Anna Monica Villegas volunteers with other USC students at a health clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.

Anna Monica Villegas volunteers with other USC students at a health clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.

Anna Monica Villegas has come a long way since she was a 7-year-old burn center patient with severe burns covering 60 percent of her body. A barbecue had exploded at a family party. She spent three months at the hospital before her parents took her home.

Villegas remembers how difficult it was to look at herself in the mirror after the accident. She could see she didn’t look like the Disney princesses. She had scars, on her face, her legs, her arms. They didn’t have those. She felt bad. She wanted to hide.

She attended her first Angel Faces retreat in 2005. There were therapists who guided discussions on grief and loss. There were corrective cosmetics experts who showed her how to use makeup to tame her scars. She learned how to deal with mean comments and constant stares. Over and over, she was told that her looks were not important, that she would have a great career and an inspiring life despite her scars. It eventually sunk in.

“Not to say it was overnight, but it was something really good to learn as a young girl. It has played a huge role in my confidence and my self-esteem,” said Villegas, whose parents are from Mexico and who learned English in elementary school.

Now 25, Villegas is on the path to becoming a doctor. She has a degree in sociology and is finishing a pre-med program at University of Southern California. She will take the Medical College Admission Test in the fall.Villegas says an Angel Faces retreat put her on the path to success. “Angel Faces set the foundation. We are the same. There is no difference. It doesn’t matter what we look like,” she said.

Angel Faces was founded in 2003 by Lesia Cartelli, who was severely burned herself in a gas explosion at age 9. Cartelli remembers first meeting Villegas at a burn camp that she was running. Villegas, then 7, was walking with two other little girls, all wearing bathing suits, headed to the pool. As they looked up at her, Cartelli thought these little girls, with their disfiguring scars, looked like “angel faces.”

Villegas’ parents have played a huge role in her life. “My parents are from Mexico. They immigrated before I was born,” she said. “They’ve done everything possible for me and my brother to get the most possible out of our lives. Their efforts have always inspired me to be the best person I can be.”

Spending so much time in a hospital at a young age is partly what inspired Villegas to go into medicine. “I was always surrounded by doctors,” she said. “I felt their support. I always knew I wanted to help people.”

She returned to Angel Faces one year as a resident advisor and hopes to do that again. Helping them was so gratifying, she said.

Angel Faces is in the process of looking for girls for its 2016 retreat, which will be held June 20-26 in Wolfboro, NH. Applications are available at www.angelfaces.com. The application deadline has been extended until April 10.

The nonprofit is also looking for sponsors to help pay retreat costs. Make a tax deductible donation here.