Since traveling to Cuba several times with her mother, who organizes relief missions for Cuban Jews through her travel agency, Daniella Gruber has returned home changed by the experience.
"Both Daniella and I will never forget the images in our minds of these old Jews, some who are Holocaust survivors, living in dingy rooms with chunks of ceiling falling down, bursting into tears when we delivered bags of food," said her mother Roe Gruber, who enrolled her daughter in Spanish classes one summer at the University of Havana.
For the last five years, Daniella, 16, has followed her mother's example and tapped school families, her synagogue and a retirement community to collect medicines, clothes, hygiene products and school supplies for Cuba's Jews, as well as for a children's hospital and several orphanages. Her latest campaign is a shoe drive for mentally handicapped teens in a Havana orphanage.
"Watching her over the years doing all this organizing, promoting, collecting and sorting has been amazing," said Gruber, who thinks her daughter's values differ from typical, self-absorbed teens.
In a surprise at a school awards assembly last month, the 11th grader at Irvine's Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School received national recognition from B'nai B'rith International's Cuban Relief Committee in Pittsburgh. The Amiga de Cuba youth award was created especially for her to spotlight her unusual example and hopefully to serve as an inspiration to others, said Stan Cohen, the committee's chairman, who has organized 23 relief missions to Cuba from B'nai B'rith chapters worldwide since 1995.
"She's obviously a great girl," Cohen said.
School principal Howard Haas, who presented the award, said, "She exemplifies what we want for every student at Tarbut -- to be a role model."