Ex town councilman happy helping others

Ex town councilman happy helping others

There is a slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya, where the “road” is called “River of S—” because that is where the people’s waste flows. It is a slum so poor and desperate, that unwanted children are left beside a river bank during the monsoon, to be swept to their death. And for too many of the 1.5 million people crammed into this slum, it is the only way they will ever leave.

This is where Anthony D’Urso comes twice a year from his home in Long Island to build a school, an orphanage, to hammer and saw and haul.

Since retiring after 14 years as an elected North Hempstead Town Councilman and 30 years with the City of New York’s Department of Housing Development Administration, D’Urso has devoted himself to three different charities, traveling thousands of miles each year at his own expense, to Haiti, Nicaragua and Kenya, building homes one at a time, and schools one classroom at a time.

He works in some of the poorest neighborhoods on the planet: in Haiti, where the “improvement” is creating a tent city for children orphaned by the earthquake; in villages in Nicaragua where people live in leaky shacks of scraps of sheet metal and discarded lumber and even the homes of cinder block that he builds do not have running water or electricity; and in Kibera outside of Nairobi, where the life expectancy is among the lowest on earth and half of the deaths are from AIDS, leaving scores of orphans, many of whom are born with HIV.

With each stroke of the hammer, cut of a saw and haul of a cinder block, he is opening a path and creating the possibility of making a better life for people, instead of being trapped in the circumstance of their birth.

D’Urso is driven by this nagging question: “I can’t understand why the children have to live this way. What did they do to deserve to live in this structural poverty that no matter what they do, they won’t get out?”

When he retired, he decided to do something about it.

“When I was retiring, I was thinking  about what to do for the rest of my healthy life,” D’Urso said. “I never had a lot of money. I don’t know what it is to have money. I wanted to do something I always wanted to do and had always done, but in small way – I was involved with Habitat for Humanity, helping build a few houses, made regular contributions to Save the Children, Boys Towns, Smile Train.  But now, I wanted to give more of myself.”

Now, he travels twice year to Masaya, Nicaragua with Bridges to Community, personally sponsoring the building of two houses a year. These are simple cement block houses, all of them conforming to a similar style to withstand earthquakes, but are a big improvement over what the people live in now: ramshackle shacks of scrap metal and lumber that flood when it rains, with no electricity or running water, cooking outside, a latrine.

He was going back and forth to Nicaragua – he completed his 11th trip this past November – when he learned about the program to help the people in Kibera, a slum outside Nairobi, Kenya.

Some 1.5 million destitute people are crammed into an area the size of Central Park, paying rent to a landlord for the privilege of living in a dilapidated shack without water or electricity, where people throw their waste into the street so a river of waste flows down the middle of the dirt road.

“The outside doesn’t know what happens inside the slums and inside, they don’t know what happens outside the slums,”

Now he makes two trips a year – on January 1 and July 4 – spending two weeks at a time (and three days traveling). He travels with a group of about eight people, and always comes with presents for the children. On our visit to his home in Port Washington, he was preparing to travel again.

Whereas the project in Nicaragua is more about families, the work in Kenya is more about rescuing children – literally.

“Kibera has one of the lowest life expectancies in Africa (49), the mortality rate due to AIDS is 50 percent. A lot of the kids being rescued are orphaned because their parents died from AIDS. Many are born HIV positive.

Children are abandoned and left to die.

“There is a little river not far from the slum and most of the year it is dry, but when the monsoon comes, it swells up and sweeps away everything,” D’Urso said. “Children are placed there so they will be swept away.”

A local woman who is a product of the slums, has dedicated her life to creating a school there for first to sixth grade. Her mission was expanded after she  picked up two children – one was eight months, the other about 18 months – who were left at the river to die and the government refused to help unless she adopted them. And so she has adopted them and many others, since.

Cross Cultural Thresholds, the group D’Urso works with, has supported her mission, physically building an orphanage which includes a school, and sustaining it by raising the funds to pay the teacher’s salary ($2,700 a year) and the cost of a nutrition program which provides the children with three meals a day.

D’Urso’s group is building a nursery school now. But the group has a more ambitious plan for a third school, Face and a Future, a high school that will be built outside the slum itself, to open these young people to what might be possible.

“We want to bring them outside the slums. If we get a child at age 2 for nursery up to six, then to elementary school, then for four years in high school, now we have structured a person with education and a different view from a person who grows up in the slum and never gets that outside view. This will give them a profession, so they can go outside the slum and market themselves.”

D’Urso’s work in Haiti is connected to a faith-based organization, Croatian Relief Services, which initially was involved in Croatian relief during Bosnia-Kosovo conflict, but once that area stabilized, turned its attention to helping Haitians in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake.

Much of his work in Haiti involves creating an orphanage for children who lost their family in the earthquake. They funded a lunch program and medical assistance. The orphanage now consists of tents; their plan is to build a school on two acres, using the rubble from the earthquake to elevate the structure against future flooding.

The common thread among the three different charitable enterprises is providing that something that breaks the bonds of poverty and despair.

Tony D’Urso knows what it is to feel trapped by your condition, in a culture that accepts that you are what you are, and what it means to escape to a place where there is opportunity to fulfill your potential.

He grew up in Formia, a small town in Latina area of Italy, between Rome and Naples, where his lot in life was to be a laborer, and where the idea of pursuing education beyond fifth grade was out of reach.

He spent his teen years as a laborer on construction sites and apprenticed as a mason.

“They would put stones heavier than my body weight on my shoulder, and I would get on a ladder and carry the stone up the scaffold. I cursed every day. I worked hard because I had to. I knew I had to get out of Italy.”

