Emma Albert: Rolling past every obstacle in her way

By: Kristi Lee Neuberger | Manhattan

PUBLISHED 2:21 PM ET Jun. 01, 2021

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“No matter what a child’s disability is, if they would like to participate in sport, they should be given that opportunity.”

That’s the message Beacon High School Senior Emma Albert would like the world to know.

“Give us a chance and the proper accessibility and we can accomplish most anything,” she added.

What You Need To Know

  • Albert hopes people will look past the physical appearance of disabled individuals and focus on all they can do
  • Albert has taken up volunteering, mentoring, and even being an ambassador to represent and inspire others into knowing they can do anything they put their mind to
  • For Albert, racing is a freeing experience that allows her to feel empowered

At a young age, Emma Albert was diagnosed with Klippel Trenaunay Syndrome, or KTS; a vascular disease that often causes limbs to be affected by varicose veins or an overproduction of soft tissue and bone growth. She relies on a wheelchair for mobility. It’s a trait that every passing stranger can see, but one she hopes they will look past.

“I hope people see strength and resilience, as well as independence. I am used to overcoming obstacles and will work even harder to achieve my goals,” Albert said.

Albert’s athletic career started with sled hockey, playing for the New York Sled Rangers for six years. She loved being part of a team of individuals who weren’t letting their disabilities slow them down. But it wasn’t until she learned about wheelchair racing that Albert discovered her true calling.

“Once I connected with the team at New York Road Runners, and learned how to train for the sport of Wheelchair Racing, I was hooked,” Albert said.

The young athlete quickly became involved in more than just racing with New York Road Runners, a non-profit focused on inspiring individuals through running. As an intern and volunteer, Albert assisted all age groups and handled coordinating transportation for professional athletes. Giving back to the community that had brought her joy was one of the many reasons why Albert says she continued to volunteer. She also participates in the Stay-Focused adaptive scuba diving lessons, once again showing that children of all abilities can do anything they set their minds to.

“It was a life-changing experience, in a beautiful, world-class diving location. Given how much I learned and enjoyed this incredible opportunity, I knew it was my job to help as many other disabled kids experience this amazing underwater environment. It was not only beautiful, but very empowering for a disabled teen to master scuba diving,” Albert remarked.

Albert might have found her place teaching kids scuba diving, however finding a spot on the Beacon High School track team wasn’t an easy transition. Albert and her family had to figure out busing and accessible accommodations in order to make competing a reality. After a few years of arranging, everything was in place, just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down all public high school sports in New York City. It was a setback for Albert, losing not only her sport but also her senior year experience.

“It took away most of the traditional social and fun elements you normally associate with your last year of high school. I do, however, have a close-knit group of friends who I tried to get together with a lot more as we slowly started to recover from Covid. This really helped all of us just to be able to spend time together in person,” Albert commented.

She can’t wait for the chance to get back on the track.

“To me, racing is speed, freedom, and feeling empowered,” Albert said.

Whether it’s in her community or at school, Albert leads by example – letting few things get in her way. She said one of the many secrets to her success is time management which allows her to stay on top of her school assignments while still having plenty of time to participate in what matters most; raising a voice for rights for the disabled. Albert was selected as a global ambassador for the Vascular Birthmark Foundation, an organization that focuses on helping people who were born with both painful and disfiguring birthmarks find support and medical resources.

“Give us a chance and the proper accessibility and we can accomplish most anything,” she said.

Albert will be attending Northeastern University where she plans to study Public Health.

The Power of Community: How Stay-Focused Started My Weight Loss Journey

My first trip with Stay-Focused was in 2017. After a few years of not accepting Roger’s offer (looking back, I only regret not going sooner), I decided to give diving a try. The trip to Cayman became much more than just my first diving experience. As a soon to be high school senior and sled hockey player with eyes set on college, Stay-Focused showed me a community that would support my greatest ambitions.

