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South Valley Journal

America’s Got Talent’s Kechi Okwuchi visits Utah for this year’s Women of Worth Gala

Nov 18, 2019 04:33PM ● By Kaleigh Stock

WoW founder Judee Guay awards Kechi Okwuchi for her bravery and participation in WoW. (Kaleigh Stock/City Journals)

By Kaleigh Stock | [email protected]

On Nov. 9,, Herriman-based Women of Worth held its annual gala at 6SIX9, a new venue in Salt Lake City. America’s Got Talent finalist, summa cum laud graduate and Nigerian immigrant Kechi Okwuchi headlined as inspirational speaker and performing artist. Women of Worth is in its ninth year of operation. 

WoW is an organization that helps women who have survived traumatic experiences such as domestic abuse, drug addiction, debilitating illnesses and polygamy find stability and strength through connection so as to discover their individual self-worth. The program is run by donations, 98% of which go directly to its women of worth. WoW’s founder and director, Judee Guay, said the program was built on the premise that everyone in this life should be able to feel that they are worthy, capable and enough to be and do anything they choose to—that no one should have the power to take that dream away. She said WoW gives women tools to build self-confidence and find stability but that the women themselves do the work.

The WoW program starts each January with a two-day retreat that includes several motivational speakers, activities such as “I am” affirmation statements and gratitude journals, and resources to help each woman make connections participate in life in healthy ways, such as finding employment. Each woman sets her own personal goals and is paired with a mentor to help her fulfill those goals. 

Following the initial retreat, mentors consistently touch base with their new “sisters” and empowering workshops are held regularly throughout the year. In September, program participants go on a WoW-funded clothing “shopping spree.” Guay said once women have transformed internally, new clothing can be a valuable form of external empowerment that helps them feel confident they can accomplish professional and personal goals. When the year is over, the women complete the program, and the annual gala is held to celebrate each woman’s accomplishments. 

This year’s Women of Worth gala began with Nigerian-born 29-year-old Kechi Okwuchi singing her original single, “Don’t You Dare.” After her performance, she told the harrowing story of the plane crash that nearly took her life in 2005. Okwuchi and 60 of her fellow classmates from Loyola Jesuit College, grades 7–12, were flying home for Christmas break in a heavy storm when the plane crash-landed on the runway. In that tragic moment of impact, 107 of the 109 passengers were killed. Kechi lost 60 of her classmates, including her best friend, who sat across the aisle from her, and sustained third-degree burns over 65% of the body. Doctors gave Okwuchi only a 30% chance of survival.

Okwuchi was immediately transported to a hospital in South Africa to receive care for her burns and was later flown to Shriner’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. Since the crash, she has undergone more than 100 reconstructive surgeries. Okwuchi said it was the love and support of her tight-knit family (particularly her mother), her Christian faith and her personal perspectives on self-worth and tragedy that got her through the compounded traumas of loss and incredible physical pain. 

Okwuchi’s resilience and confidence at WoW gala was palpable. When asked if she had any survivor’s guilt, she said she knew “no explanation would suffice for the death of 60 kids.” She expanded on this explanation by making a statement that people in abusive relationships or who fall into other bad patterns or habits likely need to hear: Bad things happen, and there is no reason to try to, “go down the road of ‘Why?’” That path is one that too often leads to abusive self-blame and unnecessary misery.

It could be said that the maxim of the night was, “Our scars do not define us.” Okwuchi said after her accident her mother was afraid to let her see a mirror, but when she finally peered into one, she was not so perturbed as her mother thought she would be. Okwuchi said “there was still something familiar in my reflection.” She had a revelation in that moment that there is something much deeper inside of each person that is more than the physical body. She still saw the person she always knew herself to be in her eyes.

Incredibly, Okwuchi said her literal voice was also changed that day. Singing was the one thing Okwuchi could do that didn’t cause her pain, so it became her escape. A close friend noticed that she sang better than she had before the accident. That friend later secretly filled out an application for Kechi for America’s Got Talent. Kechi was accepted onto the show and went on to become a finalist on two seasons after receiving high praise from all of its hosts and a coveted “golden buzzer” from Simon Cowell. Simon had earlier stated that Okwuchi deserved her place on the show not just because of her story but because of her talent. 

After her talk, Okwuchi sang two more songs, “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, and “You Are the Reason” by Calum Scott, followed by a speech by Judee Guay. Guay, herself a past victim of abuse, imparted to guests, “When you love yourself, everything you want and everything you need comes into your life.”

Following Guay’s remarks, an award ceremony for mentors and recognition of WoW participant graduation was presented. Marie Jess, who has taken over as the chief operation’s officer since Guay’s recent move to Las Vegas, was recognized for the countless hours she has committed to continue WoW’s operation. 

After the awards ceremony, each of WoW’s 2019 graduates was escorted down a red carpet. As each participant walked across the stage, she expressed her gratitude for the positive transformations WoW had created in her life. 

One woman said she did not know where she would be without the new family and support system that she found through the program. Another affirmed that she had learned that vulnerability and openness are the keys to discovering one’s self-worth. Each courageous woman stood tall and resolute and closed her speech with the dignified affirmation, “I am a woman of worth.”

If you know of someone who should be nominated a WoW or want to get involved with a mentor, go to WoWUtah.org to fill out an application. Women who join WoW must not be in crisis, must be at least one-year sober, must be away from their abuser and must be in good enough health to show up to workshops.