When Lesia Cartelli was 9 years old, she was severely burned in a gas explosion at her grandparents’ home in East Detroit.
She’d been playing in the basement with her cousin when the gas leak ignited, blasting many of the nine family members who were inside the house across the street. Cartelli, who was buried in rubble, climbed out of the destruction on her own, crawling outside to roll in the dirt and snow to put out the flames on her small body.
“It was all face, hands, back and parts where I had synthetic on where the blast had burned around my waist,” she tells PEOPLE of her wounds.
But Cartelli only realized how injured she was when she saw her reflection in an ambulance window, and later, when her grandfather refused to get inside the emergency vehicle himself. She recalls him telling paramedics that he had to go back and save his granddaughter who he thought was still in the house.
“That’s not her,” he said as he looked at Cartelli, who was missing her hair and burned severely over 50 percent of her body.
Cartelli spent the next three months recovering in a hospital, undergoing grueling treatments including skin grafts and other surgeries. When she was released, she withdrew because explaining her appearance and injuries was too much for a young girl who drew plenty of stares and many questions.
Fast forward four decades and Cartelli has turned her tragedy into inspiration, using what she learned in life about self-love and determination to lead her own Foundation called Angel Faces.
The Encinitas, California, non-profit offers week-long supportive retreats for adolescent girls, held at a lakeside home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. There they attend seminars that help them not only bond, but navigate the world as a burned person.
The girls, ages 11-19, who typically come from all over the U.S., as well as Mexico and Canada, call the experience life-changing and say that Cartelli becomes their biggest cheerleader.
“It was like a place of healing. I’ve never been to a place like that, where they tell you how to handle things in the real world,” says first-time attendee Casi Smith, 17, of Simpsonville, South Carolina.
Smith, who will be a high school senior this fall, was burned on the side of her face when she was in infant after a hot iron was knocked off of an ironing board accidentally, landing in her bassinet.
While she has no memory of the incident or the surgeries she endured later, as a teenager she knows the stares as people see her disfigurement and wonder what happened.
Now, after her first Angel Faces retreat, she feels like she’s better equipped to take on the world, even as she is soon to have a surgery to improve her appearance.
“I feel like the retreat helped me to love myself more, to treat myself better and not be so hard about myself,” Smith says. “It helped me realize that I can do everything that anyone else can do — that the burns won’t hold me back from anything.”
Cartelli, she adds, has become a passionate and inspiring hero.
“She’s like a ball of sunshine,” Smith tells PEOPLE. “She told me that from looking at her, I could see everything she’s been through. But here she is, instead of hiding, she’s helping people. To me, that was amazing. I don’t know if I could ever do that.”
So inspired by Cartelli’s retreats, Adriana Ramirez signed on this year as a resident assistant after attending four of them starting at age 13.
Ramirez, a Fishers, Indiana, resident who is now 20 and a rising junior at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, hopes for a career traveling internationally working with burn patients in a healthcare setting. She credits Angel Faces and Cartelli for helping her to believe in her capacity to do anything in life.
“There is something about Lesia’s voice that made it seem there was so much trust, and when I first met her, I felt so secure with her,” Ramirez tells PEOPLE. “She is someone that the girls can relate to so much on a deeper level. She has that mindset to really help, and she takes what she has been through and she turns it into something beautiful to give us hope.”
Ramirez, who was burned at 1 1/2 years old after she tripped over the cord of a plugged in deep fryer and dumped hot cooking oil on about 40 percent of her body, lost one of her ears in the accident. She used to be afraid to wear her hair up, for fear of what people would say. But after attending the retreats, she grew more comfortable with herself and her appearance.
She says girls come there to work on mind, spirit and body, attending counseling sessions, doing yoga, even learning how to apply corrective make-up.
While some of the experience is emotional as each girl shares her tragedy, most attendees leave renewed and “transformed” that their lives can be great. They also leave armed with coping tools to help them interact with their peers and others who might judge or stare.
“Lesia always talks about not wasting your pain. She knows that for some, it’s easy to go into depression. But she makes you so excited. When you talk to her, you can’t stop smiling,” Ramirez says.
Cartelli first began her efforts focusing on camps for burn patients, much like a summer camp would be run. But after talks with her own doctor, who lauded how well she had handled her own injuries psychologically, she quickly shifted gears to offer a retreat setting for teenage girls, most of whom are entering a vulnerable age where appearance and life goals matter. She wanted to show them hope, and says she believes that her own burn survival was divinely inspired.
“When I was burned, everything in my life changed. My friendships changed. I hated going to school. You are coping with things you never had to cope with before. People staring at you. People asking questions. Why do you look like that?” Cartelli, who has written a book about her experiences, Heart of Fire: An Intimate Journey of Pain, Love and Healing,” tells PEOPLE.
“I was ill-equipped for any of that. Back then they didn’t have any programs, so you just got through it, but it taught me over time to build up my resilience, to dig deep, get close to God, to find a purpose,” she says. “I knew that I had to survive that for something — to help other people so that they are not so ill-equipped.”
With better medical advances, more severely burned patients are surviving, she adds. But after they come home from the hospital, the hard work of living life is just beginning. That’s where she steps in, to help them break out of what Angel Faces calls a “trauma cocoon.”
“The need is big. I knew if the medical teams could get them off their feet, then I could get those feet to step up in their life,” she says. “I didn’t want any other girl to go through what I had gone through. We offer a place where the girls can go and lay down their social armor, lay down their swords and begin to really heal.”