Meet an Angel: Shawna Hoagland

Shawna HoaglandResilience is in Shawna Hoagland’s DNA. She was born with a facial abnormality that caused infections, breathing problems and social isolation. She was neglected as a child, so much so that she weighed only 10 pounds when she was 12 months old. She was put in foster care and adopted. She experienced dozens of surgeries by age 20.

Now 24, she has just completed course work to earn a master’s degree in social work and seeks to help children find their place in the world.

She credits her personal resilience to the adults in her life who have stood by her side and cheered her on. Her social worker was one of those role models, as was Lesia Cartelli, who runs the Angel Faces retreats for girls and young women with disfiguring injuries. Shawna attended several Angel Faces retreats. Research shows that just one week at an Angel Faces retreat has positive, measurable impact on attendees’ psycho-social state, increasing hope, decreasing depressive symptoms, and increasing quality of life.

“For me, personally, my biggest issue was not clinical depression but low self-esteem, which led to feeling down most of the time because I didn’t know anybody else dealing with the same things I was dealing with,” Hoagland said. “I felt all alone, plus there was social awkwardness and a lack of social skills.”

During the retreat, survivors hear firsthand from Cartelli and each other about resilience, the long road through recovery, and the “gifts” they can find in their own lives despite how their appearance is altered or the loss they suffered. The young girls work closely with licensed therapists to share and explore ways to facilitate emotional healing and meet others with similar struggles. They learn to use new tools that will help them increase their self-esteem, decrease their depressive symptoms, and have a better quality of life. Most important of all, they discover within themselves how to create the life they desire through empowerment and self-acceptance. The 2016 retreat is June 20-26 in Wolfeboro, NH.

“Being able to connect with the other girls and really go close with them was really helpful,” Hoagland said. “I didn’t feel alone after that. I made some life-long friends.”

Hoagland was born with choanl antresia, a congenital disorder where the back of the nasal passage is blocked, usually by abnormal bony or soft tissue (membranous) due to failed recanalization of the nasal fossae during fetal development. She lives in Spring Valley, CA, and will marry her finance, Alex Uskokovic, in the fall.

If she could advise her younger self, she would say not to worry about your looks.

“When I look back at myself then, and see who I am today, and how much I’ve accomplished today, whatever physical difference I may have, what I looked like really had no impact,” she said. “I was able to do everything I set my mind to do.”

She added, “There are so many rules about how you are supposed to look, how you are supposed to act. People put a whole lot of importance into that. I go through my life not caring about that and showing people that it is not that important.”


By |May 18th, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Meet an Angel: Shawna Hoagland

Meet an Angel: Melissa Johnson

Melissa JohnsonWhen Melissa Johnson was a 20-year-old college student, an explosion severely burned her face and neck. She spent four months in a hospital burn unit and then moved back home with her parents for treatments and therapy.

At the hospital in Tampa, she learned about retreats organized by the nonprofit Angel Faces for adolescent girls and young women with disfiguring injuries. She ended up attending one of the week-long retreats, just a year after her injury. She is so glad she did.

“I was outgoing before my injury, but, after it, I was more sheltered and reserved,” Melissa explained. “Just being able to interact with and do activities with girls with similar injuries got me out of my shell again. I didn’t think it would be possible. I am really thankful for it.”

Melissa spent two years doing treatments and therapies and then returned to college. She graduated in 2015 from University of Florida with a double major in mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering. Now age 26, she just finished the Disney College Program and has accepted a full-time engineering job.

She credits the Angel Faces retreat with giving her the confidence and skills needed to re-enter the larger community. “Angel Faces helped me transition back to society and gain my independence back,” she said. “I had the motivation to go back, but I was just nervous and scared about being away for so long. It gave me the confidence…I definitely learned a lot… a lot of things I apply in my life now.”

The Angel Faces retreat encourages the girls/women to embrace their trauma and related disfigurement. Group sessions led by licensed psychologists focus on identifying trauma and loss issues. Participants learn how to handle unwanted questions and stares.

“Being able to actively participate in those role plays, being able to see the volunteers give their input and how other girls would react, it helped me see how to handle questions and stares positively,” she said.

Melissa returned several times to the Angel Faces retreats as a resident adviser. She always stays in the dorms with the girls. “I continue to learn as I volunteer,” she said “Hearing the girls’ stories, seeing how they used to deal with an issue a certain way and how they apply what they learn from Angel Faces… It is so rewarding.”

Asked what she would say to a girl with disfiguring trauma, she said she would encourage her to have hope. “It will be a tough road but it will get easier,” she said. “Make sure to have a good support system. You are not alone.”

