Kechi Okwuchi always loved singing, but had no designs on making a career out of it, certainly not becoming famous, until she appeared on the TV talent competition "America's Got Talent" last year and America realized, pretty quickly, that Okwuchi had an abundance of talent with an inspirational backstory to boot.
"The whole thing was really surreal. I didn't actually sign up for the show myself — a friend signed me up," she said Monday. "To take such a large step in public, I would never have done for myself. From that moment, everything changed."
The Nigerian-born Okwuchi, one of only two survivors of a 2005 plane crash that claimed 107 lives and left her with severe burns requiring that she undergo more than 100 surgical procedures, captured the imagination of judges Simon Cowell and company, as well as the millions of TV viewers who voted her all the way to the "America's Got Talent" finale last summer. She's now crisscrossing the country, singing and telling her story.
She will be in Westminster on Friday, April 27, at Crossroads Community Church and then in Hanover, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, April 28, at Hanover First Church of God, helping to raise awareness for Mason-Dixon Youth for Christ, a nonprofit, nondenominational outreach group with 17 ministry sites that started in 1947 as Hampstead Youth for Christ before changing its name a decade ago to better reflect all the areas it serves.
According to Executive Director Gary Grecco, his group serves more than 60,000 teens in Carroll and northern Baltimore counties as well as York and Adams counties in Pennsylvania. It's a year-round program for kids, but this annual event is to let adults know what the organization does.
"It's going to be fun," Okwuchi said of her weekend gigs in Westminster and Hanover.
Okwuchi, who lives in Texas, is still amazed at how her life has changed.
"If I didn't have the videos to prove it, I would not believe it," she said. "I would think it was a dream."
She grew up in a musical family with her father exposing her to a broad range of music and her mother passing down a love of singing.
But her life changed on Dec. 10, 2005, when a Sosoliso Airlines DC-9 that was carrying Okwuchi and some 60 of her classmates home from boarding school — as well as more than 40 other passengers and seven crew members — crashed while attempting to land at Port Harcourt International Airport in Nigeria. It erupted into a fireball.
She was one of only two survivors, but her injuries were significant. With burns covering more than 65 percent of her body, she was treated for a year in a South African hospital and then was flown to Galveston, Texas, where she was treated for another year at a Shriners Hospital, enduring more than 100 surgeries.
As soon as she was able to speak, Okwuchi recalled, her mother told her she sounded different. She noticed the same when she was finally able to start singing again.
"I sounded much different," Okwuchi said, "and much better."
While she has scars that will never go away, she survived and has thrived, earning an economics degree from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, and speaking at graduation. She planned on getting a master's in business administration and setting about living a quiet and successful life.
But perhaps that was never what was supposed to happen?
"We believe God spared her life so that she could tell her story," Grecco said.
Okwuchi certainly had dark times when she would question how anything could come of her life after such a tragic experience. She credits her faith with getting her through it.
"I just had to understand how to define myself," she said. "I would not define myself by the world's ideal. I would define myself by God's ideal. By his standard. He sees beyond the physical and in the value that we all have.
"It became very freeing. I didn't think about how people perceived me and the scars."
Okwuchi had already been telling her story, but her platform for doing so became exponentially larger after her initial appearance on "America's Got Talent," when she received a standing ovation from the audience and judges Cowell, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum and Mel B.
"Before," she said, "the most public thing I did was sing in church."
That first performance led to several more national TV appearances as she advanced all the way to the competition's finale. She didn't win, but she won over America and has been singing and telling her story to rapt audiences since.
"It's just been really, really amazing, all the different opportunities and the amount of travel. It's been a whirlwind," she said. "Most people want me to speak and also sing. That I get to go both, which I'm passionate about, is an honor and a joy."
Grecco said Mason-Dixon Youth for Christ holds this event each spring to tell the adult community the type of work the organization does with and for kids. They have brought in actors and comedians and a parent of a Columbine shooting victim in past years, but he was convinced after learning about Okwuchi that she would be a perfect person to headline this year's event.
And, he said, registration for the Westminster and Hanover events has essentially doubled from previous years.
"I really felt like her story was powerful," said Grecco, who has been involved in Mason-Dixon Youth for Christ since 1979. "If you watched the show, you remember her."
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Okwuchi, once reluctant to stand in the spotlight, now believes she was meant to help people learn to overcome.
"I came on the show at a time when people needed to see such a positive message … when that message was needed," she said. "There is not a lot of representation of people who are burned or disabled. TV shows people as perfect. To see someone look so different than the TV ideal of perfection was jarring to people — in a good way."
And the main message she wants to impart on Friday night in Westminster and on Saturday in Hanover is that if she can overcome hardship, so can everyone.
"I really feel like as human beings we tend to underestimate ourselves. We don't realize how much we can endure," she said. "We all have it in us, that resilient spirit. It doesn't have to take something so traumatic as a plane crash. We can all be brave when we face obstacles."
The Mason-Dixon Youth for Christ event in Westminster is for adults. Registration is requested. To register or to learn more about the organization, call 717-646-9900 or 410-374-2000.