Business Buzz — The WalDan crew at FortisBC
FortisBC is one of the major players in the B.C. utitlies market.
Most people remember the company as West Kootenay Power and Light with main offices located at South Slocan before Fortis Inc. acquired all the distribution, transmission and generation assets of the WKPL in 2004 and renamed it FortisBC Inc.
FortisBC then purchased Terasen Inc in 2007 before joining the two companies under the same roof in March of 2011.
Today the company has a staff of 2,300 employees.
Before the company ballooned to 2000-plus workers, the company offered a program that allows workers to get back on their feet.
The Nelson Daily editor Bruce Fuhr had a chance to sit down with some of the workers and FortisBC staff to discuss the WalDan program in the lastest installment of the Business Buzz.
Our story of the WalDan program at Fortis BC begins in 1973 when Walter Graham was hired to tend to the beautiful flower gardens and picturesque grounds at the in South Slocan-based Generation office.
Fast-forward almost three decades and the gardens and grounds still look aspicturesque as ever thanks to the tireless efforts of the work force.
Only a few of the names responsible for managing the project have changed — including the parent utility company, Fortis BC.
“This is the best kept secret in the Kootenays,” said Kathy Stasyn, job coach of the WalDan program.
WalDan employs disabled workers to move lawns and to care for gardens during the summer and shovel snow during the winter at the Fortis BC Generation facility.
Although the WalDan program officially started in 1999, the idea originated in the 1970s, when Norman Greenbaum premiered his “Spirit In The Sky” song.
Graham needed some help so brass at West Kootenay Power & Light decided to hire Danne Ridge as a part-time assistant.
Despite living with a disability, Ridge worked well under Graham’s caring guidance. For the next 20 years the pair was the go-to grounds team at Generation.
In 1996 Graham’s responsibilities changed, allowing Ridge to work more independently.
This transition did not go smooth and it became apparent that Ridge might not be able to continue with his job.
However, this did not sit well with Graham’s boss, Tom Bryden, who set out to explore other ideas to keep Ridge employed.
He hit the jackpot when he connected with employment counselors Faith Cullen and Beth Hargreaves
“This was a wonderful opportunity that was presented to us,” Hargreaves said.
Hargreaves and Cullen created a three-way partnership between West Kootenay Power and Light, the Ridge family and the Ministry of Children and Families, to supply a job coach to work with Danne Ridge under the guidance of Graham.
The arrangement flourished until the fall of 1998 when Graham was forced to retire due to an illness.
Once again Bryden was forced to deal with the difficult task of finding a suitable person to give Ridge the support needed to continue to be employed.
The answer once again came when Bryden turned to Hargreaves and Cullen at the Community Development Services.
The two proposed with the idea of forming a non-profit company that would employ job coaches, a consulting horticulturist to provide direction and people with disabilities as well as others who face barriers to employment.
The proposal was quickly accepted and endorsed by WKP management, representatives of the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and the Ridge family.
Hence the creation of WalDan, a non-profit company named in recognition of Walter Graham and Danne Ridge for their long and special association.
“This program is unbelievable in its value,” said Hargreaves, project coordinator. “We have it set up so people with any sort of barriers to employment can use the WalDan program as a jumping point get back into the workforce.”
Management at FortisBC couldn’t agree more.
“FortisBC is proud to have this partnership with WalDan and we’ve enjoyed working with Lakewood Landscapes and the fantastic staff,” said Paul Matteucci, Operations Supervisor at FortisBC Generation.
“The FortisBC grounds in South Slocan look great and we appreciate the pride (WalDan workforce) take in their work keeping the grounds in good condition all year round.”
Chris Holt of Lakewood Landscapes currently holds the contract and is responsible for hiring the workers and providing the horticultural advice.
The WalDan workforce is another facet of the Generation team that monitors the dams on Arrow Lakes and Kootenay and Pend Oreille River Rivers.
“On the one hand it’s certainly a different work environment from your typical work environment,” WalDan worker April Robertson confessed.
“I wake up in the morning feeling a little low but coming out here is something to look forward to and it makes a difference in your day.”
“You leave here feeling re-energized and feeling like you can take on life again even though all of us struggle with different issues,” Robertson added.
“It means everything,” Stasyn said.
“It’s like a little piece of heaven out here (at Fortis in South Slocan). Working here is good for the soul. It makes everybody happy . . .. We’re like a little family out here.”
A little family that’s simply that fits seamlessly into the bigger family of workers at FortisBC.