BC CRN Spotlight: Jas Cheema, Regional Mentor – Surrey, South Surrey, White Rock, Langley

(Photo: J. Cheema)

BC CRN’s team of Regional Mentors helps communities establish Community Response Networks (CRNs). Mentors provide ongoing local support in the coordination of responses to abuse, neglect, and self-neglect, and community development initiatives. Some Mentors are also community development partners who collaborate with local agencies and organizations to respond to the needs of the people.

Google “Jas Cheema” and “Surrey” together, and the search engine will spit out about 366,000 individual results. Except for, maybe, a dozen or so items, the first four pages of “Jas Cheema” are, indeed, about BC CRN’s Regional Mentor for Surrey, South Surrey, White Rock, and Langley.

Her name appears frequently next to the monikers of several BC news outlets and blogs, major awards and accolades, health projects, respected healthcare professionals and providers, and a multitude of senior support and service societies.

Mention the name “Jas Cheema” to anyone who has worked with the City of Surrey, and you hear: “She’s a community trailblazer.” and “Jas has been around forever.”

We are pleased to introduce you to Jas Cheema. We are so proud to have her on our team. Thank you, Jas, for sharing some of your stories with us.

Growing Up in Two Cultures

Jas immigrated to Canada when she was six from the state of Punjab located in Northern India. “The landscape of Punjab is very much like BC,” she says. “My father wanted a better future for his children and as such decided to immigrate to Canada. My father sponsored my mother, my brother, and me. Fifteen years later my sister was born in Vancouver.”

She doesn’t remember much of the actual journey to Canada, but she does remember feeling excluded, sometimes invisible. “We didn’t socialize with people from other cultures,” says Jas. “At home, my parents emphasized staying with Indian culture, beliefs, and values.”

Going to school would prove to be difficult. “I looked different. I thought differently than everyone else. It was confusing one set of values at home and another in school” she says.

At 15, she started volunteering at the Heart and Stroke Foundation answering phones and at the local Sikh Gurdwara.

Shortly after graduating high school, and at the age of 19, Jas entered into an arranged marriage.

The birth of her now grown son and daughter followed. “Today they are 27 and 25,” she says.

The Start of an Incredible Journey

At home, Jas was the traditional Punjabi wife and mother. At work and in her volunteer life, she held leadership roles, often being the only woman on the team. Reconciling these two very distinct roles would lead her on a lifelong journey of self-discovery.

“In my culture, girls and women are not valued, let alone seen in leadership positions” she explains. “The birth of my daughter was a real turning point for me. I really started examining my beliefs and my place in society. It was a time to examine what I wanted for her.”

Her first job was at a credit union where she would eventually become an insurance branch manager. She volunteered for several community-based non-profits: the local Rotary Club, Soroptimists Surrey-Delta, Surrey Food Bank, the Surrey Hospice Society, and the Surrey Memorial Foundation.

She also regularly wrote for the Indo-Canadian Voice, the Indo-Canadian Link, and Surrey-North Delta Leader Newspapers.

When she moved to the Ministry of Social Development, and Poverty Reduction, she started an Intercultural Diploma Program out of the University of British Columbia.

Many other doors opened. Jas served on several Boards. She was the first South Asian woman on the Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation Board of Directors. She engaged with community leaders and the local South Asian community to raise funds through a radiothon for an expanded emergency department- “Guru Nanak Emergency Services” a first naming recognizing the fundraising efforts of the South Asian community for our Province.

Jas and her grown children outside the Cheema Family Treatment Room at Surrey Memorial Hospital. (Photo: J. Cheema)

“During this first radiothon, we raised over $700k in one night, the highest the Foundation had raised in a single night fundraiser! “This success opened the doors to annual radiothons, which are now in their twelfth year, raising millions for much needed state-of-the-art lifesaving equipment”. The Foundation recognized Jas’s family’s contributions to Surrey Memorial Hospital by a “Cheema Family Room” in the emergency tower.

As Jas completed UBC’s Intercultural Program, and with a newly minted diploma in hand, an opportunity at Surrey Memorial Hospital presented itself. “The government-mandated diversity training for staff,” she says. “I applied and got the job to develop the program.”

Jas also promptly set up her own consulting and coaching practice. Somewhere in the flurry of contracts, she also earned her Master’s degree in Intercultural Communication at Royal Roads University in Victoria and signed up for volunteer training at Surrey Hospice.

Jas continued working with Fraser Health for another 10 years. She also served as Chair of Surrey’s Libraries Board and opened the City Centre Library in one of Surrey’s newest mixed-use developments at the time. Surrey Libraries also named a “Cheema Reading Room” recognizing her contributions.

“Growing up I was taught the value of hard work, of serving others, and of supporting our elders,” she says.

Today, Jas focuses on assisting seniors, supporting end-of-life care, and supporting people in grief through her coaching practice. She facilitates online programs she develops, which are based on the latest research on resiliency and incorporates ancient spiritual teachings to help those who have experienced loss to better understand and find meaning in their pain.

“People need to move through and grieve loss,” she explains. “The loss could be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or any other change. There is a grieving process. Every loss or life change has a lesson for us. In every loss there is an opportunity to learn and move forward.”

A Chance Meeting with BC CRN’s Executive Director

Jas first came to know of BC CRN by way of a focus group she was invited to participate in. “A colleague from Simon Fraser University encouraged me to participate,” she says. “(BC CRN Executive Director) Sherry Baker was invited to the same meeting. I introduced myself to her and enquired about any upcoming opportunities to work with the network. She referred me to their website where I learned more about BC CRN’s mandate and the local Community Response Networks (CRNs).”

Shortly after the introduction, BC CRN posted an opportunity for the Regional Mentor role to support Surrey, South Surrey, White Rock, and Langley communities. Jas applied, and was successful.

“That was just over two years ago!” she says.

The Challenges Along the Way

While Jas’s work garnered plenty of recognition in mainstream and South Asian media, she was challenged to face her own self-limiting beliefs around her role in the home and society. To support her own healing journey, she incorporated yoga and meditation practices, which she now utilizes in her work today with clients.

Several losses and a life-changing cancer diagnosis pushed her even deeper into self-reflection.

“Facing the thought of my own death, really opened me up to questioning my spiritual beliefs and the role God/Guru played if there was one,” she says. “If I was going to support others at the end of life, I needed to have some sense of what life was for me. I needed to answer these questions for myself, and only then could I honestly support others.”

Jas credits her children for giving her the strength to face her diagnosis, and for being the inspiration that led her on the road to self-discovery where she found her voice and her own truth, the value of her culture, a new belief system, and “connection with the Creator”.

“It took me a while to see things for what they were, to learn forgiveness, to reconcile my past and understand my inner child, and to allow the Creator to take me to where I need to be,” she says. “I started caring less about what others thought. As I stay centred on my truth, there is an ease, a flow that is ever new.”

Written by: Debbie Chow, Links Communication Solutions. Follow Debbie on LinkedIn: @debbiechowabc

(Header photo: Jas at far right in 2013. Source: The Valley Voice)

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