John: I am here with Rob Zabbia, Model Citizen Magazine Man of the Year. Congratulations Robert.
Robert: Thank you very much. It is really an honor. There are a lot of great people involved with this publication.
John: I have to tell you that in all the years that I have been shooting I have quietly been observing you and I haven’t really seen many people do as much for charity as you do. You really are out there all the time, not only financially, but also supporting charities by being there and putting in the effort. What is it that motivated you to get involved in the community?
Robert: When I was growing up my dad was very involved. He worked hard so he couldn’t do everything, but he helped out with Scouts, with baseball, and things like that, my mom was involved with our school as well. So to see my parents always taking time to do all of that, I learned from them early on that community is important.
Then when we lost Brian, everybody wanted to send things to us because we lost our baby, but I didn’t want flowers, or food. So, we gave it some thought and then suggested that people donate to The Columbus Lodge and Sons of Italy because they have a scholarship program. We felt that was a good place for people to donate. That is pretty much where it really started, getting involved with the Columbus Lodge which is a fraternal organization that is very supportive in the community. They do a lot of really good work. Also, being involved with the Chamber of Commerce early on in my Allstate career. After that, I really wanted to step up my efforts and be more hands-on.
John: So, your parents set a great example and that was an inspiration for you. You also just mentioned losing a child, that must have been very challenging.
Robert: Our son Brian was born prematurely at just 20 weeks. There was no chance for survival and so it was a very tough time. I would not want another couple to go through it. Sometimes tragedy like that divides people, but luckily for Joey and I, we stayed strong through it all. We did have to reach out for help because we couldn’t really deal with it. We built some really great friendships through the support group we joined. Some of our closest friends are people that we know from there and still keep in touch with.
John: So that is where it all started, with your parents and then coming together in grief and overcoming adversity. I often say to people when they ask me what is Model Citizens Magazine that it is a collection of the stories of a group of people, many of whom become contributors. It always starts with a life event that caused great adversity in someone’s life and they take the pain, tragedy, and the loss and suffering of those times and turn it into something incredible. Just like you and your family. Can you tell us what organizations you support and why?
Robert: My first is the Columbus Lodge because it is the one, I spend the most time with. I’m very proud of my Italian heritage and my American heritage. My grandparents on my mother’s side and my great grandparents on my father’s side came here from Italy and built their lives from nothing. I think it’s a great story because I think heritage is important. We are a melting pot and we need to all be Americans, but also remember where we came from. So I do a lot with the Lodge, I think it’s a great organization. But there are plenty of others, from other heritages that are doing a lot in our neighborhoods.
John: I think if you look back far enough in our history, you might be able to join them all at some point.
Robert: Yes, exactly. Especially me as there are not that many 6-foot, one inch, blonde, blue-eyed Italians out there.
John: There may be more than you think, but they might be in Italy. Now I know that you do a lot with the Lodge and Sons of Italy, but I’ve also seen you at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and at the Pink Tie events. I’ve seen you at the Equity First Foundation events with Rhonda Klch. It seems like, over the last few years, every time I walked out the door to go get some of my own volunteer time in, I would meet you there. That is how we became friends. I think it’s amazing how much time you spend giving back.
Robert: Well, running for Man of the Year for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society kind of got me involved with a lot of these other organizations. I met Jeff Weiner, who is a good friend of mine. We do a lot of business together which is why I started working with them. When he ran for Man of the Year, I volunteered to be on his team and help him raise some money. Then he nominated me after he won, and I won. After that, I got involved with Pink Tie and met Rhonda. I got involved with Mama’s House because one of my staff members did the Fight for Charity and wanted to box. She chose Mama’s House which is a great charity as well. The thing that is common about all these organizations is that they are helping the people that need the help the most.
John: And it is all here on Long Island.
Robert: Yes, they are all on Long Island. Charity begins at home. I remember hearing that all the time as a kid, but it really does. I’ve been pretty lucky in life. I grew up in Levittown, not in a wealthy area.
John: I grew up right next-door in East Meadow.