The United States allowed Italy a scant few thousand visas, but France had 10 times that amount and most weren’t used. Tony’s parents, as it happened, were both born in France Their fortuitous birth provided Tony with an out. But in order to take advantage of the visas, he had to emigrate before his 21st birthday. Just a couple of months shy of turning 21, and with his father’s blessing, he arrived in Long Island City on March 24, 1960  with two bags. He landed on the doorstep of an acquaintance who used to be a custodian in Italy, who had come three years earlier, with whom he corresponded. He had hoped to share the furnished apartment, paying $7 a week rent. He had $14 in his pocket at the time and spoke no English.

D’Urso got a job doing construction, and enrolled in “English for Immigrants,” studying for two years, then attended night school at Brooklyn Tech, finally earning his high school diploma after six years,  in 1971.

He was earning $44 a week, often working at two jobs dishwashing, furniture making and construction, and sending back half to his family in Italy. Then he got double pneumonia, and when he could not pay the hospital bill, was threatened with deportation. A doctor at St. John’s Hospital worked out an arrangement where he could repay the bill at $20 a week, and for the next three years, he made regular trips to drop off the money, even after the hospital relocated.

Armed with his high school diploma, he landed a civil service position with the City of New York’s Department of Housing Development Administration, in 1971.

He pursued higher education at the New York Technical College, graduating in 1975 with an AAS degree, then earned a Bachelor of Science from Pratt Institute School of Architecture in 1979. He did not stop there, but went on to earn a master of science at Pratt Institute in 1983.

After 17 years of night school, of a routine of getting up for work at 5 am, leaving work and going to school until 10:40 p.m., and finally coming home at 11:30 p.m. only to repeat the whole process again the next day, he was finally done. The whirlwind of work and study probably obscured the fact that he had surpassed what he could only dream of as a boy.

Tony advanced through the ranks in the City department. He was promoted from senior building construction estimator to general supervisor of building construction, to director of operations for the division of design and construction.

In 1995 he was promoted to assistant commissioner of the office of architecture engineering and construction, putting him in charge of a technical staff of 300 and an annual capital budget of $500 million. When he retired after 30-years as a housing official, he was deputy commissioner.

Even as a boy in Italy, D’Urso had a penchant for politics, and his life here afforded him the opportunity to pursue that interest, as well. He served as committeeman, zone leader, and in 1991 he was elected North Hempstead Town Councilman, serving 14 years.

At this point, fully retired, he could have simply enjoyed the good life. Instead, Tony sold off the property he inherited from his father in Italy and other property, sold his house and scaled down, and has been using his cash to focus and expand on his charitable work. Last year, he spent $14,000 on travel, alone.

It is the way he has lived his life.

“I would tells my children when they were growing up that a certain amount of money has to be given to charity. I used to take them Sunday mornings to St. Francis Hospital with a Sons of Italy program – to visit needy children who were there for open heart surgery. Out of 32 children we sponsored, we only lost one. I would tell my children, ‘How lucky you are.’ We would bring cold cuts and bread to the parents – and we worked out a deal with a motel to house them while their children were in the hospital.

This was the way he was raised, as well. His father may not have appreciated the value of education to uplift his son, but he modeled heroism in the cause of righteousness.

He says, “I have three birthdays in my life, August 3 1939, when I was born; March 24, 1960 when I arrived in the United States, and September 8, 1943.

“I don’t remember anything before September 8, 1943,” he says. “Americans came with airplanes, flares, turning the night bright like a sunny day at night. They dropped leaflets telling us to get out, they would bomb the city. Our family left and went over the mountain. We stayed 10, 11 months. During that time, my father was busy. He had worked for a Jewish family – Ascarelli  – whose main residence was Naples. They were in the textile industry and owned farms in a beach resort. My father worked there. Nazis were looking for Jews to take back to slave labor camps. My father hid them in the mountains – they would hide during the day and move at night, always moving, because someone would have sold them out.”

For eight months, his father was away from their family, trying to protect the Ascarellis. “Then, one day, Moroccans who were fighting for the Germans,  caught up with them. My father used his French to convince them they were French.”

D’Urso says that remembering his background, where he came from, has shaped what he does now. But others have taken a different view.

“There are people who came poor like me to the United States but became super conservatives – as if they built a castle with a moat and lifted the drawbridge. They don’t like illegal immigrants. But I know that if I didn’t find a way to come here legally, I would have come illegally.”

Similarly, his up-from-his-own-bootstraps success has caused him to devote himself to charitable giving, rather than stand aside and let those in need make it on their own, if they have the ability and the luck.

The desire to help others, he says, “was always there, the fire under the ashes… When I retired, I wanted to do more. I feel good about it… I never had much money, but I know that when you die, the suit you are buried in has no pockets, because you can’t take it with you. People get too involved with materialistic society. If I had a Lexus instead of a Camry, I couldn’t do this.”

His wife, Maria, sacrifices, too – not just the material things, but also the weeks away that Tony spends traveling. It is her gift to him that she supports him knowing how important it is to him.

“I want my epitaph to say ‘He tried to make a more just world.'” Tony says. “In a small way, I’m contributing to that, like a pebble on the beach… There are some kids that directly or indirectly will have a better future, a better life, maybe if I help change their expectations of life. I had no expectations growing up. You think ‘toys for Christmas/. What toys? We had no expectation whatsoever.”

In many ways, Tony D’Urso has come full circle – the young boy who wanted to escape his lot as a construction laborer, is laboring to construct houses, schools, and paths to a new life for other children who have done nothing to deserve the miserable lot in life they were born to, and who, without people like Tony, would have no way of breaking the cycle of structural poverty.

For more information about contributing to these charitable causes, e-mail [email protected].

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