NEW ORLEANS (AP) - More than three dozen women who have been on a yearlong journey of introspection and achievement, with help from Grammy Award-winning singer Chaka Khan, celebrated their transformations in a ceremony Saturday at the Essence Music Festival.
Last year, the Chaka Khan Foundation partnered with the New Orleans-based nonprofit Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies and Essence to guide the women through an in-depth, life-altering process that has resulted in some of them finishing their high school educations and others starting their own businesses.
"Sometimes it takes a great disaster like Katrina to bring us together," Khan said during her address to the graduates. "When I came out here to the festival last year, I couldn't just sing 'I Feel For You' and go home. I felt compelled to do something after seeing the effect Katrina had on so many people.
"In no way can I identify with some of the losses you all have experienced, but now, today, we focus on the gains you've made. This is just the beginning. Just think from here on out you will now become mentors like me. I'm so proud of you and I love you all so much."
Khan said the women in the program are not the same people she met a year ago.
"Seeing these women graduate is everything," she said. "It's made my whole year and knowing that they will pay it forward is even better."
Dr. Denise Shervington, founder and president of IWES, said the program has helped the women become homeowners, repair their credit, get jobs, develop healthier relationships with themselves and others and gain healthier lifestyles.
"Katrina wreaked havoc not only on the physical city but also on the spirits and souls of those who live here," she said. "Fifty women came together with the hope that it was possible their visions could become a reality. More than 30 trusted the yearlong process and here we are."
Kelly Harris, 33, of New Orleans, said the program has helped boost her own self-esteem and self-worth.
"Not to sound cliche, but it's really transformed me," she said. "I feel more empowered. I feel like I've been given the tools to move forward and handle whatever comes my way as my life changes."
Harris, originally of Ohio, said she moved to New Orleans for love and became "lost in the shadow of my husband. I had no friends and began to question who I was as I dealt with old demons of depression. I was struggling here and needed to reinvent myself."
In doing so, Harris said the program sparked her to form Poems and Pink Ribbons, a breast cancer workshop that drew the attention of the National Poetry Society of America which gave her a grant to continue what she started.
Niya Cordier, 33, of New Orleans, said she struggled as the mother of a bipolar teenager to find the necessary support and the program gave her access to resources she might not have found otherwise.
She said her mentors also encouraged her to continue her education. Now she's enrolled in a registered nursing program so she can continue advocating for children with mental illnesses.
"This was just the stepping stone I needed," she said.
An all-female band that included graduate Sherelle Mouton, a percussionist from Lafayette, backed up Khan who sang her hits "Super Life" and "I'm Every Woman." Mouton, 27, said she was excited about the opportunity to be on stage with Khan, but even more honored to have been part of the program.
"This experience just opened up so many doors for me," Mouton said. "It made me not be lazy and encouraged me to have faith enough in myself to get my life going."
Khan, who will perform at the festival's closing night concert Sunday in the Superdome, said there are plans to create similar programs in other urban areas.
Associated Press writer Stacey Plaisance contributed to this report.