Her experience with trauma has helped her “become more confident in who I am and in the person I want to be,” she said, adding, “It has helped me truly see people for who they are and to not take anything for granted.”

By |May 6th, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Meet an Angel: Melissa Johnson

Meet an Angel: Atarah Dickinson

Atarah Dickinson was only five years old when a house fire burned 95 percent of her body with third degree burns.

Atarah DickinsonShe was asleep on a top bunk bed when a candle lit by playing children fell over and ignited the carpet. The bedroom was ablaze before she woke up and jumped down, right into flames. Her mother risked her own life to rescue her.

Atarah spent six months in the hospital. Doctors had to create substitute skin for her because almost all of own skin was damaged. Her skin is a collage of brown, her natural color, and white, the cultured skin.

Now 21, Atarah is graduating from Medaille College in upstate New York with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She spent the past semester interning at an independent living agency, working mainly in the peer mental counseling quarter helping adults with physical or mental disabilities live on their own.

She did a range of things for clients, helping them find apartments, helping children get services, even help parents fight for custody of their children. She found her calling.

“I really, really loved doing that. It gave me genuine joy to help someone in need,” said Atarah, who lives with her parents and two younger brothers in Buffalo, NY.

Atarah credits her parents with giving her confidence and the skills necessary to navigate her way to success by not treating her differently than her siblings after her injury.

“My father made it his business to make sure I didn’t have self-esteem issues. My mother and my sister also played a big part in my resilience,” she said.

The Angel Faces retreat uncovered deeply buried feelings about her injury and her disfigurement. She hadn’t really realized how much anger she was carrying around with her.

“Up until that, I had never thought about the pain beyond the surface,” she said. “I thought I was okay but then I realized, ‘Wow, I really have a lot of issues.’ ”

She processed her grief and loss issues along with others at the retreat. She remains close friends with one of the girls she met there.

Atarah says her experience with trauma helps her in her work. If a client is struggling, she might say “I have been through this and that and I got through it. You can come out of this.” “Sometimes I even go into detail to let them know that everyone has problems and there’s no such thing as a life that’s better than yours,” she said.

Asked what advice she would tell an adolescent healing from a trauma, she said, “The best advice I could give anybody would be to take it one day at a time. Don’t try to rush it. Be patient. I spent so much of my teenage years trying to convince myself I was fine and I wasn’t.”

By |April 29th, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Meet an Angel: Atarah Dickinson

Meet an Angel: Nancy Tran

By Nancy Tran

2015-November-14-Angel-Faces-Event-9-470x705Fifteen years ago I was doused with gasoline in my sleep by an ex-boyfriend. I was only 19 years old at the time. My spirit was shattered as I felt isolated, emotionally and physically broken down.

When I met Lesia Cartelli, founder of Angel Faces, she asked me to come to a retreat. I was hesitant to go because I was in denial and did not want to meet others who were burned like me. But she was very encouraging. I finally decided, “Why not?”

Attending the Angel Faces retreat opened my heart and gave me new insights and perspectives. It was a place where I felt normal and a sense of joy again. There was hope for a better future because I was able to see the other girls laughing and enjoying life.

Fast forward to today, and I am the happiest I could ever imagine. I achieved my master’s degree in social work. I have been traveling and have a successful job, great friends, and family. I also share my story and talk about signs and red flags of teen dating violence.

If not for Angel Faces setting the foundation for me to move forward, I do not know what would have been possible when I was that lost 22 year old.

Thank you!

By |April 28th, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Meet an Angel: Nancy Tran

Meet an Angel: Tiffany Bates


Tiffany, left, with Larisa at Angel Faces retreat.

By Tiffany Bates
Originally Published 4/18/16 in The Odyssey Online

I remember that day like it was yesterday. The day that I learned to embrace my scars was the second best day of my life, the first being the day I got them.

When I was 14 years old, I was burned, leaving scars on 20 percent of my body. It was very difficult for me to accept my scars. I tried to put on a brave face and act like everything was fine, but I was truly breaking inside. I completely hated myself because of my scars.

For some reason, scars are ugly, according to society. I was ugly. I didn’t feel worthy of anyone’s love, not even my family. I didn’t want to spend time with my friends because I didn’t want them to have to be seen with me. I was trapped behind my scarred skin.

I was able to attend a retreat called Angel Faces shortly after my burn injury. It was there when I realized how beautiful my scars are. Everyone had some sort of scarring, whether it was from a fire or car accident or a dog attack. Everyone had a story to tell. Everyone was the same situation. Everyone was “normal” (whatever that means) for the first time in months, even years. There was no staring or teasing or being ashamed of who we were. I was able to see the true beauty of everyone around me and I began to see myself as beautiful. I began to realize that the day I went through the fire was not the worst day of my life, but it was actually the best.

