Our local volunteers come from all walks of life. Many of them are retirees, like Snehlata Mathur (pronounced: snay-LAH-tah), who, while closing professional careers, open new ones as volunteers, exploring hobbies and pet projects with others, and supporting the community in new ways.
Snehlata, or Sneh for short, was Agassiz-Harrison’s Community Response Network (CRN) Coordinator until just early this year when she had to step down from the role to mourn the death of a family member, which is taking her back to her birth country of India to be with family as soon as pandemic safety protocols allow for it.
She is a retired scientist, a music lover, a budding artist, and an advocate for newcomers, immigrants, and seniors. Her name, Snehlata, is derived from “sneh”, the Hindi word for “love”.
It took a little convincing for Sneh to agree to be profiled. After a few minutes into the interview, we were sharing stories like old friends. “I am a very private and reserved person,” she says.
Allow us the pleasure to introduce you to Snehlata Mathur as our volunteer of the month. This article is our thank-you to Sneh for her contributions to the Agassiz-Harrison CRN and the BC CRN. Thank you, Sneh, for all that you have done to support your community. We hope we have the opportunity to work with you again in the future!
Sneh was born in the Rajasthan state of Northern India in the city of Udaipur a few years after Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. The third oldest child of six siblings, Sneh comes from a family of progressive thinkers who were well ahead of their time.
“My mother was born in the 1930’s India when girls were not sent to school,” she says. “My grandfather, a criminal lawyer who became a judge later on, arranged homeschooling for all three of his daughters. My mother trained to become a nurse.”
When her mother met and married Sneh’s father, they decided all their children would have the opportunity to go to university and receive the best education they could provide. (Sneh’s father was a compounder, which is a pharmacist that works alongside doctors.) “My mother was strong and intelligent. She was also a great artist,” says Sneh. “I am so grateful to my mother for her hard work to support us financially and for taking care of us. All of us (children) graduated from university and are doing very well.”
Serving the community’s most in need was also very important to the family. Once her father retired from practicing, he opened his own clinic to specifically serve members who were unable to afford medical care otherwise. “My parents were always very considerate of the poor,” she explains. “
Sneh’s early interest in plants influenced her academic choices. She also elected to learn English starting in sixth grade. She studied both chemistry and botany for her science undergraduate degree, then specialized in agriculture for her Master’s degree, and finally furthered her studies by earning a PhD in plant pathology. Her Master’s and Doctorate degrees were completed in English. (Sneh also speaks Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit.)
“I’ve always been interested in fungus and fungal diseases, viruses and bacteria, and the environment,” Sneh says.
Her research led to an associate professor tenure at her home university in India…and a call from a Canadian university for post-doctorate research.
In 1993, Snehlata moved to Canada.
Sneh landed first in Montreal for a conference and then moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba to begin her post-doctoral research. “I was studying canola crops at the University of Manitoba,” says Sneh. “There were some serious plant diseases affecting them.”
The move from India to Canada was a starting over of sorts. “It was very challenging,” she shares. “I arrived in Canada with just two bags. Udaipur (in India) is a smaller city than Winnipeg. I also did not know anyone in Canada other than my professor. English was my second language.”
Sneh’s colleagues came from all over the world. “Everyone welcomed me and helped me so much. They helped with getting my social insurance and health care.”
Her research in Canada was also quite different compared to what she was used to in India. “In India’s tropical climate, everything grows faster, including the insect pests and diseases on crops. It is challenging to grow healthy crops in that climate. Agriculture is a very important part of the countryside in India,” she explains.
The University of Manitoba kept extending her contract and she would work with their research team for three and a half years before moving on to a research role with Agriculture Canada, where she would stay for another year.
In 1998, Sneh moved to Alberta for a job in a disease diagnosis lab. “People brought plant samples and we cultured and analyzed them, finding solutions to their plant problems.” She stayed in the role for a year and then went to Prince Edward Island where she was trained and accredited for a certification program to manage ring rot in potatoes. “Our lab tested for ring rot in seed potatoes. Bacteria ring rot can damage an entire potato field,” she says.
