CORONA, Calif. —
The room rings out with the cruel nicknames that have haunted the teenagers for years: Crusty crab. Burnt toast. Snake skin. Freddy Krueger's daughter. Mutant. Scarface.
For the first time, it's the burn victims themselves who are shouting them.
The exercise is emotionally excruciating but also empowering for these girls, who come from all over the world to attend Angel Faces, an annual retreat east of Los Angeles. Some were injured as infants; others arrive just months after a devastating accident. Several girls lost a parent or a sibling in the disaster that maimed them.
The program uses group counseling, role playing and art therapy to heal emotional scars and teach strategies to cope with never-ending teasing, staring and probing questions. The retreat's softer side boosts body image with massages, facials, hair styling and makeovers by a professional cosmetologist who teaches the girls how to use specialty make-up to minimize their scars.
For participant Angela Brady, the emotional and physical damage runs deep. The 18-year-old from Rockford, Ill., was severely burned at 3 months when her toddler brother set the curtains ablaze while her mother was passed out from a drug overdose.
The wisp of a girl hides behind the tresses of the long, brown wig that substitutes for hair and shuns make-up that could redraw her missing eyebrows. A web of thick scar tissue crisscrosses her upper face. She has had more than 60 reconstructive surgeries, including one that used one of her ribs to replace bone in her forehead.
"I only have one picture that was when I was first born when I had no burns. I do look at it sometimes and think about what I could have been like but I don't like to think about that, because I can't do anything about it and I can't change it," said Brady, who was removed from her biological mother and adopted at age 3.
"After being here, I realized that only a few people are picked for this journey — and I was one of them," she said.
Founder Lesia Cartelli conceived of Angel Faces after running a more traditional "burn camp" in San Diego for years. The camp focused on fun without getting at the trauma beneath the scars. Cartelli also grew frustrated with the self-pity that made campers see themselves only as burn victims and nothing more.
"One day I saw three teenage girls walk by and I thought, 'I'm failing,'" Cartelli recalled. "They were going to go home the next day and come Monday, those three teenage girls were going back to school, back to rejection, back to staring, back to the unwanted questions. They need to know, 'How do I respond to somebody who's staring at me? How am I going to get my self-esteem back or get it, period?'"
Cartelli offers the week-long program to fewer than two dozen girls once a year. They must complete a 14-page application and fundraising and donations cover the $3,500 it costs to bring each of them to the spa retreat in Corona, about an hour from Los Angeles. Participants can attend for up to three years and many return as volunteers into their 20s.
The program, now in its ninth year, attracts teens from around the country and as far away as Mexico and England. Most have spent months in the hospital and undergone dozens of surgeries but never opened up about their injuries or talked about what happened.
"We spend the first couple of days really digging into the trauma. How did it happen? Where did it happen? What went on? Who was there? Who do you need to forgive? Is it yourself?" Cartelli said. "No one's asked these questions in a loving environment. It's tough. It's tough on us to watch it and it's tough on the girls."
During one role-playing exercise, Rosa Carrier struggled to respond to a volunteer posing as a stranger who asked probing questions about her injuries from a childhood fire.
The 16-year-old from Bristol, Tenn., wears a long-sleeved jacket even when it's warm to hide scars on her arms. Cartelli urged her to provide details about her accident to make her seem less like a victim and turn the stranger's teasing into sympathy.