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Doing a world of good as a second career

Dennis Haber, second from left, started a second

Dennis Haber, second from left, started a second career in Manhattan real estate and dedicates a portion of the commission from every sale to a charity providing clean water around globe. From left, Haber's son Cory, Haber, company colleague Larry Talve, and Haber's son Jason. (April 26, 2011) Credit: Craig Ruttle

At different points in their lives, Anthony D'Urso and Dennis Haber came to the same conclusion: Their later years would be a time for giving back, not kicking back.

For D'Urso, 72, the realization emerged a few years ago, after retiring as a senior New York City housing official. Friends suggested that the Port Washington resident could convert his many years of government service into a second career as a housing consultant. But D'Urso made up his mind not to "chase money."

He remembered growing up poor in a small Italian village during World War II -- so hungry that, as a boy, he once tried to eat a bar of soap, thinking it was bread. D'Urso decided that if he could "do some good to make life better for others who don't have anything, that's what I would do."

For the past five years, D'Urso has worked as a volunteer with several nonprofit groups, building homes in Nicaragua and a school in Kenya, as well as caring for orphans in Haiti. Last year, he made it a family affair, taking relatives with him to Nicaragua.

Haber spent most of his earlier career as a reverse mortgage broker. As a young law school student, he suffered a paralyzing brain infection and vowed that if he recovered, he would "do something to make a difference," he recalled recently. That decision led to a career providing reverse mortgages -- loans designed to help older, cash-poor homeowners remain in their houses.

"I thought helping seniors was what I was going to do with my life," said Haber, 60, of Jericho. But as the financial crisis unfolded several years ago, resulting in virtual meltdown of the mortgage industry, a frustrated Haber began searching for another way to make his mark.

So last year, he joined his two sons, Jason, 34, and Cory, 31, and other family members in founding a Manhattan real estate firm with an unusual, socially oriented business model: From the beginning -- before they were even profitable -- they would contribute money toward the funding of clean water projects in developing countries. "Now it's time to make a difference in the world with my family," Haber says. "To be able to work with my children and grow together, that's a special gift."

D'Urso and Haber's initiatives may not yet represent a wide-ranging trend, experts say, but they do exemplify a growing number of older Americans who are taking on work with a social impact -- and turning it into an multigenerational activity.

"Thousands of people are making these choices and doing it in an entrepreneurial way," says Marci Alboher, vice president of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based think tank that focuses on baby boomers, work and social purpose. It's particularly true for those older than 55, she says. "They have the skill set and a chance to build something on their own and control it," says Alboher, the author of "One Person/Multiple Careers."

"Parents want to pass on the values and traditions of giving back and encouraging those values in their children," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

D'Urso emigrated from Formia, Italy, to New York City in his early 20s. Working construction jobs with other family members, he completed high school at night and eventually earned a Bachelor of Science and architecture and master's degrees. He rose through the civil service ranks, finishing his career as assistant commissioner of the Office of Architecture Engineering and Construction for the city's Department of Housing Development Administration.

D'Urso's trips abroad started in 2006, after he saw a local TV news report in which he recognized an old friend building houses in Nicaragua as a volunteer for Bridges to Community, a nonprofit organization based in upstate Ossining. D'Urso was soon in Nicaragua as well, joining volunteers who go once or twice a year to build small homes in rural villages. "The houses are simple, but they can survive earthquakes," D'Urso says. "When it rains, at least they're dry."

In Kenya, D'Urso has worked with Cross Cultural Thresholds, a White Plains-based nonprofit group, on several projects, including the building of a school for 250 children in Nairobi. And in Haiti, he helped take care of kids in an orphanage after last year's catastrophic earthquake.

So far, D'Urso has taken 17 trips, with another to Nicaragua planned for next month. He pays for his own airfare and hotel accommodations and helps raise money for projects. (Each house in Nicaragua costs about $3,500. The homeowners contribute to the cost by paying into a fund managed by village residents.) He estimates that the trips collectively cost more than $12,000 a year.

Last year, D'Urso's son, Peter, now living in Dallas, and brother, Mario, 67, also of Port Washington, joined him on one of his Nicaragua home-building trips. "I felt it was a great opportunity for father and son to see each other in a different way, as two adults," Peter D'Urso recalled recently. It was backbreaking work, says Peter D'Urso, 40, a sales representative for a large pharmaceutical company, but it was also intensely rewarding.

One day, he recalled, they drove out to see a home his father had sponsored on a previous trip. "These kids who had known him for just a week stepped out and just ran up to hug him. It was a really powerful moment."

For the Habers, the opportunity for father and sons to reconnect as adults evolved partly from an unusual incident two years ago. At the time, Jason, then working as a real estate agent in Manhattan, was contacted by Libyan officials posing as Dutch diplomats. The officials were looking for a town house to rent to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his entourage during the opening session of the United Nations. But Haber, who discerned the true identity of the officials, refused to act as their agent -- unless Libya agreed to return Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, to Scottish authorities. (Megrahi, who had been serving a life sentence in a Scottish prison, was released to Libya in August 2009 on the grounds of failing health.)

For several weeks, Haber was widely acclaimed for putting principles above profits. But as the publicity died down, he felt his career inexorably shifting to a new course: "I thought, 'How can we do good for our business and help the world all at the same time?'"

Early last year, the family began talking about the notion of "social entrepreneurship." The traditional charity model, said Jason Haber, is that you become successful and then give back through charity. "We decided, 'On our first day of business, let's start giving away money -- before we're even profitable,' " he recalled. "It's a new business model born out of the Facebook generation. Everything is immediate."

A year ago, Dennis Haber joined his sons in launching Rubicon Property, a Manhattan-based residential real estate firm that funds the construction of at least one clean water well every 90 days in various developing countries via the New York-based nonprofit group, charity: water.

So far, Rubicon has raised more than $14,000 for such projects through company contributions and other activities, providing drinking water for about 700 people. "When people come to our open houses, everyone hears about it; it's woven into the business," says Jason Haber, Rubicon's chief executive.

Jason's younger brother, Cory, is Rubicon's president. Dennis Haber's brother-in-law Larry Talve and father-in-law Jack Talve, 84, are active advisers and investors in the firm, which they say became profitable in June.

For Larry Talve, 47, of Jericho, the venture also represents an encore career, after his family sold its stainless steel processing and distribution business three years ago. He says, "We're all part of something that's going to be great in the second part of our life."

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