Sneha Wadhwani speaks three languages, is enrolled in an academically-challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) school program, volunteers with dozens of local community groups, has a job throughout the school year and summer months as a page at her local library, and is a passionate activist and writer with endless energy and dreams for the future of the world. Did we mention she’s 17 years old?
Sneha is one of three young women in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario, who received the Jessica Melnik Young Women of Impact Award (see below) this Spring from Red Pashmina Inc, a local non-profit organization which raises funds for the education of women and children in Afghanistan and, at home in Canada, recognises the community efforts of women.
“For me, it’s really about being able to help other people,” said Sneha, in an interview. “I just hope to create a positive impact on our community and others’ lives and bring a little bit more light. I also hope to develop my own personal skills as a writer and activist.”
Born in central India, Sneha first moved with her family to a community near Las Vegas in 2006 and then came to Peterborough in 2011, where her father, Harish, works as an engineer, and her mother, Reshan, works as a parent. She has one sister, Krisha, aged 12.
“My parents have sacrificed so much for my sister and me and I owe them everything. I am so grateful. I would be in a very different position today if I lived in India,” she said.
Sneha has just finished Grade 11 at Kenner Collegiate Vocational School in the IB program, which, she said, has a huge workload but focuses on global-mindedness and critical thinking. Curious by nature, she has always been dedicated to her education and loves learning.
In Grade 7 and 8, while at Monsignor O’Donoghue Catholic Elementary School, she was involved with its environmental club, but became frustrated at not being able to use her energy and passion more. She told herself she would take any opportunity to flourish.
“I’ll always be connected to Peterborough . . . “It’s where I found out who I wanted to be.”
Her first major exposure to social justice issues was at Global Youth Day, organized by Kawartha World Issues Centre, when she was in Grade 9 in 2015. Then, during the summer following that and continuing for the next two years, her volunteer work really took off, and she hasn’t looked back: tutoring a youth group of Syrian refugees at the Peterborough New Canadians Centre; working with the provincial Minister’s Student Advisory Council; helping with MP Maryam Monsef’s federal election campaign; attending the Model Parliament program at the Ontario Legislative Assembly; being part of a provincial advisory forum for Girl Guides in which she was paired with a government department; working with Nogojiwanong Youth Solidarity Initiative, the Peterborough-Kawartha Youth Council, the Dragon Boat Races, Purple Onion Festival, and Green-UP . . . to name some!
“The beautiful thing about Peterborough is that there are a lot of organizations which are inter-connected and you are able to find a community,” she said. “I am grateful to Peterborough because it is supportive of new initiatives or if you want to get involved.”
One of her favourite activities is running the Living Poet Society, a local slam and written poetry collective for high school youth, which has about 25 members. It’s a space for young writers to connect, learn how to get published and network, she said.
“My most meaningful friendships are with people I have met through poetry. Poetry expresses such a raw and deep part of myself. It’s beyond words how cool it feels.”
One of her proudest accomplishments was getting her fellow Kenner students excited about the work of Amnesty International (AI). This past year, she organized an AI Write for Rights campaign at the school, and a Christmas door-decorating activity that saw classroom doors “decorated” with different human rights’ issues.
“I was blown away by the response to that initiative,” she said. “I had people come up to me and say ‘this is awful and we need to change this’. I realised this had an impact. It’s a weird mix of pride, awe, disbelief and gratitude when you can witness your impact.”
In her spare time (what spare time?), Sneha is an avid practitioner of yoga, which she started when she was in Grade 6, and which she says keeps her grounded, focused, and calm, and is also a deeply-rooted part of her Indian culture.
Languages are another one of her passions — “I absolutely adore languages” — and she speaks English, French and Hindi, and hopes to learn American Sign Language and Latin this summer.
Down the road — after high school, that is — Sneha plans to attend university outside of Peterborough for health sciences with minors in English and perhaps politics. Eventually she is headed for either medical school or law school, “or maybe both,” she laughs, and wants to work with Doctors Without Borders.
“I just love school so much, I can’t get enough of it.”
Sneha said the work she has done in the community “has allowed me to feel that the reason I’m here on this earth is something meaningful. There is no better feeling than to see others get inspired from something I have done and to help people. Every time I am able to share or inspire someone else to take action I am reminded again and again this is why I’m here and this is why I do it, and I’ll never stop.”
“But I’ll always be connected to Peterborough,” she said, “because it’s where I became who I am, and the city made that possible. It’s where I found out who I wanted to be.”
Red Pashmina Inc. recently celebrated three community-nominated young women — Keara Lightning, Hanah McFarlane and Sneha Wadhwani – with the presentation of the 2017 Jessica Melnik Young Women of Impact Award. The award honours local women under 30 who embody compassion, tenacity, quiet confidence and the ability to shine their light on those around them while encouraging others to do the same.
Their nominators shared the inspirational impacts of these women within their circles and broader community, and demonstrated the value of bringing together, uplifting and encouraging diverse young change-makers of Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, while at the same time showing their commonalities and potential with women in Afghanistan and around the world.
Many thanks to community members based at Trent Aboriginal Cultural Knowledge & Science (TRACKS), the Community Counselling & Resource Centre (CCRC), and Kawartha World Issues Centre for putting forward and sharing a snapshot of Keara, Hanah & Sneha’s vital stories so eloquently.
A big thank you and recognition is also extended to Kyla Gutsche and family, whose enthusiastic support, ideas and contributions first made this award a reality.
It is hoped that we may all continue to reflect upon and share publicly about the meaningful young women in our lives, and that it will embolden the celebration, connection, encouragement & possibilities of all women, near and far, in their many diversities, challenges and accomplishments!
By Melodie McCullough