Burn victim Lesia Cartelli knows what it feels like to be called different. She knows what it feels like to be stared at, to be taunted, to feel utterly and hopelessly alone. Lesia was only nine years old when a harrowing natural gas explosion left her face, hands and body covered in disfiguring scars. Now, 40 years later, Lesia is on a mission to teach teenage burn victims that beauty is more than skin deep—and that, with a little faith and TLC, even your deepest emotional scars can be healed.
Lesia is the founder and CEO of Angel Faces, a non-profit organization based in Encinitas, Calif., dedicated to providing healing retreats and ongoing support for adolescent girls with burn and trauma injuries.
Angel Faces began out of Lesia’s own pain as a young girl. Recovering from her burn injuries, “I felt isolated,” Lesia says. “Back then, there was no support system available.”
Lesia was moved to help young girls cope with severe burns and facial disfigurations. The result was Angel Faces, founded in 2003. The organization’s mission is to empower adolescent girls with facial disfigurements to achieve their optimum potential and overcome the emotional and physical challenges of living with a burn injury.
During the annual Angel Faces Retreat, girls ages 11-19 from around the world convene for a week to focus on healing emotional scars and moving past trauma. The girls participate in a variety of intensive group sessions such as art, yoga, journaling and verbal expression. “I wanted to create a safe, loving environment where adolescent girls with burns or disfigurations could come and heal on a deep level—a place where they could rediscover their self-worth and purpose,” Lesia says.
This emotional rediscovery is something that hospitals are ill-equipped to provide, Lesia says. “The real process of healing doesn’t happen in a hospital. It happens when the child must go back out and face the world,” she says.
Lesia recognizes the unique psychosocial needs of adolescent girls. Adolescence is a delicate period for young girls, a time when they are cripplingly self-conscious about their clothes, bodies and identities. But while most teenage girls fret about a bad hair day, others must deal with the pain and shame that comes with having disfiguring burns.
“At that age, you just want to look like everybody else,” Lesia explains. “That’s why it’s especially difficult for adolescent girls to undergo disfiguring burns. It’s a lot of unwanted attention at an already sensitive time.”
According to Lesia, it is incredibly powerful for teenage burn victims to be able to come together and share their unique personal experiences. The girls all have moving stories to tell—stories of loss, pain and unfathomable suffering. But at their core, they are also stories of miraculous strength, of resilience, of indomitable spirit.
“When the girls come together, they realize that they’re more than ‘the burn girl’—they’re somebody very special. Together, they see each other’s light. And when they see the light in each other, they begin to see the light in themselves,” Lesia says.
And the transformations are truly awe-inspiring: After seven days at the Angel Faces Retreat, the girls leave with renewed confidence and a more positive outlook on life. “It’s a beautiful thing to see,” Lesia says. “When the retreat closes up, the girls who leave are completely different than the wounded girls who walked in.”
The response to the program has been tremendous. Lesia recounts one particularly moving story of transformation. “One summer, we had a young girl who was reluctant to open up. The whole time, she didn’t say much. I was afraid she wasn’t getting anything out of the retreat,” Lesia recalls. “I thought I wasn’t going to be able to help her.”
But a few weeks after the retreat wrapped up, Lesia received an unexpected call from the girl’s mother. “The mother said, ‘Thank you. You gave me my daughter back,’” Lesia recalls. “I was shocked. Three months later, the same girl took the cutest boy in her school to prom.”
“That’s what I love most about what I do—seeing the girls go on with their lives, not wounded anymore,” Lesia says.
Not a single day goes by where Lesia isn’t connecting with her former Angels, whether via Facebook, Skype or telephone.
“I may not have any children of my own, but I have hundreds of little angels,” Lesia says. “They call me ‘Mother Angel.’”