Life tends to change gradually, shifting slowly over time. But sometimes, it can change drastically, in the blink of an eye.
The latter was the case for Whistler Blackcomb’s longtime director of lift maintenance, Wayne Wiltse, last Family Day, Feb. 21. He was driving on Highway 99 to work from his home in Pemberton when he collided with another vehicle, driven by an off-duty RCMP officer. Wiltse was airlifted to Vancouver General with catastrophic injuries. He was paralyzed in the crash.
Wiltse spent several months in hospital before transferring to the Lower Mainland’s GF Strong rehab facility. In November, he was discharged from GF Strong and returned home to Pemberton.
With Wiltse in the city and focused on his recovery, his friends in the Sea to Sky rallied together to help lift up their former colleague and his family though the countless, more gradual lifestyle changes he now faces as a paraplegic.
Wiltse would be the first person to offer that same support if the proverbial shoe was on the other foot, explained Joel Chevalier, former VP of human resources at Whistler Blackcomb. “You trust him,” Chevalier said. “He’s easy to get along with, he’s easy to participate with, he’s easy to ask questions. And when you need something, every single time, he was always there. And usually before you ask.”
Whistler Blackcomb’s former senior VP of operations Doug Forseth recalled one instance in particular when Wiltse offered to fly across the Atlantic and back to pick up a replacement part for the Whistler Village Gondola that would take too long to ship from Europe. “We had that part within about 36 hours,” Forseth remembered.
As an employee, mentor and coach, Wiltse is “just committed and dedicated,” Forseth added. “And he does that in a nice way. He’s never begrudging; you can call him anytime night or day ... People did things for him because he was a nice guy, and they respected him. He’s a blessing to have had on our team for so long.”
With that in mind, Wiltse’s former colleagues launched a GoFundMe campaign following the accident (it’s currently sitting at more than $46,200, not including the $15,000 part-time Whistler residents Rod and Lori Rohda have pledged to match) and got to work organizing auctions and other fundraising initiatives.
Those funds will help cover crucial costs, such as the renovations necessary to make the Wiltses’ home wheelchair accessible, and the adapted sprinter van he will be able to drive when it arrives this spring.
Throughout what’s “been a very challenging” 11 months, Wiltse said it’s been “amazing, the community support that I’ve received.”
Those efforts culminated in a fundraiser held at Dusty’s on Tuesday night, Jan. 31, organized by Chevalier and Forseth, alongside Whistler Blackcomb’s former president and CEO Dave Brownlie; former VP operations Bob Dufour; former lift maintenance planner Melissa Hollis; former senior VP marketing and sales Stuart Rempel; current VP operations Doug MacFarlane and Whistler Blackcomb Foundation executive director Mei Madden. The venue and food were donated by Vail Resorts.
“We got the old band back together,” Forseth joked.
The event was attended by more than 200 of Wiltse’s friends and former colleagues, who spent the evening circulating between the impressively-stocked silent auction tables, toe-tapping to The Hairfarmers and catching up with Wiltse.
By the time the silent auction closed at 9:15 p.m., it had raised more than $47,000. A few items—including the highly coveted, last-remaining Creekside Gondola from the recently decommissioned lift (the No. 1 cabin was Whistler Blackcomb’s retirement gift for 48-year-employee Dufour, who decided it served a better purpose in the auction)—will remain open for bidding until Friday, Feb.3 at 9 p.m.
As Wiltse told the crowd gathered at Dusty’s, he’s worked hard to give back to the community in various ways throughout his decades in the Sea to Sky corridor, whether that was through his work on the resort or through local clubs.
“I just tried to do my part,” he said. “And, you know, when I find myself in a situation where I need a little bit of help, it’s amazing the community that comes together to help.”
At Tuesday evening’s fundraising event, “I’ve seen a whole bunch of faces that I haven’t seen in years and years,” he added. “I’m glad to be at this party with everybody to celebrate. There’s too many times where we all get together to celebrate somebody’s life, and it was very close for me, and I’m lucky to be here.
“It’s kind of a tough situation, but we’re going to make the best of it.”