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.”