It wasn’t so much dancing that prepared SVP Partner Sinae Cheh to be a philanthropist as it was growing up at Morning Star Korean Cultural Center where Korean dance, music and heritage are imparted on youth and adult students alike. Her mother, Jiyeon, founded the center in the ‘80s, just as Sinae was entering school.
“I commonly say that my mom was the one with the talent. My dad was the one with the vision,” Sinae says.
“My dad, he looked to the future and he said there will come a time when as Korean Americans we will have to be able to assert our identity in this diverse culture.”
Rev. Chang Hyo Cheh, Sinae’s father, intuited that second generation Koreans and Korean adoptees would lack confidence if they lacked confidence in their cultural identity. And he knew that in twenty years from then, when cultural education would be in demand, they couldn’t just suddenly open a cultural center. They had to start the work immediately. Both Sinae and her brother were raised fully bilingual and at its opening, Morning Star also became an integral part of their childhood.
Sinae’s mother started with four young students. Under her direction and more than three decades later, it has since expanded to serve over 1,000 members of all ages with dance and music classes, an art preschool, and library. Morning Star students have performed at over 1,700 events domestically and internationally.
In that time, Sinae has gone from performer to artistic director. It’s fair to say that the center remains just as much a fundamental part of her adulthood as it was in her childhood. Where in most troupes one person directs, someone else performs and another manages backstage goings on, Sinae does it all. She choreographs all Morning Star’s performances, teaches all of the classes, and you can find her offstage at any given event putting makeup on the students or working with technicians to set lighting cues and sound. Not to mention, she performs in all said events. Getting this image of Sinae spinning four plates while hop scotching, yet?
Well with Sinae’s leadership, Morning Star has become an icon in the Pacific Northwest region for its ability to share Korean culture through boundless musical arrangements, distinctive costume design and exquisite choreography. So much so the center has represented the Korean government as a recognized Korean cultural ambassador at various performances both in the U.S. and globally, including the Salt Lake City Olympics and Vancouver Olympics.
When asked why she does it, though, it’s not the prominence or recognition that comes to the surface. Sinae underscores the long view. Morning Star changes the students that go through its programs.
“When people say I coach students, there’s some truth to that, because I don’t just teach them dance and music,” she says.
True to her father’s original vision, she emphasizes to each new student at Morning Star: “I have a duty to help you develop your character. I don’t expect you to grow up just like me or your friend next to you. I want you to be your best self.”
Even while Morning Star has grown to international distinction, central to its mission is remaining accessible to those who most need an affordable place to leave their kids. The way Sinae puts it, children with abundant resources and family support, are more likely studying ballet or modern dance. They’re not learning Korean cultural instruments and dance. Morning Star, however, fills a gap for the families that come through its doors while simultaneously building a deeper connection to the students’ heritage.
“I know it can sound cliché and a little bit corny,” Sinae explains, “but as they perform, the confidence they build on stage is something that they can’t get anywhere else. I see hope and find reward in that process, whether they realize it or not.”
This same intentionality travels to all their performances abroad. After a 2006 event at a school in Africa, Sinae impulsively asked if they could see the students at the school perform.
“I thought, African culture is so rich as well,” Sinae recalls. “They’re so dynamic, very talented.”
When Jiyeon brought Sinae’s request to their audience, initial confusion filled the room and then —
“They were like, ‘What! You want us to perform?’” Sinae laughed. “And they go, ‘Oh, okay!’”
A drum and whistle were brought out and they broke into dance. From then on, it was settled, Morning Star would make sure this request was part of every international performance.
“When the locals feel like they’ve been part of this exchange, their perspective shifts on how they can contribute to any kind of community,” Sinae explains.
Sinae’s lifelong experience with Morning Star played no small role in her and her husband Joneil Sampana’s decision to join SVP. As a performance art nonprofit, Sinae says, Morning Star has received its fair share of requests to do shows for free. But as previously hinted, general operating costs are kept at a bare minimum to make room for affordable programming. That means staff pay is tight and most revenue goes to keeping the cultural center running, i.e. mortgage, electricity, etc.
“When other community organizations ask, ‘Hey we’re a nonprofit.
Can you come perform for us for free?’ Well you know it’s not even just our operations,” Sinae explains. “Just to go out to perform, we have to feed the students. It’s the gas. It’s the time. It’s not free for us.”
When considering becoming partners, SVP’s approach to capacity building and unrestricted funding hit home. Sinae remembers, “Joneil said, ‘Look, I want this to be an opportunity for you, not only to help run Morning Star better, but so that you can bring the nonprofit perspective.’”
She adds, though, that SVP also makes it possible for them to make a greater impact on the sector as a whole, something that, as a family so tied to the nonprofit world, they couldn’t overlook.
“Not only as a community giver, but really in helping build the sustainability of the nonprofit sector,” says Sinae.
Cecilia Garza is SVP’s editorial manager. In her free time, she enjoys sailing the Puget Sound by way of her small yet comfortable Coronado 25’ and romping the beach with her 10-pound Italian Greyhound.
Learn more about Cecilia and read more of her work here.