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.”