backpack, filled with textbooks."
Now Gonzalez will be going to Mission College and hopes to transfer to either UC Berkeley or USC.
For El Nido Family Centers, the scholarships are part of a larger mission to break the cycle of poverty, child abuse and academic failure. Recipients can reapply for the scholarship each year that they stay in school.