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Lesia Cartelli was severely burned in a house fire when she was 9 years old. She founded a nonprofit that provides support and retreats to adolescent girls with disfiguring burn or trauma injuries.

By Lesia Stockall Cartelli

The heart-driven, social media-fueled response to 8-year-old Safyre Terry’s simple wish for Christmas cards was wonderful to watch. Since her wish spread online last week (early December 2015), truckloads of greeting cards, teddy bears and treats have been delivered to the Schenectady, NY, home she shares with her aunt, Liz Dolder. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated to her online fundraising campaign.

But what does it take to heal from a serious burn?  A lot more than truckloads of greeting cards, Teddy bears and treats, of course. I speak from personal experience. I, like Safyre, was severely burned in a house fire as a child. For the past 12 years I have run a nonprofit that provides healing retreats and online support for adolescent girls and young women who are disfigured by burns or trauma.

When I was nine years old, I was badly burned in a natural gas explosion in the basement of my grandparent’s home.  I was hospitalized for three months, and my family worried about my future.  I endured months of painful treatments, such as the tub room where they scrubbed off dead skin.  When I was released from the hospital and went out into the world with my family doing errands, like grocery shopping and going to the post office, I experienced a different type of pain — the pain of rejection and staring. “Eww, Mommy, what’s on her face?” a child would say. “Shh, don’t look at her face,” the mother would reply. “But Mommy, she is ugly. I’m scared.” The child would begin to cry.

My family never acknowledged the staring or said anything back to the person. We would shuffle along or out the door. I felt like such a spectacle. I hated my life.

I returned to my fourth-grade classroom, to more staring and taunting. I heard whispers calling me “monster” and “freak.”  More painful than words was the exclusion and isolation. I ate lunch by myself. I walked alone in the halls.

All of the experiences of stepping into the world looking different chips away at your core, shrinks your world into a social death.

Plus, the trauma had caused fear to lodge in me. My most stable foundation, my grandparents’ house and their own security, had been ripped out from underneath us and had forever changed my family and, in particular, me. Every day I’d wrestle with anxiety. What is to prevent my own home from blowing up? What is to stop our car from blowing up? What is to stop the school bus from blowing up? I already hurt now. What is to prevent it from getting worse?

Some people live a lifetime without confronting a sense of “the unknown,” the reality that at any moment one’s whole life can change. Doing so at the age of nine was a lot to handle, to think about, and now to live with. In addition to the overwhelming loneliness, my other prevailing feeling was daunting dread.

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Safyre Terry, a little girl who was severely burned in a house fire that killed her family, was flooded with cards and cash in December 2015.

So I look at Safyre’s photo and my heart reaches for her. Like everyone else, of course, I sent her a Christmas card expressing love and compassion. But I reach for her because I can peek back into my own life and see what I needed at that stage and perhaps know what she needs as well. Like Safyre, I also received tons of cards, letters and Teddy Bears. They were fabulous and I felt loved at the moment. But I knew I needed more. I had to live, go back to school, love myself and step forward in my life.

Many hearts and wallets are open for Safyre.  It’s really going to help the family for future reconstruction surgeries and rehabilitation.  But what about her soul? Her connection with herself. Cards can’t give you that – and frankly I’m worried that it will be about “how many” cards she’s received – and that we won’t ask the real question:  How can we really help girls like her survive and live their fullest lives?

In my work as Founder/CEO of Angel Faces, I see hundreds of Safyres, girls from all over the world who have endured serious burn injuries. Not the small burn on the hand, but over 80-90% of their bodies burned. They have missing hands, missing legs. They come to our retreats with their spirits broken and wounded. They too have passed through the cards and letters stage of “you’re strong, you’re beautiful, you’re inspiring” while recovering from their accident. Then, as a teen, they land in the arena of rejection, staring and unwanted questions and self-hatred. “Will I always look this ugly?”  “Who will love me?”  “What do I say when people stare?”

Every year, these girls come to our retreats in New Hampshire and are hungry to heal. Hungry for clarity about the loss and tragedy in their lives.  Wanting skills and tools on what to do with the pain in their heart of hating how they look, or coping with the loss of a parent or anger from the abuse that left them in this way.

It takes a lot of teaching and understanding to bring them forward through the hole, but they get there. They eventually embrace themselves, scars and all, and this self-love and self-acceptance empowers them to lead full lives without shame. And that is the greatest gift of all.

This post was originally published in December 2015 on the Angel Faces website. Angel Faces is the nonprofit founded by Lesia Cartelli that provides healing retreats and support to girls like Safyre.