Face Forward: Life-Changing Surgeries for Abuse Survivors

Published July 12, 2021 at 3:50pm.
Story by Pam Higginbotham. Photos Courtesy of Face Forward International.

Deborah Alessi has taken her painful past and used it to create something beautiful. She is a survivor of domestic violence and is using her experience and voice to help other survivors. Through a global network of doctors and dentists, Deborah is serving those who have suffered from domestic violence, human trafficking, and cruel or criminal acts by making reconstructive surgery and dental procedures possible at no cost. These procedures, along with the community Deborah has formed, are changing lives forever. 

Deborah Alessi, co-founder of Face Forward International

Deborah Alessi, co-founder of Face Forward International

Deborah never dreamed her journey would eventually lead to the creation of her nonprofit organization, Face Forward International. Many survivors have been cared for and transformed over the years through the generosity of their services. Currently based in California, Deborah is excited to announce they are expanding and bringing Face Forward International to Dallas.

“We want to have an office here,” Deborah says. “We have had five or six patients in the past few months from Dallas so it makes sense for us to have a presence here.” She shares that their biggest need is to find a comfortable home in Dallas so their survivors have a place to begin their recovery. “Our long term goal is to have a home so we can help more than one case at a time. When they are recovering from surgery, they are under our roof and under our care,” Deborah says.


Born in Scotland, Deborah graduated from Glasgow University with an advanced business degree, and then began working in the aviation industry. She had a very accomplished career that included managing the private jet fleet for the Royal Family of Bahrain in the Middle East, and eventually assisting Fortune 500 companies and private individuals in the United States with the purchase and management of their private aircraft. Eventually, she decided it was time to follow her heart and find a way to help other survivors of abuse.

Reflecting on how her own experience led her to start a charity, Deborah says, “I think, for many years as a survivor myself, I didn’t think about it. I buried my feelings and emotions and then just pretended it didn’t kind of happen to me. I was still trying to get through the abuse, mentally. So, when I got married, I decided I could do something great and give back. I decided to start a charity in 2007.” 

Determined to help survivors in practical ways, but not sure how to start, Deborah took one small step at a time. She recalls thinking “How am I going to do this? I’ve written checks before, but I haven’t been involved.” She adds, “I thought I would do something and give back a few hours a week. Those few hours very quickly turned into forty hours a week. I realized it was such a big need for what we were doing with domestic violence because there legitimately wasn’t anyone in the country doing what we were doing. So, I took it to the next level and worked really hard.”

Deborah and Dr. David Alessi with Face Forward International patients.

Deborah and Dr. David Alessi with Face Forward International patients.

Starting out, the focus was exclusively on domestic violence survivors, but eventually Deborah made the decision to include help for survivors impacted by other categories of violence. Face Forward International then grew to encompass human trafficking, cruelty, and criminal act survivors as well. “That made sense,” Deborah says, “because I’ve been a survivor of domestic violence, I thought that was the way to go. But, then I thought it was not fair to shut other people out who need our help. Being so involved and seeing how human trafficking in the country has taken over, I decided to open those doors as well.”

Survivors are located through many nonprofit partners around the world. Some are found through referrals from other survivors who have already received care from Face Forward International. “Some of our patients will refer us to other nonprofits and say ‘I found this girl or this guy and we need your help. Can you partner with this nonprofit?” Deborah says. “It’s great because they do one thing and we do another, so we are like the final piece of the puzzle.”

The unexpected pandemic this past year presented unique challenges for Face Forward International. Travel was very difficult and there were complications involving visas and getting international cases into the country. It was not easy to coordinate patient or medical personnel travel during this time but Deborah and her team worked very hard to overcome these issues. Despite the challenges they faced during those uncertain times, they were still able to provide the care survivors needed. 

The pandemic also brought an alarming increase in domestic violence cases. “Unfortunately our need is more. Especially human trafficking and domestic violence due to COVID. When someone is trapped at home with an abuser the cases are higher and then also human trafficking is taking over right now. It’s not being kind to our rate of survivors, especially in the States, it’s a big problem.”

Although most of the survivors can benefit from various surgeries, not all of them are ready. There is a risk of a very negative surgery experience due to a survivor’s past trauma. Deborah explains “The surgery will cause bruising and that triggers memories of what the survivor went through, whether it was trafficking or domestic violence. So, they have to be ready for that. We could do $100,000 in surgery but if they are not internally healed, it’s not really making a difference.”

