Still, Mary has never forgotten the projects in Yonkers, New York, where she grew up. With Oprah Show cameras in tow, Mary returned to her childhood home, where she confronted many painful memories. "I could have been dead because of this environment," she says. "But because of this environment, I'm alive too."
To escape the screams of abused women, Mary says she often sought refuge at a nearby pier. "I remember one day being here. I was sitting there, and it was a cloudy day. I started praying. I was really depressed that day, and I was crying and I was, like, 'Father, if there's a way out, please show me,'" she says. "As I was asking him that, the sky ... opened up and the sun came down. And I knew at that moment I was going to get out."
Mary says never forgetting where she came from has led to the greatest joy in her life—the ability to give back. Her charity, Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now (FFAWN), allows Mary to help the women whose screams kept her up at night as a child. "It's a dream come true," she says.
In 2009, Mary opened the doors to the Mary J. Blige Center for Women. The learning center serves struggling young women in Yonkers. It offers GED classes and has a computer lab where women can search for jobs and create résumés. "My thing is if you save women, you save the world," Mary says.
The center also provides childcare. "This is probably one of the most important places because when women are looking for jobs, a lot of time they don't have babysitters," she says. "That's another thing that holds them back."
And, Mary says they're just getting started. "From mothers to daughters to aunts, black, white, it doesn't matter who you are: If you need help, the Mary J. Blige Center for Women is here," she says. "It's starting small, but we're going to get bigger."
Mary is also mentoring high school students at the Women's Academy of Excellence, the only public all-girls school in the Bronx. "When you're educated, you're confident," she says. "You know what you're speaking about. You know who you are."
Above all, Mary wants these girls to do something she never did—graduate with a high school diploma. "When I was growing up, it wasn't cool to be educated, so I fell into that slump," she says. "When you're in a peer pressure situation where you're forced to do what everyone else does to survive, then you end up like I did."
In spring 2010, many of these girls will graduate and go to college thanks to Mary's help. "I'm living vicariously through them," Mary says. "I wish I was them. I wish that I was graduating."
In 2011, Mary will celebrate her 40th birthday. Her goal for the next decade is to keep dreaming big. "I strive to be educated, to grow older gracefully, be happy and comfortable with myself," she says. "And to have helped more women with my walk—not with what I'm saying but what they're seeing."
Regardless where her 40s take her, Mary says she's ready for anything that comes her way—a realization reflected in her new number one album, Stronger with Each Tear. "For so long I felt like a weakling because I cried," she says. "But I feel like I'm cool with that vulnerability now. I'm stronger with each tear. I'm stronger after every mistake I make because I'm not going to make those mistakes anymore."