In the months before my trip, I had become increasingly dissatisfied with both my performance on the ice and the shape of my body. Freshman through junior year I gained about 30 pounds. Now, this would be fine (and quite impressive) for someone who was training vigorously, but I was a typical teenager playing video games until 3:00 am and eating chips by the bag. Frustrated, as the summer of 2017 rolled around, I had even less motivation to change as things worsened. The timing for my trip could not have been better, as my experience with Stay-Focused would provide me with the support I needed but was not able to muster on my own.

Every part of the trip was surreal. While I have been fortunate to travel outside of Long Island, NY, frequently, nothing compares to the invitingly clear water of Cayman. Diving did take some getting used to, but by the end of the week I felt confident in the water. Swimming has always been fatiguing for me with cerebral palsy, so much of my free time was spent napping to keep up with everything we did. I will also say proudly despite the frequent naps, I was never late to our pre-rollout lobby gatherings. Between diving and the amazing food, I did not think the trip could get any better.

One of the exercises we do as a group, a goal-setting activity, is where this story begins. As someone who is occasionally anxious, I was nervous about making losing weight my goal. I frequently debated whether to do that or cop out with just a GPA goal for senior year. As my turn came to share, I remembered what room I was in. This was not my high school where I might have been judged. I was in the Caymans with a group of people just like me, where we are put together to support one another through battles like the one I was having. And so, I did it. When Roger got to my name on the giant pad, I said I wanted to lose weight. We settled on five pounds by the end of the year and I kept a picture of that goal on my phone for when I got home.

Fast forward to October of that year, I had still not started to try and make the changes necessary for me to lose weight. While I cannot remember the exact day, I do recall the moments that forever changed my life. Every day, I wore my Stay-Focused bracelet as a reminder of the trip. While frustrated with not doing anything to help myself, I remembered the goal I had set to lose weight by the end of the year. How could I not take full advantage of the opportunity I had experienced? From that moment on, I knew I had everything in me to work through the struggles. Each day I weighed myself, and I kept the goal I had set in the back of my head. Stay-Focused provided me with the courage to start tackling my greatest struggle, and tackle it I did.

As the end of the year started to crawl near, I was seeing great progress. Thanks to plenty of salads and the classic rice, chicken, and broccoli (thanks mom), I had hit my five-pound goal by mid-November. Liking the direction I was headed in, I decided to continue getting in shape and see where I would be by the end of the year. December 31st came after continued weeks of dieting and I managed to lose another five pounds. I had finally gained control of my weight and felt better than ever. By the time my reunion trip came around the following summer, I was able to steadily maintain my weight. While I did not make it a big deal while I was in Cayman the second time, Stay-Focused was the reason I was able to improve my life in such an important way. Without the sense of community and support provided by my experience in Cayman, there is no telling what my life would look like today.

Three years later, odds are you will find me in a gym somewhere or evaluating everything I need to eat to properly fuel my training. The motivated person you see today was fostered by the opportunities this organization provide me. Whenever I am looking to get back on track, I simply remember these experiences, as I look to “stay focused” on what lies ahead.

The inspiration that fueled Stay-Focused started with my brother, Bobby

Bobby, a Marine Corps veteran who uses a wheelchair, sustained an injury in combat at the age of 22, while in Vietnam. In 1998, Bobby took a trip to Jamaica where he learned to dive. That motivated me to follow suit, so the following March I planned my own dive trip to Grand Cayman, as I wanted to be able to enjoy the sport with him. Oddly enough, neither of us had ever considered learning to dive, so it was quite unexpected we both got certified in diving in our 50s.

The name of the organization preceded the trip itself. While working as Director of Career Management at Kellogg, the MBA program at Northwestern University (1991-95), Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls at the time) was all the rage. I recall an interview in which he attributed part of his success to his ability to ‘stay focused’ and avoid distraction. At about the same time, my mother, who knew nothing about golf told me she needed to end a phone conversation because Tiger Woods had just appeared on TV. Later, when I called her back and inquired about her sudden interest in golf, she explained she was intrigued by Tiger’s ability to ‘stay focused’… to get into the ‘zone.’ From that point on, the notion of ‘staying focused’ resonated with me.

