Donors inspired by a campus experience that continues to enrich their lives: Meet Herb Gruber and Donna Steffens ’06

Herb Gruber and Donna Steffens '06

The BBC Student Food Pantry upgraded to a new space this year, and a group of highly motivated students in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education are getting a well-earned boost toward graduation, thanks to the support of a lifelong learning student named Herb Gruber and his partner, FIU alumna Donna Lee Steffens ’06.

Gruber is a longtime resident of Miami and a graduate of Miami Beach Senior High School. Though he isn’t a graduate of FIU like Steffens (he graduated from Stanford University), after retiring from his career as a finance and real estate executive, Gruber has spent the last 10 years visiting the Biscayne Bay Campus to audit art history and biology classes and to participate in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at FIU. (OLLI is an organization at FIU for community members over the age of 50, who participate in noncredit educational experiences and other social engagement opportunities at BBC.)

Like Steffens, an artist who spent most of her BFA studies in the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts at BBC, Gruber has grown to love FIU’s quiet, oceanside north campus.

“BBC is a stunning example of a perfect campus, one of the most beautiful of the Miami educational system,” Gruber said. “It is a prime location with superbly designed buildings, and an impressive, dedicated staff of professionals. The open surroundings provide a motivating atmosphere for many of our city-bound students. A perfect way for students to study while enjoying the surrounding beauty.”

Being immersed in the vitality of campus and student life left a lasting impression on Gruber and Steffens.

When the pandemic struck, the couple knew students at their beloved BBC could be struggling – and after some research, they learned that 40 percent of students on college campuses nationwide experience food insecurity.

So, they took action. With multiple gifts from the couple in the past year, the BBC Student Food Pantry, which formerly operated out of a kitchen space in the Center for Leadership & Service (CLS) office suite, now has a dedicated facility in the student center. In addition to the upgrade, their gifts also helped the pantry stock up on feminine hygiene products, face coverings to protect against COVID-19, non-perishable foods and more.

Launched in 2014, the FIU student food pantries are run by CLS and are supported by charitable donations from faculty, staff, student organizations and members of the community. The two pantry locations – one at BBC and one at MMC – are open to all currently enrolled students.

Combined, the pantries accommodated more than 5,500 visits in the 2019-2020 academic year and provided students nearly 35,600 pounds of food. The BBC location accounted for more than 470 of those visits and nearly 4,000 pounds of food. This school year, the two have already distributed nearly 20,000 pounds of food in more than 2,400 visits.

CLS Program Director Joanna Garcia, who oversees the initiative, says the pandemic has shown the pantries to be a vital campus resource, and she is grateful for continued support.

“At the food pantry, we continue to face challenges to meet the growing need of our students as the pandemic stretches on,” Garcia said. “Having the financial support from donors like Mr. Gruber and Ms. Steffens makes a huge difference.”

The pantry isn’t the only way Gruber and Steffens have stepped up during the pandemic. With a gift to the FIUstrong campaign, they helped provide emergency assistance to BBC-based students who reached out to the university for financial support. Among their many FIU-focused initiatives, they’ve also provided luncheon vouchers and hosted dinners at the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management for people facing food insecurity at FIU.

And, Gruber said, they don’t intend to stop there. In fact, Gruber has a longstanding history of dedicated support to FIU, much of which has been directed to the College of Arts, Sciences & Education (CASE). His giving, made in honor of and attributed to Dean Michael Heithaus, includes establishing the Dr. Mike Heithaus & Doc Gruber Essay Contest for biology students and supporting outstanding faculty research endeavors.

Gruber’s philanthropy at CASE is inspired by his late brother, Dr. Samuel “Doc” Gruber. Doc was a renowned shark biologist who taught at the University of Miami and was the founder of the Bahamas-based Bimini Biological Field Station, a nonprofit focused on shark research and education. He also helped start the American Elasmobranch Society, the main professional society devoted to the study of sharks and rays.

Gruber says Dean Heithaus reminds him a lot of Doc – and Doc himself inspired Heithaus from an early age to pursue his expertise in shark research.

College of Arts, Sciences & Education Dean Michael Heithaus conducting research in the field

“I remember in high school reading a magazine article about Doc’s work and thinking ‘Wow, that’s something a kid from Ohio could never do.’ But it wasn’t many years later that I was in graduate school and received an award that Doc had given at the American Elasmobranch Society for work I had done, and that award led me to my future in this field,” Heithaus recently shared with students at a CASE scholarship award ceremony.

Recently, Gruber and his sister-in-law, Doc’s wife Marie Gruber, established the Women Explorers Award at CASE. It will provide students studying in the STEM fields with an award of up to $5,000 as well as the opportunity to pursue lab and field research, participate in professional development and attend scientific conferences.

He also funded the new Brinn-Heithaus Aquaculture Project, which will serve as an important step in establishing an environmental identity at FIU’s BBC campus and will be integral in aligning educational opportunities with sustainable fisheries, food security and conservation of marine life. Under the direction of Dr. Richard Brinn, a professor of biological sciences who specializes in fish, the project will support graduate research, experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate education and outreach in K-12 schools.

Gruber’s gifts will help pave the way for future scientists to pursue their dreams at FIU.

“The Gruber family has been so supportive of the college, of BBC, and of our students,” Heithaus said. “I really can’t thank them enough for all the support they’ve given us at FIU. I know there are a lot of students who are way better off today because of their generosity.”

Looking back at the happy years spent at BBC, Gruber said supporting FIU students “has been a very rewarding undertaking, and we intend to continue as long as our people have needs.”