Therapy is an extremely important aspect of the healing of the survivors. “One of the questions we ask them on the application is ‘Are you in therapy?’ ” Deborah says. “Someone who has not been to therapy and is needing surgery is a red flag for us. They wouldn’t be ready for treatment for at least six months.” She adds, “When we recruit a patient, we don’t want to just give them a fish, we want to give them a fishing pole, meaning that we want them to do amazing things with their life. We’ve given you the tools to do that, so show us what you can do.”

Deborah’s husband and co-founder of Face Forward International, Dr. David Alessi, is a well respected reconstructive surgeon in Beverly Hills and donates his time to help change the lives of the survivors. “He loves the cases because they are very challenging for him,” Deborah says. “We both feel like we are very grateful. As a husband and wife, you respect each other because both of you are working so hard.”  

The current network of doctors and dentists contributing to Face Forward International was built upon many years of recruiting. “I have good relationships in Beverly Hills with the doctors”, Deborah says, “and the Executive Director’s daily job is recruiting new doctors and dentists in the States and globally. Board members also reach out every few months with hundreds of emails directed to nonprofits around the world seeking to increase their partnerships.” As an organization expanding into the Dallas area, the Face Forward International team is focused on building a new series of local connections.

Last year alone, Face Forward International provided over one million dollars in donated services to help survivors on their healing journey. Sadly, many survivors need multiple surgeries due to the extent of their injuries. “It’s not as much the number of people who have been helped as how many surgeries have been done,” Deborah explains. “Depending on the donated cases, that one person may need 10 surgeries. One girl last year had 12 surgeries. She was a survivor of massive domestic violence.” 

A doctor and patient from Face Forward International.

A doctor and patient from Face Forward International.

Deborah has a special place in her heart for survivors and bonds with them during their path to healing. She shares an example of an inspirational connection she had with a female survivor of domestic violence. “Her husband was in the military and they had a fight,’” Deborah says, “and he beat her to a pulp on the street pavement. She had her last rights by the priest in the hospital, but she survived. Gangrene then set in and basically ate away her face so she had nothing left. Years later, she went to Thailand and was volunteering, helping a monk and helping the poor in Thailand. She would wear a mask because people would stare at her face and how she looked. One day, the monk gave her a jeweled butterfly in a glass cage, in a little box, like a piece of jewelry. And he said, ‘I want you to meditate and pray to this. Then, when you feel strong enough, hold this butterfly and release the mask.’ Then, one day she removed the mask and she has never worn it ever since. We were having lunch together and she said, ‘I have something for you. I want you to have the strength and the power when you no longer have it to fight for these survivors,’ and she gave me the butterfly. I carry it everywhere with me—it’s in my suitcase on every trip. I pulled it out a few times on our last trip because I needed the strength to get through what I was going through.”

Having faith in Deborah and her mission, friends have been both supportive and involved since the very beginning. “They have been donors, attended the events and become board members,” Deborah says. “I think they know my personality. I’m very intense. When I put my mind to something, I do it. They knew that I was going to take this to the next level, which I did. I think they were surprised because it’s not a glamorous cause, it was a very dark cause. That’s why we wanted to make the galas very light and happy and cheery so when people walk away, they had a great time. We want to celebrate life!”

Deborah is determined to maintain her strength so she can accomplish what needs to be done to help survivors. To keep a healthy balance in her life, she runs her own international business, Beverly Hills IV Therapy. In addition, she is launching a wellness and aesthetic clinic at the Five Palm in Dubai next month. “I have to allow myself to separate, because otherwise I can’t be the powerhouse to help get things done.” Deborah says.

Wanting to become even more involved in Texas, Deborah is currently working on plans to open a clinic here as well.  She feels right at home with the warmth and hospitality Texas has shown her. “I fell in love with the people of Texas and their giant hearts. I could definitely call Texas home,” she says.

Deborah welcomes any type of support for Face Forward International to continue their work in the Dallas area. “We need board members, people to support us financially, donor sponsorship, and to buy tickets to the galas and come see us and find out who we are,” Deborah says. An opportunity to volunteer or attend the first Face Forward International gala in Dallas will be on September 18. Tickets will be available soon through a link on their website.

Grateful for receiving the help of Face Forward International, survivors remain actively involved with the organization. “They come to events, attend the galas and we are always there for them,” Deborah says. “A  lot of the cases will be ongoing for the rest of their life.” These special survivors will forever be considered family and the care they receive from the Face Forward International team continues long after their surgical scars have healed.

To learn more or to become involved, go to the Face Forward International website at www.faceforwardintl.org or call 310-657-2253.

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