Singer and burn survivor Kechi Owkuchi made her first trip to Delaware today. And she got here by flying.
That in and of itself is pretty amazing considering the fact that 13 years ago, Owkuchi survived a deadly plane crash in her home country of Nigeria, which killed all but two of the 109 people on board. She suffered burns to 65 percent of her body and extensive disfiguring to her face, arms, hands and legs.
Just 16 at the time, Owkuchi and 60 fellow classmates were returning home from boarding school for the Christmas holiday. She was devastated to learn that she was the only student to have survived.
The 2017 America’s Got Talent contestant was at the Wilmington Riverfront today to share her harrowing and inspiring story with 1,000+ attendees at the Millennial Summit.
Throughout her years of medical treatment, including 100 surgeries and endless hours of physical therapy to regain her strength and mobility, Owkuchi found inspiration in many ways, including the loving support of family and friends, her faith and in music. Music therapy was a critical piece of her recovery, which took place in Houston, where she and her family have lived since 2007.
Owkuchi says music has allowed her to cope with the loss of so many friends, much of her own personal freedom and a future defined by her tragedy. Music helped her stay strong. She told the crowd at the Chase Center that from a very young age, she was “always aware of (her) goals.” As soon as she was well enough, she hit the books, graduating Summa Cum Laude in 2015 with a Bachelor’s in Economics from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
It was during her time as a graduate student, while working toward her MBA, that a friend suggested that she give America’s Got Talent a Try. Making it to the final round on the hit NBC show provided her the platform to take her message about healing, survivorship and leading a positive life to a broader audience.
Owkuchi’s shared five ‘ideologies’ – takeaways from her accident and journey to recovery – at today’s keynote address at the Millennial Summit, concluding with a song she sang before the judges on America’s Got Talent: Don’t you Dare (Give Up on Tomorrow, Don’t You Dare Tell Your Dreams Goodbye).
My scars do not define me.
On the day that I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time, I wanted to see. I just remember seeing the disfiguration and seeing the scars and everything. But somehow beyond all that I could still see Kechi in there, in my eyes, an expression, just the way my features were still just around my face. A face that didn’t look anything like Kechi, but somehow there was something familiar there. And that’s when it hit me – that my scars did not define me. That became my life motto in that moment.
I could still feel like myself even though I didn’t look like myself. And I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t change things about me that I liked from the inside. I did not want to change based off of how I look now on the outside.
This freed me in such an amazing way because if my scars did not define me, then that meant that they didn’t have to control the way that I dress, the way that I talked, who I interacted with, who I hung out with, how I hung out with people, the things I love to do. It meant I didn’t have to change my hobbies. And I had so many things I love to do. And I love clothes. I didn’t want to have to give up any of that because of how different I looked. And I didn’t feel like I had to.
Seeing myself the way God saw me freed me from other people’s opinions, and I didn’t have to worry about his opinion changing ever. Because he was always seen as valuable, and I did not ever see myself as less valuable than I was.
Finding the truth about the accident.
I found out that I was one of two survivors. No one else from my school survived, my friends were gone. And I fell into a depression that no one could pull me out of. There was no reason that you could ever give me that would justify the loss of so many lives.
So spending my life – this miracle that was my life – it wasn’t satisfactory for me to live depressed. I wanted instead for my life that means something for them. So a lot of my drive later on in life came from this pressure I put on myself to live as fully and wonderfully and as lively as possible. Because I wanted to show that I was appreciating this life that was saved.
And I wanted to show them that I couldn’t be this one positive thing for them, in light of just such a huge human tragedy.
Learning to draw strength from my tragedy.
That was a huge thing for me, too, that really gave me the drive I needed to just get out there and live my life. It was really a miracle how I was able to come out of this, not just physically better, but also mentally, emotionally as well.
So I moved on to America in 2007. I became a patient at Shriners Hospital in Galveston, where they took me in, and my whole family moved with me. And they were with me every step of the way. They took care of me, they, they encouraged me to do the things I love.
Music was such a huge part of my treatment that my dad got me a karaoke machine. And I would just go to town on that thing. Every second of every day, when I was not having surgery, that was literally my life. Because music was an escape, it became like this huge distraction. It was the one thing I had that was not surgery related or hospital-related. So I could have fun with it and do whatever I wanted with it.
And my voice did change after the accident. No one really understands how or why, but it did. And So that gave me confidence to keep singing and having fun with music. And then when I got here (to the U.S.) Shriners was making music a part of my therapy. So, I was able to see the hospital is not just this place where I was in pain all the time, but also a place that gave me joy and happiness.
The importance of a support system.
All these people in my life — my physical therapist, my music therapist, my parents, my sister, all of my friends — everyone that fed positivity into me at the time, these were my support system.
Really, the people around you, what they feed into you and your life, can make or break you. I have the most amazing people around me who kept me grounded and also reminded me of my reason for why I’m living my life this way.
Every time I felt like I wanted to just give up or I felt like it was too hard, it would remind me that I had a purpose and I shouldn’t forget it. The kind of things and people you have around you can really decide the kind of path you take in your life or, more importantly, your outlook on life. If you have people who are not naysayers, but genuine, authentic people who tell you the truth, whether it’s good or bad, that you have a clearer picture of who you are. And that way, you have a clearer picture of what you might need to change, or what you might need to work on more to help you in following your dreams.
I will always be afraid of taking risks.
Owkuchi said that her best friend encouraged her for two years to ‘get out there and sing’ – to audition for any music television reality show. Eventually, her friend signed her up to apply for America’s Got Talent (AGT) without telling Owkuchi.
During AGT, what I realized was that I will always be afraid of taking a risk. It’s never going to change. It’s just the scariest thing when you don’t know what you’re jumping into. And I feel like that’s what holds a lot of us back from doing things that we’re not used to.
I’d rather be afraid while I’m doing it than be afraid of doing it because the fear is there anyway. So I learned to choose my fear. AGT was the biggest form of risk I ever took in my life. And I had my prayer, my faith, and my family that was going along with me very steadily and carefully, not trying to put too much hope into it or rely too much on the outcome, just reminding me to be happy. All about jumping further, further, deeper and deeper into the waters where I had never been before.
And this really brings me back to the whole support system thing. Because it really says a lot about the kind of people you have around you, people who can see you and what you can do, see your gifts and your talents and what you’re good at in a way that you cannot see, sometimes. I definitely did not see myself as good enough to be on a show like AGT or any other show.
But she obviously saw something in my voice that was worth putting me out there. She (Owkuchi’s friend) believed in me knowing that I didn’t. And so a support system matters. She changed my life single-handedly. And before I knew it, I was a finalist on the show. This was in 2017. And since then my life has literally changed.