By Jamie Killin

This year, the Arizona Burn Foundation welcomed a special guest to its 19th Annual Holiday Festival of Trees — Kechi Okwuchi, a burn survivor, singer and “America’s Got Talent” finalist who performed “By the Grace of God” and “Conqueror” at the event. 

Okwuchi was one of only two survivors in a plane crash in 2005, suffering severe burns on 65 percent of her body.
“It was an out of body experience. It was my first time experiencing that, like you’re removed and looking around at what’s going on around you,” said Okwuchi. “A very close friend of mine was sitting in the aisle seat next to me. I remember holding her hand real tight and she was like ‘What do we do?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, maybe we should pray.’ I remember that was the last thing I said before I heard this loud scraping sound that just filled my entire head and then I must have blacked out at that point because next thing I knew I was opening my eyes in the hospital in South Africa five months later.”
What followed was a difficult recovery that according to Okwuchi never really ended. She was treated in Johannesburg, spending another several months in the hospital.
Fortunately, music was one of the things that was able to aide her in her recovery — from the music her mother played for her while she was in a coma to listening to Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” throughout her recovery in South Africa.
“It was my escape from everything going on around me,” she said.
Okwuchi also experienced a change in her voice after the accident — finding that her singing was even better than before.
“It was a cool discovery and a gift,” she said. “One that brought me a lot of joy by being able to sing the songs that I loved.”
In 2015, she began singing in church, leading one of her friends to sign her up for the “America’s Got Talent” without her knowing.
“My friend actually signed me up for the show and she knew I would never do it because I’m just not that kind of brave. I mean, I do a lot of things but I don’t put myself out there with respect to my singing so she just did it for me and signed me up online, she did the application and the video and next thing I knew I was being called by one of the agents and that’s how it started last year,” Okwuchi said. “She did what I couldn’t and she’s the reason why all this is happening.”
Now, she’s using her voice to bring attention to the cause that’s so close to her heart.
“I think it would be pretty obvious to anyone that I have a deep connection to anything related to burns and survival and overcoming and anything that’s trying to help people to overcome in that way too,” she said. “I feel this need to participate in whatever way I can, whatever level in events like this.”
Okwuchi hoped to encourage attendees to see the importance of their donation, and she also shared that she wants those who have face similar challenges to her to not be defined by their experience.
“They’re entitled to feeling hurt, in pain, feeling down because of how much their appearance has changed, all of these things are valid feelings that you’re allowed to have because of what happened to you,” she said. “The difference lies in how long you allow yourself to dwell in those thoughts, those negative, depressing thoughts and also what position you put them in your life. You know, it’s a horrible thing that happened, no doubt, but how do you want that to affect the rest of your life going forward? Do you want to always just be a reflection of that situation that happened to you or do you want to just take that as part of, just part of you now, but don’t let it define your whole identity moving forward? It can actually instead of being a crutch it can be a source of strength.”
The Arizona Burn Foundation has provided survivor support programs to children and adults since 1967. The organization aims to help survivors cope with both the psychological and physical effects of their burn injuries and serves approximately 600 people each year at no cost.
This year’s tree auction event welcomed 550 people and raised a record breaking $670,000 in net proceeds with the top tree selling for $120,000.