1969. A snowy December weekend in Detroit. It was early afternoon, and the family was gathered at the grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner. There were nine people in the home — aunts, uncles, cousins. The adults were upstairs preparing the meal, while two of the youngest girls were in the basement playing hide-and-go-seek when a massive explosion destroyed the house.
You could smell the gas when you walked inside,” says Lesia Cartelli, who was one of the two in the basement. She was nine years old at the time and suffered second- and third-degree burns over half her body.
“People had been smelling gas for a few days, and the gas company had been looking for the leak. They were going to come back on Monday to look again, so you can imagine the regret that company had,” reflects Cartelli.
Thankfully, no one died. Cartelli suffered the worst injuries and spent much of the next two decades undergoing reconstructive treatment that involved bathing, scrubbing, and skin grafts of the most painful kind.
When it comes to burn injuries, the misery of the bathing, scrubbing, and skin grafts has not changed. But Cartelli is happy to report that the pain medications to help patients get through the ordeal have improved, as has the technology related to laser surgery and scar mitigation. Nevertheless, burns remain one of the most painful, disfiguring, and traumatic injuries a person can suffer, and Cartelli has made it her life’s work to help those who’ve endured fire and disfigurement recover and thrive in the face of these devastating and life-altering experiences.
In 2003, after five years working in patient support in the burn unit at UC San Diego Health, Cartelli founded Angel Faces, a nonprofit organization that focuses on adolescent girls and young women with permanent scars and disfigurement from fire and other traumatic events. Almost 20 years later, she continues as CEO of the organization, whose motto is “Head Up, Wings Out!”
“Girls often say, ‘Look at me! Why did this happen to me?’” Cartelli says. “I respond, ‘Why not you?’ In the beginning they look at me like ‘this lady is crazy.’ But the goal is to take this trauma, this horrible thing that has happened, and create something good out of it.”
“I want these girls to see they are more than this accident. And there are gifts, tremendous gifts, within what is a horrible thing. I say to the girls, ‘Look, when you walk into a room people are going to stare, so why not have them look at your best self? Hold your head up and your shoulders back. When you love you, the world will love you. When you accept you, the world will accept you,’” says Cartelli, who shares her insights not only through Angel Faces, but as a public speaker and in her book, Heart of Fire. Cartelli has won numerous awards for her work, including an Emmy for her mini documentary Angel Faces.
The organization Angel Faces provides week-long retreats for 15 to 20 girls and young women ages 14 to 29 who have suffered disfiguring injuries. “The real work begins when you are discharged from the hospital and you’re in real life, outside that soft umbilical world of the hospital,” says Cartelli. “We have two levels. Level I focuses on the trauma, the grief, what happened, friendships, and going back to school. Level II, which is for those ages 19 to 29, is more adult — relationships, careers, how to speak publicly, how to lead and mentor. A lot of our girls stay with the program, and the Level II girls help with the new girls in Level I.”
Cartelli is a remarkable example of what she is hoping for the girls and women she mentors. Not only has she overcome her injuries to live a rewarding life, she has conquered her fear of fire.
“For years, I wouldn’t live in a house with a gas stove. Everything was electric,” Cartelli says. “Secretly, I wanted to be free from the fear of fire, and one day I was at a fire conference in San Jose where I met a division chief from San Diego who said, ‘I can do that for you.’”
Back home in San Diego, Cartelli accompanied him to a fire training tower in Poway four separate times, and not only did she conquer her fear of fire, but the two ultimately married soon thereafter. The couple are now 27-year Encinitas residents.
Angel Faces offers three retreats a year: one in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, one in Knoxville, Tennessee, and one here in San Diego. The Wolfeboro and Knoxville retreats take place at vacation homes donated for the week, and Cartelli is currently looking for a similar opportunity here in San Diego. angelfaces.com