Deborah Alessi with patient Michelle
10/10/2012 at 04:00 PM EDT
Deborah Alessi remembers the pain and the fear.
She had a boyfriend whom she loved and thought loved her. One day, he tried to hit her. Then he threw her down the stairs.
"In that split second," she says, "it changed."
Now Alessi is one of the driving forces behind an organization that provides free facial surgical reconstructive services for women and children victimized by domestic violence or gangs.
Founded by Alessi and her plastic surgeon husband Dr. David Alessi, the L.A.-based Face Forward
has helped dozens of patients with procedures that are often extensive and expensive – up to $200,000 – with most patients having to undergo multiple surgeries.
"I want to help them, and I want them to go forward," says Alessi. "But I have rules for them."
The organization requires documentation of the abuse, including police reports and hospital records. "You'd be surprised how many people would try to get free plastic surgery," says Alessi.
What's more, Face Forward requires that the patients not only get out of their abusive relationship or violent circumstance, but also commit to psychological therapy.
"There's no point in fixing somebody's face and having them go back the next week to the bruiser," says Alessi.
Finally, the patient must give back in the form of volunteer work to help other abuse victims or women trapped in violent lives.
Alessi stresess that no matter how proficient the surgeon, the procedures don't solve all the problems, even physically. One patient, who goes by Saundra, was beaten unconscious by her husband and has undergone dozens of surgeries, but still can't completely close one eye or fully open her mouth.
But for Alessi, it's not about quick fixes.
"You can't save the world. That's what my husband and I tell each other," says she. "People like Saundra, who is most giving, gives me a high when I'm around her. She wants someone to look at her as a normal person. When I see her, I get emotional. I feel like, oh, my god, she gives me power, she gives me strength."
Face Forward is supported by private donations, including funds from its current auction. Information is available here.