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'They call me burnt toast'

By Lesia Cartelli, Special to CNN
updated 12:02 PM EDT, Fri May 10, 2013
  • Lesia Cartelli suffered severe burns at the age of 9
  • She operates a camp for young women with burn injuries
  • Cartelli faced her fear of fire as an adult

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. Lesia Cartelli's childhood tragedy motivated her to found a retreat for young women who have scars just like hers. This was originally published in July 2012; we're republishing as this year's Angel Faces session will be held next month.

(CNN) -- It happened again. We witnessed more miracles of strength and courage in just seven days. We just completed our ninth retreat at Angel Faces.

After every retreat I think ... can this get any better? Are there more girls out there in the world with so much pain, yet desire to heal from their serious burn injuries? The next year rolls around, another retreat gets underway where we witness more adolescent girls flocking to us with a hunger to overcome their fears of being accepted, a desire to embrace who they are, and an urge to get excited about a new life.

The girls arrive at the front gate with scars molding and weaving various shapes over what once was fresh, virgin skin. Often the depth of their scars is not even close to the depth of heart pain that came with those scars.

Some have lost a family member or have been in a tragic accident. At best, they've lost their childhood. Their suitcases are full of clothes and toiletries they need for the week -- but it's the invisible suitcase of pain and rejection that is the heaviest to carry up the stairs to their assigned room. They walk back down again to an in-depth program, then to the pool, yoga field and dining room, dragging their invisible suitcases behind.

'I will continue to fight until cancer gives up'

My passion for the girls to heal is fueled by my own pain at their age. I was severely burned over half my body in a natural gas explosion at the age of 9. My grandparents' home was completely destroyed. I tossed and turned on my journey as an adolescent with severe scars on my face -- I knew pain both inside and out. I continuously did everything I could to heal and live life fully.

After starting a burn camp in San Diego when I was 30, I couldn't tell the children to face their fears jumping off the diving board when I feared fire. Fear was fear. In my hunger to free my heart, I suited up in firefighting gear and went back into a "controlled" fire to face and heal my fears of fire as an adult, not as a scared little girl trapped with the beast in my grandparents' basement years ago. Sure! I embraced and healed that fear --- and married the fire captain whose hand I gripped as the pallets were set ablaze in the dark cement training tower.

That day I became free.

Today, I'm deeply grateful for my unbelievable team of devoted volunteers I call my "High Tribe" to make the retreat at Angel Faces happen. The best of the best of women who are willing to leave their own pain, struggles and challenges at home and bring their love, life lessons, compassion, time, strength, courage and spiritual wisdom -- for girls they have never met. My "High Tribe" women are a powerful force of commitment and duty to help pull the girls up from pain and direct them onto a goal setting future.

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The other critical part of creating the powerful week at Angel Faces is our donors and supporters. I'm greatly humbled for the financial support. People giving their hard earned dollars to us -- trusting us that we do our best to help the girls push through their scars and pain.

And we do. In our published research, e-mails from the parents say: "Thank you for giving my daughter back." This tells us Angel Faces works.

"When I flew out here to Angel Faces, I sat on the plane with my head down -- so scared the person next to me would look at me or talk to me, said Angela, a first time Angel Faces participant. "Now when I fly home, I'm going to introduce myself to my seatmate and say hello -- I have a whole new life waiting for me."

Angela doesn't need to pay a baggage fee anymore for her invisible luggage filled with pain; it no longer exists.

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