Robert: Well, there you go! We had a comfortable life. I was the firstborn, so they were times when my parents had to scrimp and save, but I didn’t miss anything. Our vacations were going out to the Amish Country or Mystic Connecticut or going to my cousin’s house which was in Atlantic Beach, so we went to the beach all the time. I was not lacking for anything, but I didn’t have the big things that a lot of more wealthy families would’ve had. I have great memories though and I think having that is special. I know that there are other people out there that don’t have even those basic things to make good memories and being a person that is more into self-reliance than relying on others, I think we all as citizens need to help our fellow citizens. I lean mostly to the conservative, so I am not a big proponent of the government stepping in all the time. However, if I’m going to be that way then I must step in. I can’t say that the government shouldn’t do it and therefore nobody should. If I think the government needs to stay out of people’s lives then I think we need to show that the citizens are better off helping their own communities, rather than the bureaucracy.
John: You are bringing up politics a little bit and I know that I know you lean to the right, as we have discussed in the past. You’ve written about politics up until the election and now that the election is over, or at least it seems to be over and some of the legal challenges are over, what do you think is going to happen? What do you think is best for our country?
Robert: We have to trust in the system. Am I happy with the results? Not really. Am I concerned about our future? Yes, I am.
There are some very outlandish ideas that are getting thrown out there. We have a constitution, and I am a big believer that we must trust in our Founding Fathers, we must trust in the system. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bureaucrats that are more interested in protecting their own jobs than doing the right thing. That’s what scares me the most, that they can short-circuit the constitution and the design of what this country is supposed to be. If you don’t agree with the result it doesn’t mean that we all should take up arms and revolt because we lost an election. That’s not what this country is about.
John: Right, but I think there are a lot of people that are fearful that the Democratic Party might be leaning a little too much to the left, that and that we don’t want to become the “Social States of America”, we are the United States of America. We are a capitalist society. Capitalism is one of our founding theories, the survival of the fittest! We have programs to take care of each other, but at what point does it become socialism, and then and then you fall into communism. Everybody knows communism is one step away once you become a socialist.
Robert: America leads the world, and we lead the world for a reason. it’s because we are free. Does that mean that you’re going to have a couple of fat cat billionaires and trillionaires like the founder of Amazon and the Gates families? Yes! They took risks and that’s what this is all about.
There are plenty of people that try and fail. Failure is a great teacher. I think one of the problems with what we’re hearing from the left is that there should be no failure. If there’s no failure, then that means it’s just joint misery and that’s what I’m fearful of. It’s not a matter of lifting everybody anybody up, it’s just bringing everybody down to the same level.
There are so many people that come to this country with nothing. For instance, my cousin gave me a lot of my great grandfather’s things. He came here and started in the insurance business in 1915. But before he did that, and I have his paperwork from when he came here from Sicily, he was a barber. I have his clippers from when he was barbering in the Bronx. He went from that to building a real estate and insurance agency. Then my father’s aunt and uncle took over and then my father got into the business because he saw how valuable hard work was. That’s why I got into the insurance business.
I use this story as a reminder of the humble beginnings that you have and how people that came here with nothing can build it up into something special. One of my most successful clients was a beautician. She just worked hard and ended up building one of the biggest aluminum siding companies on the East Coast. She got into the right situation, worked hard and got to know people, and built a huge company that did aluminum siding up and down the East Coast until she retired. That’s what this country is about. It’s not about the people that are sitting at home, it’s about the people that take the risks and fail.
I think it’s funny when people point to Trump, and I’m not a huge fan of his because he says and does a lot of really dumb things, but to point to all of his failures and bankruptcies in order to show how bad he is when that is how you learn. I tell that to kids all the time when I coach sports. I teach my kids that making mistakes is part of failure, it is all part of life. The problem is if you keep making the same mistakes repeatedly. If you don’t learn from them, that’s what true failure is. Failure isn’t a failure in and of itself, it is not learning from your failures.
John: You just mentioned your children and sports. I know you’re very active with your son’s lacrosse training. He’s had some wonderful news recently about a scholarship, can you tell us about it?
Robert: Yes, Danny amazes me. He was a very highly ranked prospect when the Coronavirus hit and shut down a lot of opportunities. Many schools are not taking as many kids for sports from his graduating class, but he didn’t let it get to him. He kept fighting and kept reaching out to more and more schools. Then the coach from PACE University called him and said that if he comes to PACE, he will help him become one of the best players in Division II Lacrosse. PACE is a great business school and basically, they are saving me probably $120,000 over his college career. He has got good grades and he’s a talented player and schools want that.
