“Face Forward International works to promote the wellbeing of all underserved survivors of violence, many of whom are members of the LGBTQ+ community, and provides services regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or faith. Because violence does not discriminate, and neither do we.” – Face Forward International Founder Deborah Alessi

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 not only expanded federal hate crime law to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability, it also increased funding and technical assistance to help investigate and prosecute hate crimes. It was inspired by the beating, torture, and murder of Shepard, a gay 21 year old University of Wyoming student, and James Byrd, Jr., a Black 49 year old vacuum salesman and father of three who was brutally killed while dragged behind a pickup truck for three miles by white supremacists.

Horrific murders such as these prompt outrage and action. Less known is what happens to the survivors of similar violence, human trafficking, and acts of crime, who must learn to live with dreadful physical and emotional scars and the pain they cause.

And that is where Face Forward International steps in. A survivor and female-founded and operated organization, Face Forward has provided life-changing surgeries to over 200 such survivors, many of whom require dozens of surgeries to regain their lives.

Like Addison. Originally from Honduras, Addison was trafficked in the United States and subjected to terrible procedures that caused constant pain and infection, and that nearly killed her. Face Forward’s first transgender patient, Addison received multiple surgeries that allowed her to be pain free, gain employment with a catering company, and explore nursing school.

Like a mother and daughter in Cambodia. Ten years ago, they were attacked by someone they knew, leaving the mother blind and the daughter with 95% of her body burned by acid. After almost four dozen surgeries between them, they are regaining their lives and their confidence, and the mother will soon regain vision in one eye. Face Forward is sending a doctor to Cambodia to train other doctors with this injury, since acid attacks are tragically a common occurrence there.

Like a gay man who was brutally attacked in West Hollywood. Suffering from physical and mental disability from facial fractures resulting from the hate attack, James was unemployed. Face Forward built him up to be able to emotionally withstand the bruising and physical reminders that would result from medical treatment, and he is now working and moving forward from his attack.

And like Toshia. Coerced and sold into sex trafficking at age 16, Toshia Hogan was pressured into receiving breast implants to make more money. Even after she broke free from her traffickers her implants were, in her words, “a literal and constant reminder of that chapter of my life. Face Forward has really helped me feel more confident and move on with my life.”

Face Forward founder Deborah Alessi says, “Face Forward International works to promote the wellbeing of all underserved survivors of violence, many of whom are members of the LGBTQ+ community, and provides services regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or faith. Because violence does not discriminate, and neither do we.”

Alessi and Hogan opened their hearts and shared their stories of Face Forward’s impact on their own journeys of personal reinvention.

Deborah, you’ve had quite a varied career: your aviation career had you managing the fleet of aircraft for an elite family in Bahrain; as CEO of Beverly Hills Wellness and Aesthetics you expanded from the US to the UK, Dubai and the Maldives; and in 2007, you established Face Forward to provide pro bono physical and emotional reconstruction to over 200 survivors of sex trafficking, domestic violence, and other cruel acts of crime from 13 different countries. What was your inspiration and motivation in founding Face Forward?

Deborah Alessi: I cannot say that it happened by accident. Yet it wasn’t something I really thought at the time. My ex-husband is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon and I really believe when I look back it was my journey in life to do something great like this. And as a domestic violence survivor myself, before Face Forward I gave checks to other charities. But when you’re behind the scenes and you get to meet the survivors, you get to really build a charity from scratch. It has a totally different meaning and I think for me it was very healing. At the time I didn’t realize that, but I feel like Face Forward found me. When I started and I met these survivors, I realized that it helped me move forward and it helped me build my confidence just as it does with our survivors.

Do you have a particularly moving survivor stories you can share?

Alessi: Saundra is a Korean-American survivor living in Los Angeles. One night her boyfriend beat her to a pulp with her face on the pavement. Gangrene had set in, and she had her last rites from the priest because they didn’t think she was going to make it. She survived but was very, very disfigured and she couldn’t eat. She couldn’t swallow. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t close her eyes to sleep. Her face was just bone. It took probably 20 or 25 surgeries just to get certain parts functional, but never normal. When she walks into a restaurant, everyone stares at her, but she doesn’t care. She owns it.

We started doing surgery with her and I fell in love with her instantly. She just has this beautiful, positive energy. After her attack, she stayed with monks in Thailand for healing. She wore a mask a decade before they became commonplace due to covid because she was ashamed of how she looked. Her children didn’t know who she was. She was completely disfigured.

And then one day a monk said, “please remove the mask when you go back to America. You have to own who you are.” And he gave her a little butterfly that was in a glass box. He said, “when you go back to America, I want you to meditate to this butterfly to give you strength, because I will be putting my energy into the butterfly.” And shortly after she returned to America, she removed the mask and never wore it again. Then at lunch one day she said to me, “Deborah, I want you to have this butterfly. I’m passing the butterfly to you to give you strength for what you do for our survivors.”

