Jennifer Wallace has spent much of her life trying to get people to see past her physical features.
Much like the main character in a new movie being released this week in theaters nationwide, she has dealt with a facial deformity, negative reactions, and misconceptions, and finally found peace and self-acceptance.
“I used to be very quiet about my story,” said Wallace, a business initiatives consultant for Wells Fargo Private Bank. “But I came to realize this is who I am. This is my authentic self.”
In fact, her experience has inspired her to create a documentary offering hope and community for those who have been overlooked or mistreated because of their differences.
‘Who do we have here?’
Wallace’s film — a project she started in 2015 after a conversation with a client — chronicles her personal and medical journey that began with her first surgery at 22 months old and continued through more than 16 additional surgeries to correct facial damage caused by a hemangioma, a benign growth of blood vessels.
“Who Do We Have Here?” — which has an expected release date in 2019 — is named in honor of Dr. Milton Edgerton, a retired craniofacial surgery pioneer at the University of Virginia.
Those five words were Edgerton’s first to four-month-old Wallace when he walked into the examining room at his Charlottesville, Virginia, medical center and saw the grapefruit-sized growth covering her right cheek, eye, and nose.
Her mother, Linda Spangler, still remembers the moment like it was yesterday.
“We had seen so many doctors before … and this gentle, caring man comes in and considers my daughter a person first and, after personally addressing her, tells us what no one else did — what this was. ‘I see you have a hemangioma, young lady.’”
Affecting about 12 percent of children born each year, hemangiomas typically disappear over time. Their origin remains a medical mystery, and there is no clear reason why some, like Wallace’s, keep growing and require surgery.
“I cried,” Spangler said. “Dr. Edgerton then asked, ‘What do you want to know?’ and I said, ‘Everything you can tell me,’ and he talked to us for hours. You could tell he wanted to help my little girl.”
A 'welcoming and inclusive' work environment
Wallace experienced bullying and teasing about her appearance as a child, but she has found the opposite environment at Wells Fargo.
“Jennifer has great work ethic and has told me how supportive and welcoming and inclusive Wells Fargo has been, and how she’s appreciated for her deeds and actions — and not her appearance,” Spangler said. “It has nothing to do with her face.”
Marilyn Bilotti, head of regional marketing for Wells Fargo Private Bank, has seen Wallace’s personal and career growth firsthand.
“When I first met Jenn, I noticed the scarring on her face and assumed she had been in some kind of accident,” Bilotti said. “She never mentioned the ‘why’ behind any of this, and I never asked.”
Two years later, Wallace shared her story with Bilotti and others over dinner at a company retreat.
“We were all riveted in our seats as she explained the full history, and she even shared a photo of herself as a little girl, before any of the surgical procedures,” Bilotti said. “The mass on her face in the picture was huge. But I also remember seeing the smiling face of an innocent child who didn’t yet know how cruel the world can be to someone who is different.”
Learning 'you're not alone'
Initially hesitant to speak publicly and draw attention to herself, Wallace began to step out of her shell with the help of her coworkers.
“It took some time, but given the caring and accepting nature of our leaders, she gained the courage to openly speak up and share her expertise and ideas, and, as part of her professional development plan, we found opportunities to build her skills and confidence in speaking in front of groups,” said Bilotti.
“I think this is typical of the culture that pervades Wells Fargo,” she added. “It’s a safe space where people are valued for who they are and their contributions to the team — not how they look or where they come from.”
Wallace credits those experiences with giving her the confidence to create her documentary after an interaction with a client at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I was working our event at the festival, and one of the clients comes up to me and asks, ‘Jennifer, I would like to know what happened to your face?’” Wallace said. “I told her the story about what happened to me, and she said I needed to create a film about it, and I bounced the idea off a friend of mine who is a filmmaker, and here I am.”
Spangler hopes her daughter’s documentary inspires people to treat others who are different with kindness. “I hope Jennifer’s film will help people look inside themselves,” she said, “so when they do see a person with a difference (than what they consider the ‘norm’) they won’t make a snap judgment, and will reach beyond that to get to know the person inside.”
“The message of ‘Who Do We Have Here?’,’’ Wallace said, “is that you’re not alone, and you have value because of who you are, period.”
For the latest about “Who Do We Have Here?” visit the documentary Facebook page.
Wells Fargo Private Bank provides products and services through Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. and its various affiliates and subsidiaries. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. is a bank affiliate of Wells Fargo & Company.
Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment Management (WIM) is a division within Wells Fargo & Company. WIM provides financial products and services through various bank and brokerage affiliates of Wells Fargo & Company.