"Even though I can't share my success with her, I know mum is looking down and smiling at me."
The eldest of three brothers with no other family in Australia, he wasn't sure who to turn to until a youth worker referred him to Canteen, the charity that supports young people whose lives are touched by cancer.
"Canteen provided that space for me to connect with other people going through the same thing - it was like a lifeline for me to tap into what I was feeling," Dondas says.
When his mother died in 2009 after several years of treatment, the Canteen "family" provided him with much-needed stability.
"It was the one constant in my life," he says.
His personal experience led him to volunteer roles within the organisation including stints as secretary, vice-president and president in Western Australia. He later joined the national Youth Advisory Team before being appointed a director on Canteen's board in 2015, helping to shape strategies on youth cancer services, online counselling and other initiatives.
Moving to Canberra in 2019 on a graduate program and now a policy officer at the Attorney-General's Department, his efforts for Canteen earned him the ACT's 2022 Young Australian of the Year Award.
"All these little things over time have added up to contribute to something big," he says.
Having recently stepped down from the board, Dondas remains a proud advocate for Canteen's "life-changing" work, which "let me take a glimpse at the person I could be".
Here are the other national finalists for the 2022 Young Australian of the Year:
Kaytlyn Johnson - TAS
A 20-year-old palawa woman from Wynyard on Tasmania's north-west coast, youth leader and singer-songwriter Kaytlyn is a key member of Project O, an initiative that empowers young rural women to develop new skills, connect with their communities and use their voices to campaign for change.
The 2021 winner of the Tasmanian Premier's Young Achiever of the Year Award for her leadership, Kaytlyn uses her music - which has featured on triple j Unearthed - to express her pride in her Indigenous heritage.
Ahmed Hassan - VIC
Co-founder and executive director of Youth Activating Youth, Ahmed Hassan, 25, has a clear vision of how to best assist and advocate for disadvantaged young people from multicultural backgrounds.
Born in the suburbs of Melbourne to parents from Somalia and Eritrea, he was 18 when he helped set up Youth Activating Youth. Originally a youth-led committee, the group is now an established not-for-profit organisation providing marginalised young people with critical life skills in education, employment, health and wellbeing.
Dr Daniel Nour - NSW
Identifying a gap in the healthcare of vulnerable people, Dr Daniel Nour founded Street Side Medics, a not-for-profit, GP-led mobile medical service for the homeless.
With 145 volunteers and four clinics across NSW, the venture has changed the lives of more than 300 patients whose medical needs might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
When he's not working at Royal North Shore Hospital, Dr Nour, 26, volunteers his afternoons to ensure patients at the clinics receive the care they deserve.
Sizoli Fuyana - NT
A small business owner, podcaster and youth advocate, Sizolwenkosi Fuyana is devoted to supporting disadvantaged young people at risk of entering the justice system.
A law and psychology student, 20-year-old Sizol set up a consultancy that provides social and emotional support to young people, showing them how to be more effective members of their community.
Chair of the 2021 Northern Territory Youth Round Table, she has partnered with the City of Palmerston to develop a "Youth Info Map" and works with youth at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. Her podcast, The Reality Change, looks at personal growth and coping with adversity.
Dr Tahnee Bridson - QLD
After the suicide of a well-known doctor in 2016, Dr Tahnee Bridson realised how many of her colleagues were suffering in silence - too scared to speak up out of shame, fear and stigma.
With the encouragement of some high-profile health leaders, she founded Hand-n-Hand Peer Support to assist healthcare workers with their mental health and wellbeing.
What began as a WhatsApp chat group became a social media collective of more than 2000 healthcare workers. The Black Dog Institute recently included Hand-n-Hand as an official partner. The 29-year-old is now training to become a psychiatrist.
Dr Trudy Lin - SA
A special needs dentistry consultant at Adelaide Dental Hospital, Dr Trudy Lin, 29, provides oral healthcare to people with a disability, psychiatric illness or complex medical issues such as cancer and those facing homelessness or domestic violence.
As the youngest of only 20 practising special needs dentists in Australia, her passion for dentistry started as a child, after seeing the profound impact poor oral health had on her father's physical, social and psychological wellbeing. Now she devotes herself to caring for the most vulnerable people - an area in which she believes her profession can have a major positive impact.
Kendall Whyte - WA
As founder and CEO of the Blue Tree Project, Kendall Whyte leads a grassroots charity striving to break down the stigma of mental health by giving dead trees "a blue lease on life".
The project grew from the loss of her brother, Jayden, who took his own life in 2018. The blue tree that was once painted as a practical joke now acts as a beacon of hope for those struggling, with more than 700 trees now painted across Australia and the world.
In helping to spread the message that "it's OK to not be OK", Ms Whyte, 28, is promoting better understanding of mental health, providing free education seminars and creating engaging community events in regional Western Australia.
- ACM, the publisher of this newspaper, is media partner of the 2022 Australian of the Year Awards, which will be presented in Canberra on January 25 and telecast on ABC TV from 7.30pm (AEDT).