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Face Forward’s honorary members include stars like professional basketball player and coach Byron Scott, actress and television personality Kelly Osbourne, and rapper and singer Nelly. CeeLo Green performed at your recent star-studded fundraising event in Dallas. How important do you feel this celebrity support has been, and what advice do you have for fledgling founders and innovators to gain visibility and support?

Alessi. I wish I didn’t have to go through celebrities to let people know what we do at Face Forward, but it gets the message out there. I could say a million times a day how amazing we are and what we do, but people don’t see it as glamorous or sexy when we say it. When a celebrity says something, people listen. Even one tweet from a celebrity helps, and when they donate auction items, it helps raise both awareness and money.

You’ve got to be brave and recognize that you may hear “no” 99 times but it may take just one “yes.” – Deborah Alessi

Social media is important to gain visibility and support. Never say no to an event because that one person in the room can change your organization and that’s what happened with me. The first event I did, I raised $5000, yet my recent event in March raised one million dollars. You’ve got to be brave and recognize that you may hear “no” 99 times but it may take just one “yes.” And you’ve got to look at your charity as a business. A lot of charities fail because they have the heart, but they don’t have the business sense.

In a prior interview you relayed the challenges of needing to work hard to prove yourself to men and be taken seriously as an attractive woman in the business world. Your survivors have faced similar bias but for different reasons. What advice do you have for those trying to be taken at more than face value?

Alessi: I never give up and I never take no for an answer, and very quickly if you’re confident and you believe in what you’re doing, it comes through. I’m in a business world with mostly male plastic surgeons and doctors. You must be strong.

I don’t want to change who I am. I’m glamorous. I can be a beautiful woman, but I can also be an amazing businesswoman. And if you can’t respect that and you don’t respect me, then very quickly you’ll be asked to leave. I won’t do business with you.

What is the Face Forward process like?

Alessi: We’re not doing plastic surgery; we’re doing reconstructive surgery. We analyze police reports, medical and psychiatric records, and background checks before we begin a process that could be $200,000 worth of medical treatment.

Counseling is extremely important because the survivor is going to be swollen again. They will have bruises again. They will feel bad again for several weeks. To get to that final step of surgery, survivors need counseling to be prepared.

We work with many partners who provide counseling to help the patient recover enough to be prepared for surgery. I feel like Face Forward is the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle, to help our survivors move forward.

Toshia, how important has Face Forward’s support been to your recovery, and what else have you done to innovate and reinvent yourself in your new life, post-treatment?

Toshia Hogan: Face Forward was huge in helping me move on and remove this daily reminder of my past life. Especially at that time, I didn’t know how I was going to be able to have the procedure because it is extremely expensive. The fact that there are so many caring doctors who really want to give their time and energy to transform someone’s life is just incredible. Everyone has been so welcoming and supportive of who I am. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I know positive supports are so essential to helping me and those in my community to live out fully who we are. Being so vocal about supporting the LGBTQ+ community and doing great work in our country means so much, I’m really blessed.

In 2016 a lot happened. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. In the same week I got married. And in the same week we flew out to Southern California where I had the procedure. So we made that into a little honeymoon. And it was the same year that I cofounded the Phoenix chapter of Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (SOAP). SOAP is an incredible nonprofit organization that educates the public and prevents teens from being victimized by domestic sex trafficking. We label bars of soap and makeup wipes with the national Human Trafficking Hotline number (888)373-7888, and educate hotel and motel staff to look for signs of human trafficking. I also founded Cleanup HT, a full circle social enterprise with survivors making handmade bars of soap, making a living wage, and helping them save money to get their own place to live and start a new chapter in their life. I’ve become a certified yoga instructor. And I’ve supported my wife, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern Mississippi Kimberly Hogan, as she worked on her PhD in social work with a focus on sex trafficking. We’re both serving as members of the Mississippi Human Trafficking Council, and I plan to continue my education at the University of Southern Mississippi in the Master of Social Work program this fall. I really want to help survivors on their path to recovery and healing.

What advice do you have for those who haven’t walked in a human trafficking survivor’s shoes about reinventing yourself and your new way of life?

Hogan: Years ago, when I got out of the life, I found this quote from the Center for Spiritual Living and it has been life changing to me: “When you change your thoughts you change your life.” The stories we tell ourselves and the way we frame the past really does matter because it influences our joy of life in the present moment. And how I thought about myself and my worldview during that chapter of my life had to change in order to get me to where I am today. I had to shift my thoughts of who I wanted to become, and that shift did not happen overnight. I had to set realistic goals and build positive habits. The best part of my life right now is being with people who are loving and kind and who I love. It took a few chapters to get here, but I’m here.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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