The best way to help Facing Forward, a new organization that helps people who are disfigured, doesn't require money or volunteer hours.
"It doesn't cost a dime to give the people who I'm trying to help the greatest gift of all, and that is to just open their hearts and their minds to embracing people with facial and physical differences," said Charlene Pell, founder of Facing Forward, based in Huntersville.
"Don't turn away. Treat them like you would anybody else you meet."
About 16 years ago, Pell survived a private plane crash that killed her then-fiancé. She emerged from a coma with severe burns on 64percent of her body, including her face and hands.
She endured 49 operations, 51/2 years of occupational and physical therapy and psychotherapy, with the love and encouragement of friends and family. But Pell found herself wanting more, wanting to meet someone who had learned how to live a happy life despite disfigurements.
After two years of searching, she met a burn survivor who became a mentor.
"I really made up my mind, at that juncture of my own experience, that I would dedicate the rest of my life to helping people, especially burn survivors, to find resources and support," she said.
Pell spent years working with the national Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors and the N.C. Jaycees Burn Center in Chapel Hill. She knows how to handle the stares, questions and social awkwardness that comes with having a physical difference, and she wants to pass that knowledge on to others.
People with physical differences, regardless of the physical issue, similarly experience isolation, rejection and a long process to recover self-esteem and identity, Pell said.
She started a support group in August that meets the first Saturday of every month for two hours. People drive from as far away as Salisbury and Rock Hill, S.C., to attend.
"That tells me there very clearly is a need," she said.
Pell also is continuing to give a workshop she developed, called "What to Do When People Stare." And she's working on a pilot program for middle school students called "Outside, Inside: You Decide," which teaches students to get to know people rather than forming opinions based only on appearance.
Pell provides peer support on the telephone and online, and she works on advocacy and public awareness about the issues surrounding people with physical differences. She teaches people without physical differences how to best respond when they encounter someone who does.
Her dream for Facing Forward is a large monetary gift that would allow her to hire an executive director. Pell's burn injuries make it difficult for her to work at times, and she said she could use volunteers with expertise in social media, grant writing, computers and fund raising.
Donations will help Pell distribute information, including her brochure "What to Do When People Stare," to help people better understand the issues involved with physical differences.
"There will never be enough money in the world to educate the public about how to respond to somebody in these kinds of situations," Pell said. "But we can help the people who have the difference learn the skills they need to empower them to be able to live their lives, despite the stares or the glares or the gawks."