- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2014

Deborah and David Alessi are in the business of paying it forward, although they don’t call it that.

Face Forward L.A., their nonprofit organization, helps restore the facial disfigurations of women and children who have been the victims of domestic abuse.

Most of their patients — all of whom have the skilled techniques of Deborah Alessi’s surgeon-husband to thank — are Americans, with a Peruvian woman and a Ugandan woman on the receiving end, too.

Like many of her benefactors, Mrs. Alessi was in an abusive relationship. Unlike many of them, though, as a college-age woman, she saw a way out — out of the relationship and out of her home country, Scotland.

Most women don’t.

“Sometimes men have convinced them there is nowhere to go,” Mrs. Alessi explained to me. “Then when the women try to leave, the physical violence usually worsens. Most of our patients have broken noses, broken cheekbones, broken bodies from senseless beatings.”

Kodie Brown, a 3-year-old girl from the D.C. area, is different.

Kodie is the youngest patient of Face Forward, which began in 2007 and tries to help — free of charge.

Kodie’s case is different, too, in that a bullet shot by her father and intended for her mother, Selina, in 2012 actually struck Kodie, leaving her face swollen, battered and scarred, and her eyes shut as if her own father had used the wee one’s face for a punching bag.

Kodie’s story traveled 3,000, from the East Coast to Mrs. Alessi’s radar screen in Los Angeles, where she learned that several people already aiding victims of domestic abuse, including D.C. native Rhozier Brown and other ex-felons, were on a mission to get Kodie the medical help she so deserved as an innocent victim.

Although Mrs. Alessi was an adult when she fled her abuser, she knows that the physical scars can be constant reminders for victims long after the violent relationship ends.

Indeed, it was a “very casual conversation with my husband eight years ago” that led Mrs. Alessi to creating a different path for victims.

We hear stories of hospitals and surgeons conducting history-making operations, such as Dr. Ben S. Carson, whose blessed and gifted hands led a team of doctors, specialists and nurses in the groundbreaking separation of conjoined twins in 1987.

Groundbreaking medical feats have their place in the history books, and so do game-changing nonprofit efforts, such as Face Forward.

Dr. Alessi, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, provides pro bono medical techniques, but there are anesthesiologists, nurses, counselors, hotel and food costs, and nutrition programs provided at no cost to the patients as well.

Even air fare is provided free.

There are more than a dozen members on Face Forward’s board, and a panel of 10 committee members screens potential patients. They pore through police and news reports, conduct interviews and develop treatment for each individual patient.

Kodie and her family were flown out last month to Los Angeles for the first of several future surgeries, and they recently returned home.

“We’ll be here for her for the rest of her life, because she’s still so young,” Mrs. Alessi said. “We can’t say, ‘We’ll just catch you later.’”

This fall, a Ugandan woman will undergo surgery because her abusive husband tossed chemicals in her face. Now divorced, the ex was a professor, and the woman is “a brilliant lady who married the wrong man,” Mrs. Alessi said.

Mrs. Alessi said that in the early stages of Face Forward, she didn’t know what she was doing. She and her husband simply knew what they wanted to accomplish.

Raising millions isn’t easy, but when you have sponsors like Turkish Airlines and people such as actor Tom Arnold, singer Macy Gray and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli on your side, it certainly helps.

This year’s annual gala on Sept. 13 will help cover current and future patient costs, and new and longtime supporters use snail mail, the Web and personal contacts to donate.

In Kodie’s case, D.C. prisoners were even donating $5, $10 or $20, mostly because they were well aware of the fact that Kodie’s father was responsible for taking two lives — her mom’s and her dad’s, when he killed himself.

These days, Kodie is wrapped in the loving care of grandparents, but the little princess still has separation anxiety, Mrs. Alessi said.

“That’s why we’re here for the rest of her life, why we do what we do,” she said.

And God bless her for paying it forward.

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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