Thursday evening marked the highly anticipated return of Blue Sky Opportunities' annual fund-raising banquet in Altona, and it was a sold-out crowd of 270 people. The non-profit organization has been unable to host its biggest fund raiser of the year since 2019. 

"I think it was great to have after being gone for three years," said Board Chair, Steve Giesbrecht. "We were a little unsure. Are people going to remember us? Are they going to come back? And seeing a full house tonight was really, it gave us a really good feeling. Just looking over the crowd and saying, 'hey, they're back and they're coming back to support us' and we're really happy about. There's a lot of support for Blue Sky in the community and we're always thankful for it."

The Board used Thursday's dinner to announce its next major fund-raising campaign - a $170,000 push to purchase a 10 passenger fully accessible van. 

"It's going to be used daily for our Day Program to get people to work in the mornings and in the afternoons, and as well as for evenings for our Residential and Supported Independent Living. It's going to give them transportation to go out bowling or to the movies or go to the city (Winnipeg) and do activities that we're not always able to do," explained General Manager Ryan Potter.

He added, this vehicle will play an important role in helping Blue Sky grow and provide its clients with safe transportation.

"It's important so we can offer our clients what we all want to be able to do. They want to go shopping or to the movies, and to be able to give them a full lifestyle."

The Altona Community Foundation offered up what director, Al Friesen, called a "positive nudge" during the banquet, kicking things off with a $21,500 cheque through the Foundation's 2023 Fall grants. 

"That's really exciting that they noticed our grant application and they understand what the needs were for it and how it was going to help the community," said Potter.

The evening also provided an opportunity for the organization to update its supporters on what it's been up to these last few years. 

Renovations was a big one, using the downtime of the pandemic to bring the day program facilities, main office and residential homes up to date. "Every house has been touched in the last two years from kitchen to flooring to freshly painted. Our houses are feeling really new and renovated," said Potter. 

Additionally, the aged 204 residence was sold, and two new homes were purchased. 

Local band, The Pylons, provided the evening's entertainment. Bob and Harv's nephew, Darren, joined them on stage and 'took care of business' at the end of the night.Local band, The Pylons, provided the evening's entertainment. Bob and Harv's nephew, Darren, joined them on stage and 'took care of business' at the end of the night.

In March, the previous Progressive Conservative provincial government announced a historic $104 million investment to support disability services and increase service provider wages as part of Budget 2023. 

The new funding included:

- $79.7 million to increase the baseline funded hourly wage rate to $19 for direct service workers and $20.90 for supervisors and program support staff who provide residential, day and respite services to CLDS participants and their families;
- $2 million to support families raising children with disabilities to increase the funded guideline rate for agency-delivered and self-managed respite services to $19 per hour, so families supported through self-managed respite can offer a competitive wage when recruiting and retaining respite workers; and
- $21.4 million to expand the capacity of the CLDS program.

This was news Potter and others waited years to hear. Blue Sky Opportunities and similar organizations in Manitoba had been working with Abilities Manitoba years, lobbying the province to provide a living wage to their workers. 

"It's nice to see our staff making kind of what they deserve to make. I think it's still a long way to go, but it was a good start. I mean, nobody shouldn't be seeing an increase for 10 years. So yeah, it was nice to see a big increase and hopefully, we can keep doing that. We're definitely seeing it with staff," he added. "We're able to keep staff and we have lots of staff that have been with us now 5-10 years. So, it's great to see them at the top of our pay scale."

Despite this victory, Potter noted there is still lots of work to be done. 

"Minimum wage still goes up. So, there's still going to be work to do with that, and cost-of-living goes up too and we haven't seen a cost-of-living increase since 2011 as well. So, there's still lots of areas of deficits, but at least our staff are making a better wage."

Giesbrecht added, there is also a disparity in how their direct support workers are treated, noting they endure long hours, heavy workloads and challenging conditions.

"A lot of the things that our staff is running into are the same things that you're seeing in healthcare in different areas and yet, our staff are being treated in a different way than healthcare workers are. We don't see that our staff should be treated differently than the healthcare workers," he said.

"Our staff are doing the exact same work as nurses' aides do, as even some of what the nurses are doing in the hospitals," added Potter, noting that includes giving medication. 

The pair agree, advocacy work in this area will also continue.