Sneh and her lab team received samples from all over Canada and the US. “It was very interesting working with the clients, employers, auditors, and the federal authorities. It was also very stressful three years!”
She then bounced back to Alberta’s provincial agriculture centre, this time as a scientist leading work on plant pathology. After a year, federal budget cuts eliminated her position, opening the door to an opportunity to work in a federal lab researching greenhouse crop diseases in Agassiz, BC. She made her final career move to BC in 2001.
“My work in BC focused more on plant pathology, molecular biology, and entomology,” says Sneh. “I held a ‘multi-functional researcher’ position, studying blueberry scorch disease, which is a virus that affects blueberry fields and is spread by aphids. I also studied insect pests of cranberry plants.”
When asked about whether she prefers working with insects or with plants, Sneh replies: “I prefer working with plants. When researching bugs, you always must watch them die, and that part was not fun.”
Sneh retired in July 2019.
A lifelong scientist, Sneh is now throwing herself into her artistic side, experimenting with clay (“I joined an artists’ guild to learn how to throw clay on a pottery wheel.”) and paint. (“I belong to a painters’ group that meets every Monday to learn watercolour painting. When I worked, I used to sneak lessons at lunchtime!”)
She is also a music lover and volunteers for the Cheam Vista Classical Concert Society where she can listen to the performances of classical singers and pianists. “I listen to everything!” she says.
Volunteerism is somewhat new to Sneh. “Work was so busy, I never had time to volunteer until now,” she says. “In BC, there are so many volunteer opportunities.”
She decided to start small, volunteering for events like the local Terry Fox Run, the Agassiz Farm Fair, the Harrison Festival of Arts, helping organize community centre hampers, and picking up litter from around the lake. A volunteer fair at the local recreation centre brought Sneh and Devirani Naidoo, Regional Mentor – Fraser Valley East, together for the first time.
Devirani was looking to expand the CRN in Agassiz-Harrison. Sneh’s reputation and connections in the community made her the perfect candidate to act as the community’s coordinator. The two women exchanged phone numbers.
“Since moving to Agassiz in 2001, my friends have been mostly seniors,” says Sneh. “I got to know more seniors and their stories, and realized I wanted to help and work with them in some way.”
Shortly after the volunteer fair, Sneh received a call from Devirani, and she was offered the role of Agassiz-Harrison CRN co-coordinator. Sneh became coordinator of the CRN soon after.
Sneh led CRN projects that helped distribute important information about adult abuse, neglect, and self-neglect, and support services to seniors. She also collaborated with businesses and service providers on campaigns, World Elder Abuse Awareness Day events, and awareness events.
Her favourite project is the CRN’s Life Box Project. “It’s a very important project to me,” she says. “Everyone has important documents. These documents should be in one place so when we become ill or if we pass away, our loved ones don’t need to look everywhere for them. We want to put everything in one spot to make things easier during difficult and stressful times. Every senior, every person should have one.”
Sneh is also an exceptional example for solo senior women.
“It is important to build a network and understand our options,” she says. “I am blessed to have good neighbours and good friends. I also have many cousins, nieces, and nephews in India, the US, and Canada. The people of BC have welcomed me with open arms. It wasn’t always like this when I worked in other places.”
“Sneh is one of those amazing people who does so much work in the background,” says Devirani. “She is professional and always follows through. She has garnered much respect from the people around her…people feel safe with her. She has been an inspiring advocate for the CRN, bringing a unique cultural perspective to the work. She is a true volunteer in every aspect of the word. We will miss her.”
“Although I have stepped down from the coordinator role for the Agassiz-Harrison CRN, I still will actively volunteer until I leave for India. When I come back, I want to be involved with the CRN again,” says Sneh.
Written by: Debbie Chow, Links Communication Solutions. Follow Debbie on LinkedIn: @debbiechowabc
(Header photo: Sneh working in her research lab. Photo source: S. Mathur)