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Igniting Change

Back in the day, when Holy Chea – so named because his father was singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" on the way to the hospital where his fourth son would be born – walked the halls of Whitworth, he somehow found ways to do the near-impossible: He combined his intellect, his talents, his bright smile and engaging personality, and his love for hip-hop culture with life as a serious student at a small, Christian, liberal arts university in a place not known as, ahem, a hotbed of urban life.

"The best way to give back is to go back, and that's what Holy did. He's Whitworth at its best."

"Holy had many adjustments to make when he arrived at Whitworth, because we're so very different from his urban experience," says Assistant Dean for Programming and Diversity Esther Louie. "He demonstrated grace and generosity of spirit, and what I remember is his focus on helping inner-city youth. He taught break-dancing to kids here in Spokane, and he would often go downtown during his off hours to connect with street youth. The clarity of his focus and his passion for service to youth are inspirational."

Chea with Desmond Tutu
Chea and his colleagues delight in the company of Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, in Tacoma for the "Be the Spark" celebration.

And though Chea's experience at Whitworth was not all rah-rah and hot cocoa – occasionally, he experienced a moment of discomfort when a fellow student made a rude remark about his race or made him feel he didn't deserve the Act Six scholarship he had earned – "it inspired me to consider others' worldviews and experiences," he says. "I realized that I could be angry and defensive, or I could use the event as an opportunity to engage someone in a learning conversation. Many of those conversations turned into very good friendships.

"And though these moments were uncomfortable, they were also necessary," he says. "Whitworth challenged me to build on my strengths, but also to recognize my weaknesses. It provided me the discipline that I needed to grow as an individual and as a leader."

"I strongly believe in this statement by Desmond Tutu: 'Do a little bit of good wherever you are; those little bits of good put together can overwhelm the world.'"

Now, four years out of college, Chea is pursuing his desire to serve and his love for the culture of his hometown in his position as community initiative coordinator at The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation.

"In my job," says Chea, "I co-lead with our Youth Philanthropy Board, which provides people ages 15-24 with the tools to become philanthropic and community leaders in an effort to reduce and prevent youth violence in Tacoma-Pierce County."

In partnership with Seattle's Raikes Foundation, Chea also oversees Pierce County's Youth Program Quality Initiative, which engages agencies in processes that reflect best practices in youth development.
"I would never have imagined myself doing this type of work," Chea says. "My parents are survivors of the Killing Fields in Cambodia, where, between 1975 and 1979, close to two million Cambodian men, women and children were killed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge." When Chea's parents escaped the regime's concentration camps after the war and eventually made it to the U.S., they had nothing more than the clothes on their backs, very little knowledge of American culture, and high-school educations.

In their straitened circumstances, the Cheas had to worry constantly about keeping their growing family fed, clothed and together: "Helping others was not at the top of their priority list," Chea says.

It certainly is at the top of their son's list now. Discovering at age 14 that he had the ability to mentor others sparked an interest in him. "I saw the importance and the positive impact of being in caring and healthy relationships," he says. These days he works to bring about change among those who lack hope and opportunity in a society that sometimes forgets about them. "I won't be able to fix all the problems or bridge all the gaps in society's systems," he says, "but I strongly believe in this statement by Desmond Tutu: ‘Do a little bit of good wherever you are; those little bits of good put together can overwhelm the world.'"

"The clarity of his focus and his passion for service to youth are inspirational."

Tutu's words may ring especially true for Chea because the Nobel Peace Prize winner himself was the person of honor and keynote speaker at an event that Chea helped organize last spring in Tacoma. "Be the Spark" was the expression of a movement to inspire Tacoma residents, "to prove that together, we have the power to spark change, to care, to act, to build a better community," Chea says.

In addition to Tutu, "Be the Spark" featured local entertainers and luminaries including Seattle Seahawks' coach Pete Carroll and philanthropist William Gates, Sr., as well as Canadian Craig Kielburger, founder of "Free the Children" and three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and L.A.'s Quest Crew, America's Best Dance Crew Season Three winners.

Chea and the foundation were buoyed by the response to "Be the Spark." He helped audition talent and entertainment for the event, and "I also had the privilege of distributing close to 4,000 scholarship tickets to Pierce County youth," he says. The majority of these tickets, donated by multiple foundations, organizations, and businesses, went to nonprofit agencies, schools and faith-based organizations serving youth in Tacoma-Pierce County. More than 15,000 people – close to half of them under the age of 24 – attended the May event at the Tacoma Dome.

Chea might not be where he is today – right in the midst of combining little bits of good to make a big difference in his hometown – without the Act Six program. The program is a leadership/scholarship initiative that connects community ministries with faith- and social-justice-based colleges in equipping emerging urban and community leaders to make a difference in their communities. Whitworth was Act Six' first partner institution, in 2002; that very productive partnership still exists today. "The most rewarding thing about being an Act Six student," Chea says, "was the opportunity to share my story with others. There were countless opportunities to share about my culture, my family history, while I learned others' stories, as well. Being part of Act Six and a student at Whitworth, I appreciated that learning was not limited to the classroom; it happened in the dorms, in the HUB, in The Loop, and even during late-night walks on Hawthorne Road. My time at Whitworth was an enormous learning experience. It was a blessing to be an Act Six student and to attend Whitworth University." (See more about Act Six at www.actsix.org.)

Referring to Chea's Act Six origins, Whitworth President Emeritus Bill Robinson says, "The best way to give back is to go back, and that's what Holy did. He returned to his neighborhood in Tacoma to work with youth. That impressed everyone and surprised no one. It's just what you would expect from Holy. He's Whitworth at its best."

"Being able to do the work I do is a blessing," Chea says. "And although The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation is not faith-based, I strongly believe that my Christianity and my relationship with God have been the driving force behind my energy, my work and my efforts. It is because God loved me first that I am able to love others through my work. It makes perfect sense that I would fall in love with what I do."


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