ENCINITAS — Lesia Cartelli is putting smiles back on the faces of beautiful girls scarred as the result of accidents.
Cartelli is the founder of Angel Faces, a local nonprofit based in Encinitas that hosts a weeklong retreat each summer where girls are embraced physically and emotionally.
The retreat is run exclusively by women, mostly volunteers, including two retired fire captains who provide yoga instruction, lifeguard services and art therapy; one active duty fire captain helps to handle management of the facilities.
Other volunteers include therapists, nurses specializing in burns and reconstructive surgery, and corrective cosmetic professionals who provide makeup instruction.
“The girls learn in a private setting,” Cartelli said. “Sometimes it’s about calming down the redness in their skin, penciling in lips and creating eyebrows to match.”
The retreat includes yoga each day and therapeutic touch. Girls also use role playing to learn how to cope with bullying and teasing.
“They come in angry and assume that anyone who asks a question (about their injury) is coming from a bad place,” Executive Director Jennifer Tokatyan said. “We teach them how to handle an unwanted question using love and compassion, not anger.”
Adriana Ramirez, 15, has participated in the retreat twice. At 18 months, she received severe burns when an electric fryer fell on her after she tripped and grabbed an electric cord to try and regain her balance.
The injury left her self-conscious, causing her to hide her face with sunglasses and hats, and blaming herself.
“If someone stared at me I’d immediately look away,” she said. “The hardest part was when they asked what happened. I would either ignore them or have a bad attitude.”
Adriana said part of her recovery was bonding with other burn survivors through Angel Faces.
“Throughout the course of the retreat I learned how to be more confident,” she said. “When it was time to go home, I was able to answer questions with a positive attitude and without being afraid of people judging me. My family saw a big improvement, seeing me happier and more comfortable talking about my story.”
Adriana said her social life also improved. This fall she was asked to her homecoming dance.
Cartelli understands the girls’ pain firsthand.
As a child, she sustained burns from a natural gas explosion at her grandparent’s home.
“I fumbled through adolescence enduring reconstructive surgery over 50 percent of my body including my face and hands,” she said. “In my late 20s I went for a second opinion from a reconstructive surgeon at UCSD. He said, ‘I’m surprised your recovery isn’t better (emotionally).’”
Cartelli began working at the Burn Institute and experienced an “ah, ha” moment while supervising camps for burn survivors.
“A couple of teenage girls walked by and I thought, ‘God, I’m failing. Who’s taking care of the pain in their heart?’”
She added, “I could see them reading, knitting and sewing — involved in solitary hobbies because of social death that occurs. I knew I had skills and tools to recruit them into a holistic framework that focused deep within.”
Cartelli left the organization and in 2003 started Angel Faces. Today, up to 25 girls attend the retreat each year, which is located near Glen Ivy Hot Springs Spa, Corona. Girls are able to return three times as their journey of healing evolves and they begin to face new challenges.
The next retreat will be held June 17 to June 23. Girls ages 11 to 19 with trauma, regardless of the injury, are invited to apply, even if they can’t make that date. Additional retreats are being considered.
Afterward, Angels in Flight provides ongoing support through newsletters, monthly webcam sessions, Facebook, email and texting.
In 2006, Cartelli was awarded “Woman of the Year” by Dr. Phil McGraw who also donated $50,000 for seed money for Angel Faces. In 2008, she received the Channel 10 News Leadership Award.
Today, the nonprofit is seeking corporate sponsors and private donors to underwrite retreats for the next three years.
Volunteers are also being recruited to handle public relations/media relations, grant writing and website development, branding and marketing. A wish list includes larger office space at reasonable rent in North County.
For more information about Angel Faces, call (760) 487-1720 or visit angelfacesretreat.org or Facebook/Angel Faces.