Recognizing the underdog

Artist funds awards for students

APTOS — When he was in school, Brandon Gruber occasionally found himself in the role of the underdog, and occasionally the target of bullies.

But he always rose above it.

Gruber, now 22, is hoping he can help others do the same. He recently launched the Diamond Awards, for students who find themselves in similar situations.

This can include those that are struggling to learn English or those with special needs, who may otherwise be overlooked.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District officials were asked to choose two students from every school to earn a Diamond Award at their end-of-the-year awards ceremonies.

“It’s for students that try their hardest,” Gruber said.

Born with Down syndrome, Gruber spent his youth casting off the “special needs” label school officials tried to foist upon him, and instead has forged his own label.

He is a dancer, a college student, a diplomat, a model and an artist and boasts a lifetime of philanthropy. All of this may have started in eighth grade, when Gruber earned a handful of awards for, among other things, accomplishments in physical education.

Gruber said that recognition gave him a life-changing self-esteem boost, which he now wants to share with other students.

“I think it’s pretty exciting for others to get the awards,” he said. “Me, personally, I’m very happy for them.”

Brandon’s mother Teresa Gruber wanted to pull him out of Aptos High School because she thought school leaders were too quick to categorize him. Brandon resisted, she said.

“He said, ‘Mom I need to leave my legacy here,’” she said.

He became a leader in his own right as a member of the school’s Associated Student Body. He also played on the freshman basketball team and acted in several plays.

He was named homecoming king in his senior year at Aptos High School.

His accomplishments did not stop there.

Gruber currently sits on the National Down Syndrome Society Board of Directors, and frequently travels to New York City and Washington D.C. for board meetings.

He will soon travel to Europe, where he will address the World Down Syndrome Congress in Scotland.

In addition, Gruber is a fashion model, and recently began designing his own clothes thanks to a design class he is taking. Teresa Gruber said her son is the only person with Down syndrome in the world to do so.

On top of all his other activities, Gruber also holds a part-time job at the Billabong surf shop in Capitola.

“He’s doing huge things, and it's because he had a great team when he was growing up that believed in him,” she said.

Perhaps most importantly, Gruber is an accomplished artist who uses the proceeds from selling his paintings to fund endeavors that help underdog students.

That money has bought prom dresses, tuxedos and tickets for low-income students, and sent fellow students to the school’s winter ball.

While Teresa Gruber is tasked with managing her son’s busy schedule, she is quick to point out that his accomplishments are all his own.

“It was his original idea to do good for others, and it morphed form there,” she said. “There’s no awards system for the underdog kids in life. Just having a little plaque just means so much. It’s a game-changer for some of these kids.”


To learn more about Brandon Gruber, visit his website at

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