BCHF casts safety net for hospitality workers in need 

Charity has dished out close to $500K in emergency funding since 2006

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRANDON BARRETT - HELPING HANDS (L to R): Whistler's Joanne DiGeso, Valerie Daigle and Sarah Walters were all recent funding recipients of the BC Hospitality Foundation, a charity that provides emergency medical funding and professional development scholarships to hospitality workers across the province.
  • Photo by Brandon Barrett
  • HELPING HANDS (L to R): Whistler's Joanne DiGeso, Valerie Daigle and Sarah Walters were all recent funding recipients of the BC Hospitality Foundation, a charity that provides emergency medical funding and professional development scholarships to hospitality workers across the province.

Like so many before her, Valerie Daigle came to Whistler with a dream. The 20-year-old made the cross-country trip from Quebec two years ago to pursue her goal of becoming a professional snowboarder. But that dream was put on hold this November when, on just her second run of the season, Daigle took an awkward landing and seriously injured her spine.

"I didn't see a drop on the cat-track coming and the landing was uphill," she explained. "I landed it, but my body crashed like a spring. I was stuck on my back and couldn't move my legs, so I was freaking out a little bit."

Daigle ended up suffering an incomplete fracture of her T12 vertebrae and temporarily lost feeling in her feet and toes. The injury has not only kept the Mont Tremblant native off the slopes, but she is also expected to miss up to six months of work as a cook at La Brasserie.

With only basic insurance coverage, Daigle faced a daunting dilemma: Stay in Whistler and dip into her savings while the bills piled up, or pack her bags and head back east. That is until her boss informed her of another option: The BC Hospitality Foundation (BCHF).

"We are specifically meant to be the industry's charity," said Alan Sacks, executive director of the BCHF. "Our mandate right now is on raising awareness of people in the industry that there is a charity of their own that will help them in their moment of need."

Founded in 2006, the BCHF provides emergency financial aid to hospitality industry workers in times of medical need. The charity has helped more than 100 people with close to $500,000 in support, including Daigle, who received a cheque for $3,800 last month to help on her road to recovery.

"This is going to allow me to dedicate some time to my body and recover to my fullest," said Daigle. "I still have dreams and I want to go back to snowboarding stronger than ever."

So far the foundation has lent a helping hand to four funding recipients in Whistler, to the tune of over $15,000. Long-time local Sarah Walters is one of those lucky beneficiaries who, after years of snowboarding accidents, has had major surgery on her knee and both of her hips replaced — at just 36 years old. A former server at Roland's and most recently a bartender at Rimrock, the $3,400 Walters received will help prevent her from sliding into serious debt and allows her to focus fully on getting back to work in top shape.

"This has really helped me take away the stress (of rehab) and making sure that I'm at full health when I return," she said. "It's nice to feel supported by the community because sometimes you don't when you're down and out, injured and feeling separated from everything."

The other side of the BCHF's mandate centres around professional development for industry workers. The group has doled out 115 scholarships worth more than $150,000 to hospitality workers looking to take the next step in their careers.

"It means a lot," said Joanne DiGeso, wine director at the Bearfoot Bistro, of the $1,000 scholarship she received last year to go towards the completion of her Level 4 Wine & Spirit Education Trust certification. "It means that someone's rooting for you, it means that someone's supporting you and someone believes you're going to be able to complete this. It's nice to have a little nudge-nudge to go at it."

Entirely self-funded, the BCHF relies on the industry to help raise money, and counts on events like the Whistler Restaurant Association's annual golf tournament. The association donated $10,000 to the BCHF in 2015.

One of Sacks' major priorities at the helm of the foundation is simply raising awareness within the industry that this safety net exists. The group supported 29 people across B.C. in 2015, up from just 13 two years prior.

"We can tell by the number of applications we're getting that we're raising awareness," he said. "The last thing we want to hear about is that there was someone who was eligible that we could've helped but didn't."

As exposure around the BCHF builds, Sacks said he's also exploring the idea of adding an educational component to the group's focus.

"I think it's very important to work with our partners to educate people in our industry on financial planning and money management, so that, should something happen, they're prepared for it," he said.

For more information, or to apply for BCHF funding, visit www.bchospitalityfoundation.com.

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