Roger Muller with Dean Donald Jacobs at a Kellogg graduation during his tenure as Director of Career Management

Following Kellogg, I held a position with Booz-Allen Hamilton as the firm’s Director of Career Management, where I began to think more seriously about my own career. While conducting a workshop on career management for MBA students at The Wharton School, it became abundantly clear I wanted to start a nonprofit organization. I realized the appeal of social entrepreneurship aligned perfectly with my natural preferences and that my calling entailed working with young people. While I had no idea what the organization would be, I knew the name would be Stay-Focused.

The direction in which I initially thought we were headed had European roots. I have dual nationality with Switzerland and have always enjoyed my time there … especially the year I spent working as a waiter in a Swiss ski resort following graduate school. Prior to diving with Bobby, had anyone asked me what I thought the organization would be, I most likely would have described how cool it would be to lead hiking trips in the Swiss Alps for high school students interested in learning French, German, or Italian. I still think it would have been a great way for my career to evolve – stunning mountain scenery, the smell of cheese fondue permeating the air … but the idea solidified itself entirely as a result of my dive trip with Bobby.

Bobby Muller (l) alongside Roger

Everything changed when I witnessed Bobby enjoying the warm Caribbean water. As a sport so few enjoy, diving became a way to celebrate a different, yet perfectly able life. I recall the moment clearly, when we were on the dive boat following our first dive together. Bobby was relaxing in the Cayman sun, headset on, listening to Springsteen. My decision became as crystal clear as the water we were diving in: Stay-Focused would enable teens with physical disabilities to enjoy this moment … the exact same moment that was bringing so much joy to my brother.

When it became clear to me what Stay-Focused would be, I knew I could leverage my background in academia and consulting to make the organization more than just a diving program. While using SCUBA as the vehicle,Stay-Focused could evolve into a leadership development program, complete with workshops and opportunities for personal growth. Having now run programs for 16 years, much of what I hoped the organization could be has become reality. We have certified in diving 133 teens and young adults with disabilities and created a well-developed mentorship program to continue to foster and develop leadership skills in young adults.

Our participants leave Cayman bragging about a lot of things, but three outcomes have remained consistent over the years: greater self-confidence; feeling inspired; and, motivated to set higher goals.

Stay-Focused Reunion Program, Cayman 2018

What has always set Stay-Focused apart is our commitment to providing participants a life-changing experience and our investment in their personal development. Many of our divers have never traveled independently or needed a passport before embarking on their Cayman experience. Most have not spent a week in a hotel without a parent or guardian. These elements alone are life-changing, especially for participants between the ages of 13 and 17. Having the opportunity to experience independence and build the confidence necessary to make the trip alone resonates with our participants for life. We are also unique in offering our participants two, week-long trips to Cayman. The first to get certified in diving and master the required skills; the second, a reunion program one year later, to refresh their skills and focus on team-building activities. As PADI certified SCUBA Divers, our alumni can take their certification with them and dive anywhere in the world accompanied by an instructor. This certification is a rarity for most teens and adults … talk about bragging rights!

Roger Muller flying the Stay-Focused flag over the USS Kittiwake off Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman

Running a small nonprofit has indeed been challenging, but it has satisfied my desire to engage in meaningful work, which, for me, was the key takeaway from that memorable workshop at Wharton. It took more than two years from the time of that trip to Cayman with Bobby to incorporate Stay-Focused, which I accomplished at the age of 54. My goal was to create a unique organization that would enhance the quality of life for teens with disabilities and allow me to stay involved well into my retirement years. Now in my Stay-Focused Reunion Program, Cayman, 2018 early 70s, the only place I am headed in my retirement is back into the Cayman waters with our next group of divers.

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