John: Your daughter is also an athlete. I have photographed them both and I have to say they’re both rather amazing.
Robert: Yes, she’s actually had way more adversity than Danny. She got hurt when she was thrown from her horse. She had to be in the hospital for a bit but got right back on and started riding again. She was in some pain but was able to fight through that. Some of those injuries don’t go away. Also, her horse got hurt, then we got another horse and that horse got hurt. These horses are athletes also and they can get injuries. But my daughter just keeps going. She just won she won her division and made it to the Regional Qualifiers, so she is going to go to Regionals in January. If she does well there, then she goes back to the Zones and has a shot at making Nationals. She hasn’t been to Nationals before, but she is not letting that get to her.
John: Now your wife is usually side-by-side with you at many of these charity events. Can you share your love story? How did you guys meet and tell us about Joey?
Robert: It’s a little bit of a funny story. Joey is from a small town in Minnesota, a papermill town. She went to college in Iowa with one of my friend’s sisters, so Joey would be at my best friend’s house all the time, during holidays and she couldn’t fly home or my friend’s family would invite her on vacations. I lived down the block and these are the friends that I knew from Kindergarten on up. Joey and I knew each other for years before we ended up getting together. I asked her out one time, but she had a boyfriend. Then we were all up in Vermont, away for a weekend after New Year’s Eve and we just happened to have the right timing. We started dating and we got married, and we had the kids. It’s been a fun ride. We have a lot of fun together. She is very smart. I always say I married up! Joey has her master’s degree and a highly successful career She’s been able to do all that and raise two very accomplished kids.
John: Now in 2021, which is only weeks away, you are taking on some new projects. We are going to be collaborating on a Real Estate magazine together.
Robert: Yes, we are having a lot of fun with Model Citizen’s Magazine and you approached me about doing this Long Island Journal and I’m really excited to try something new.
John: I think in the real estate community there is a lot of attention on houses. This one, that one, this living room, etc., but it leaves out the real feel of the families, Long Island families, and the real estate professionals who live in this community. They know the communities on Long Island very well and they are the real experts. You see the price of real estate on Long Island and you realize that agents are working so many months in a year just to sell the one right house. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and also be a very valuable resource to everybody we feature.
Robert: I think the real estate community is very valuable. I have worked with many professionals for the past several years, especially when I ran for Man of the Year, a lot of the money I raised came from the real estate industry. Whether it was a mortgage company, real estate brokers, or individual real estate agents, they are very tightly involved with their communities.
John: Yes, they are very philanthropic.
Robert: They do really great work in their neighborhoods.
John: That’s one of the reasons why it will be such a valuable undertaking.
Robert: It’s like you said, the people themselves need to be highlighted, not the houses.
John: Each month we are sold out for Model Citizens, which is quite a blessing. To restart a company in the middle of COVID-19 and watch it go viral like this is really a blessing. That’s why I thought it would be a nice idea to start with Alex in the artist community and you in the real estate community. No one is really covering it or giving them a voice, and they should have one.
I’m looking forward to that project as well.
Robert, congratulations on your Model Citizen Man of the Year. This is not a decision that was made lightly or one with business interests, it is a jury of your peers. All the other Model Citizens so appreciate you and all you do for Long Island, as I do. I look forward to continuing to help in 2021 within the philanthropic community and collaborating on The Long Island journal together.
Robert: Thank you again. I think it’s a great group of people. I’ve made friends within the Model Citizens community and I continue to want to develop those relationships. Some were my friends going into it, and some are new people I’ve met. It just shows that there are a lot of like-minded people. It means a lot to me that I was chosen among this group because there are a lot of very deserving people that I can easily say I would recommend for this honor. I am honored to be chosen along with my fellow recipients, the Couple of the Year, and Woman of the Year. They are incredible people that I think are far more deserving than I.
John: Well, you are all deserving and were all voted in by the whole community. Three hundred or more Model Citizens from over the last eight years. It is well deserved, and I look forward to a great 2021 and this new adventure we are embarking on.
Robert: I’m looking forward to it also. Thank you.