I realized that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my scars. I beat the fire. You see, scars show the battles you’ve been through. The battles that you’ve won. Whether your scars are from a fire, like mine, or surgery or self-harm or even emotional scars, you’re stronger because of them. You overcame whatever it was that tried to hurt you.

The scars become a part of who you are. They become a part of your story. Your journey. Your triumph. Your life. Don’t hide them. Share the story behind your scars. You never know who you will impact.

I truly believe that my scars are beautiful. I’m beautiful. There’s nothing I can do to get rid of my scars and honestly, I would never want to. I get to look at my scars every single day and remember how strong I was. How strong I am. I can’t imagine my skin without my beautiful scars.

So please, if you’re struggling or trying to cover your scars, just remember that they are beautiful. Remember the battle that you fought and won. You survived the battle. You are a warrior. You are beautiful. Hold your head up high. Be proud of yourself. I’m proud of you.

Embrace your scars. Embrace your journey. Learn to love yourself. Every single flaw and scar.

Tiffany Bates, now age 20, attended the 2010 Angel Faces retreat. She lives in Ohio and has a blog on The Odyssey Online that she says is “Just trying to create rays of happiness in this world full of hate.” She was burned in a furnace fire.

By |April 22nd, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Meet an Angel: Tiffany Bates

Meet an Angel: Courtney Bennett

Courtney "Co-Co" Bennett with her fiance, Milton Notblkjustchocolate Spland

Courtney “Co-Co” Bennett with her fiance, Milton

Courtney Bennett’s scars help her connect with her patients.

Bennett, 26, works as a family life educator intern in Dallas as she finishes her master’s in family therapy. The scars from her burn injury often prompt questions from her young patients the first time they see her.

She tells the kids that she has scars that can be seen, but that others, maybe including them, have scars that can’t be seen. People go through things all the time, but they get through them, she explains. She encourages her clients to talk about their feelings.

She believes that her scars help her connect with clients and make her more effective. It is her gift.

Bennett was severely burned at age 17 in a house fire. She spent 10 weeks in the burn center at Parkland Memorial Hospital. A year later, she attended her first Angel Faces retreat, where she learned many of the social skills she uses today to navigate the world. She attended the retreat twice more, once as a mentor.

“I learned a lot,” she said of the Angel Faces retreat. “I learned not to worry about what other people say and how to handle the stares and questions. And that I am beautiful no matter what.”

They are beautiful no matter what. And they can have a career and family just like anyone else. The girls also learn how to see their trauma as a gift. A gift to use to help others through hard times. That is one of the most basic lessons girls learn at the retreats organized by Angel Faces, a nonprofit based in Encinitas, California.

Founded in 2003 by Lesia Cartelli, Angel Faces has retreats for adolescent girls and young women who have experienced burn and trauma injuries. Costs of the retreats are paid by donors. The 2016 retreat for 12 to 18 year old girls will be June 20-26 in Wolfeboro, NH. Applications are available at www.angelfaces.com.

Bennett certainly feels that her career and life is coming together wonderfully. She will receive her master’s degree in August and marry her sweetheart in October. She is already working full-time in her field.

She attributes most of her success to her family. Her dad’s most common saying is “never give up.”

“Even though it is painful, keep striving,” she quotes him as saying. “Pick up where you left off. Don’t give up.”

That is a message she’ll share with her clients. And that they are beautiful, scars and all.

By |April 4th, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Meet an Angel: Courtney Bennett

Meet an Angel: Anna Monica Villegas

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.

By |March 9th, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Meet an Angel: Anna Monica Villegas

Spreading the word about the 2016 retreat

Lesia Cartelli has been doing a series of interviews promoting the 2016 Angel Faces retreats. This is all part of our campaign to get the word out around the country that the applications are available and the due date is March 15. Please help us spread the word! We want all qualified girls to apply!

Last week Lesia spoke with Deanna Cruz, the Morning Show Host of KHTP, Hot 103.7, in Seattle. The interview ran on Hot 103.7, The Wolf 100.7, KISW 99.9, and The End 107.7. She also spoke on the Schilling Show.



By |February 1st, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Spreading the word about the 2016 retreat

Applications available for 2016 Level 1 Retreat

angel Faces retreat applications are available for download.

We are now accepting applications for our next Angel Faces retreat for adolescent girls ages 12-19 with disfiguring burn and trauma injuries.

