By Kim Swartz
“What should I do with my life?” is a question to which Sacred Heart University alumna Michaela Albano has known the answer since she was 14.
“From the age of 14, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I just needed to figure out how to get there,” Albano says. “Never once did that dream waver or change.”
The dawn of her realization began with the announcement of a mission trip to Haiti by her church group at St. Mary’s in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Something made her jump at the opportunity to participate. “I don’t know what it was, but something lit up inside me and made me want to go to Haiti,” she recalls.
Call it serendipity or providence, but Albano found her purpose not from the inside, but from the outside: “It’s hard to explain, but I didn’t choose Haiti; Haiti chose me,” she says.
Albano experienced several stages of emotions when she took her first trip to Haiti. “I was afraid when I first landed in Port Au Prince. A new country, culture and language is a terrifying thing for a 14-year-old girl. But then I got up to the mountains and immersed myself with the local people, and that fear turned to sadness from seeing how the poorest of the poor really live,” Albano explains. “As the week progressed, my fear and sadness were replaced with overwhelming joy and hope through the hearts and souls of the Haitian people. Nothing is more beautiful in this world than their hope. The final stage as I returned home from my first trip was the feeling of empowerment. I knew I couldn’t just stand by for the rest of my life while so many in this world needed help. That’s how my dream was born.”
Fulfilling her dream took some years and a Sacred Heart University education, but she finally was ready to create a nonprofit organization to help Haiti’s children. She called it Lespwa—the Creole word for “hope.”
Lespwa engages in sustainable development in Haitian communities, but its primary focus is Lespwa Academy, a soccer academy in Haiti’s rural mountain area. The goal is to educate the 50 to 60 students and provide them three meals a day and free health care. Soccer is a way to keep them active and healthy.
Next, Albano wants coaches from the United States and United Kingdom to come and scout the secondary school students for potential scholarships to schools in the West. In the meantime, her organization is raising funds for a new, state-of-the-art school and recently purchased three acres of land in Haiti to develop and expand Lespwa Academy.
Long road to Lespwa
After Albano’s early, eye-opening experience in Haiti, she continued to travel there several times a year throughout high school. She knew the dream; she just needed to work out how to reach it.
She studied business in high school and researched which colleges would give her the best education and experience to live out her calling. She decided on Sacred Heart University. “With the five-year MBA program, the service-learning opportunities abroad and the community service roots in Sacred Heart’s mission statement, I knew there was no other school for me,” says Albano.
She entered Sacred Heart in 2011, double-majoring in international business and economics with a concentration in sustainable development. She notes one professor in particular who guided and supported her through her four undergraduate years. “Professor Khawaja Mamun was more than just my economics professor and faculty adviser during my undergrad career. He believed in me and helped me take my education to the next level and apply what I was learning in his class to what I wanted to accomplish in developing countries,” she says.
In her senior year at SHU, she went on a trip with Mamun and other faculty members and students to Bangladesh to work in an orphanage in Dhaka, and in a smaller rural village as well. “It was an enlightening experience and showed me other developing countries besides Haiti—an experience I owe entirely to Professor Mamun and his mentorship,” Albano says.
“I was raised to hold an unshakeable conviction that every individual life matters. That people matter: rich or poor, sick or healthy, young or old—they matter. Sacred Heart has that same mindset. They supported my establishing a club for Haiti my freshman year. I was able to lead my own student trips to Haiti throughout my undergrad career. That is when my dreams began to become a reality,” she continues.
After Albano graduated from SHU, she returned to earn her MBA in management with a concentration in nonprofit management. She was the graduate assistant for the Center for Not-for-Profits in the Jack Welch College of Business, working with Professor Stephen Brown. “Professor Brown not only taught me what it takes to start and successfully run a nonprofit organization, but he believed in me and shared the same core values as I did. He always pushed me to go further, work harder and think deeper. His mentorship in the nonprofit world was something I could not receive anywhere other than SHU.”
As Albano set out to achieve her dream for Haiti, MBA in hand, she found a way to fill another passion: sports. She landed a job at Kraft Sports and Entertainment, working in corporate sponsorships for the New England Patriots and Gillette Stadium.
Albano says she loves her work with the Patriots and enjoys being in a corporate setting, working on events, sales and account management for sponsorships. Still, Haiti is her first priority and long-term vision “Kraft Sports has let me live that and supports that. They embrace what we do in Haiti,” she says.
As a student, Albano was part of the Forever Pioneers program through SHU’s University Advancement Department. While interning for Forever Pioneers for three years, she met two fellow students interested in her mission. Ryan Cotrupi ’15 and Andrew Borts ’14 now are members of Lespwa’s senior leadership team. Borts is the organization’s chief financial officer, and Cotrupi is the chief marketing officer, developing all video and photo/web content. Both have been with Lespwa since its inception.
“Sacred Heart has given me many things: a great education and memories that will last a lifetime. But the friendships you develop truly can help make your dreams come true. Lespwa Inc. would not be what it is today without the help of Ryan and Andrew,” says Albano.
For current and incoming students at Sacred Heart, she has this piece of advice: “Don’t limit yourself. Don’t shy away from what you want because you think it is unattainable. I had this dream since I was 14 and here I am, living proof dreams can come true. Sacred Heart lets you follow those dreams and wants you to thrive, to be better and to better the communities around you. So, go out there chase those dreams, and cherish every moment of your four years at SHU.”
For more information on Lespwa Inc., visit https://www.lespwaacademy.org/