RETREAT DATE:                                      June 20 – 27, 2016

LOCATION OF RETREAT:                     Wolfeboro, New Hampshire

APPLICATION DUE DATE:                   May 15, 2016


Space is limited. Health care professionals and agencies that are promoting a girl’s acceptance should write a letter of recommendation. We also ask that referring agencies link their organizational websites to the Angel Faces webpage: www.angelfaces.com. Having links to our site helps our program in many ways.             

Applications are being accepted for the 2016 Angel Faces Level 1 retreat for girls, ages 12-18, with facial differences or large body surface trauma due to burn or trauma-related injuries. Since 2003, Angel Faces has offered holistic retreats that focus on the psychosocial needs of the attendees. Angel Faces was the first organization to offer this kind of healing retreat, which differs significantly from burn camps. While youth retreats are now available, Angel Faces is the only one that focuses primarily on the specific needs of girls. The program was developed by Lesia Cartelli, Angel Faces CEO, who endured a serious burn injury as a child.

The Angel Faces Level 1 retreat teaches adolescent and teenage girls how to increase self-confidence and improve their self-image, while embracing their trauma and related disfigurement.  Licensed therapists lead sessions on trauma and loss issues, followed by activities that facilitate emotional healing through verbal expression, journaling and art therapy. The girls attend sessions on how to handle stares, teasing and unwanted questions, and do goal-setting exercises. They also receive professional instruction for applying corrective cosmetics and experience therapeutic massage and facials that help them connect with and embrace their body, for perhaps the first time.

Angel Faces’ holistic approach seeks to heal the mind, heart and spirit.  The end result for each participant is a renewed sense of hope.  Girls leave the retreat with skills and tools to create the life they want, overcoming challenges to reach their full potential.  After the retreat, the girls become a part of Angels in Flight, a multi-faceted ongoing support program that reinforces what they learned at the retreat and keeps the conversation and healing going.

Pre- and post-test results show that attendees to Angel Faces retreats experience favorable psychosocial adjustments: Increase in hope; decrease in depressive symptoms; and increase in quality of life. A poster summarizing the 2010 research findings won awards at the American Burn Association conference.

The Angel Faces retreat offers significant personal attention, so we accept fewer than 20 girls per retreat.  Applications are prioritized based on psychosocial needs. Girls are allowed to attend more than once, depending on their need and space availability. Priority is given to girls who have never attended before.

Applications are available for download. Applicants must include a close-up photo (which the corrective cosmetics team will use to determine individual needs for the private consult) and a letter of recommendation from a health care provider.

The application should be mailed to:

Angel Faces, c/o Terry Hewitt, 2235 Encinitas Blvd., #107b, Encinitas, CA  92024

If you have any questions, please contact Terry at terry@angelfaces.com or (760) 487-1720.

Angel Faces is a nonprofit and we raise funds through individuals, foundations and corporations to pay girls’ retreat costs. We would, of course, appreciate any kind of donation of support in the name of your patient. Our tax ID number is 20-5718594. Please contact development director Sharon Jones at 760-230-1276 or sharon@angelfaces.com if you wish to discuss being a funding or research partner of Angel Faces. We will put your company logo on our homepage and announce your support in our e-newsletter and social media.

We look forward to hearing from you and receiving your patient’s application!  Thank you for all you do for your burn/trauma patients.

The Angel Faces Team

Voices of Angels – Testimonials
“I have learned so much that helps me and that I will keep with me forever. The retreat was an experience I will never forget. I formed so many relationships and strengthened other ones. I can’t thank you enough.”

“During this retreat, I have learned so much. My heart and eyes have opened to a whole new world. Being at Angel Faces felt like I gained a whole new family. I can’t even describe how much you have already helped me in just one week. It’s insane.”

“In August it’ll be nine years since my injury and every single day is a new experience for me. So thank you for letting this short average-sized Canadian girl experience the wonders of Angel Faces.”


By |January 11th, 2016|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Applications available for 2016 Level 1 Retreat

Expect the unexpected in the New Year!

We spent part of the Christmas holiday going through files and doing some organization/administrative tasks that weren’t particularly fun. But in the midst of the chaos and drudgery emerged this beautiful illustration, hand drawn by Rachel Sharo, who attended our retreat in 2010.

We like the way this illustration appeared, a jewel amid the paperwork. We also love the illustration itself, how the face is blank (could be any girl, any age, any race) and how the posture of the body is open to interpretation.

For a social media post, we paired it with a quote from Lesia Cartelli, AF Founder: “Facing and embracing your fears often comes with more gifts than you can imagine.”

Happy New Year!

Angel illustration by Rachel Sharo

By |December 30th, 2015|Uncategorized|Comments Off on Expect the unexpected in the New Year!
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