LEWISTON — Just as scores of walkers and runners were about to take their first step in the 5-kilometer run/walk Saturday, Patrick Dempsey wove among them and exclaimed, “Thank you guys for being here. You are amazing. Thank you!”
Dempsey then approached a middle-age woman among the participants at Simard-Payne Memorial Park. He spoke to her, and she answered back softly, barely above a whisper. “You’re a survivor,” Dempsey said with admiration.
Such kinship was felt among the crowd of thousands who attended the first day of the 10th Dempsey Challenge under a jet-blue sky. The Challenge raises money for the Dempsey Centers, founded by the actor, a Maine native, to offer free services to those affected by cancer.
Nancy Audet, communications director for the Challenge, said the day went swimmingly. “It was great,” she said. “There was so much energy and emotion during the 5k and 10k.”
Fundraising teams from all over the state spent time and effort throughout the year raising money to donate to the Dempsey Centers, based in Lewiston.
“We don’t call it a challenge for nothing,” Audet said. “We want everyone to work harder than they thought was possible.”
Audet said that while the final dollar amount raised hadn’t been totaled, at last count Friday, this year’s challenge had raised $1 million. She thought that number may have bumped up to $1.1 million. The final amount will be released Sunday, she said.
Victor Oboyski, 70, retired to Maine after a career in law enforcement in New York and moved to Brunswick with his wife, Paulette, nearly 20 years ago. They were among the walkers. She was diagnosed with cancer last December. She was operated on, and underwent radiation treatments.
“It brings tears to your eyes to see all these people out there,” Victor Oboyski said. “They’re either survivors, or they know somebody who survived cancer, or they lost somebody. It’s really very moving.”
Oboyski said he was “pretty strong” until his wife was wheeled into an operating room. “I was standing there — gave her a kiss on the cheek, said, ‘OK, honey.’ But once they wheeled her in that room I broke down and started crying like a baby. I just stood there crying.”
The Oboyskis learned about the Dempsey Center while Paulette was taking the Livestrong Program with the YMCA.
“I heard about it,” Victor said. “I didn’t know what it was all about. I thought it was a private medical facility.”
The Dempsey Center was founded in 2008 by Patrick Dempsey and his siblings to honor their mother, Amanda Dempsey, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died in 2014 after fighting the cancer for 17 years. In 2017, the Dempsey Center merged with Cancer Community Center, a 19-year-old South Portland nonprofit. Both are now called Dempsey Center.
The centers provide free cancer support, education and complementary therapies, including massage therapy, Reiki and acupuncture, regardless of where patients and families live and where patients received their treatment.
“That center is such a resource for people,” Victor Oboyski said. “We were just blown away from all the great work they do. People with cancer, cancer survivors, caregivers, children, all these programs. It’s really fascinating.”
Shawna Austin of Monmouth took the challenge Saturday, along with three boys, Evan Burnell, 17, Keegan Turner, 14, and Dawson Churchill, 6.
Austin said her group arrived in the morning and found a spot in the 5k around 8 a.m. Churchill, the 6-year-old, took many dance breaks along the way, grooving along to the music but ended up completing the entire race with his father, Dana Churchill, of Livermore Falls.
“I walked for my mom,” the boy said.
Every boy in the group walked for someone he lost. Burnell walked for his papa, who died of cancer in June 2016. Turner, Churchill’s older brother, also walked to honor his mom.
Austin’s fundraising group raised $2,258 this year, more than the $1,771 the group raised last year. Austin said her group raised money throughout the year.
“The little one was selling lollipops,” she said.
Seana Roubinek drives two hours from Rockport to go to the Dempsey Center. Roubinek was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011.
“I am a full-time chemotherapy patient,” Roubinek said. She said her cancer is a chronic condition and it is ”exhausting.” She has had several surgeries.
When Roubinek learned about her cancer, she phoned her friend of 50 years, Patricia Watters-Fischer, who is a former nurse. They had been friends since they shared a playpen as toddlers in their home state of Texas. Roubinek moved to Maine 12 years ago and Watters-Fischer remained in San Antonio.
“I can ask her, ‘What does this mean?’ and she lays it on the table, which is great because I can put out that knowledge for others,” Roubinek said.
They get together at least twice a year. Here at the Dempsey Challenge — Fischer-Watters flies up from San Antonio and stays for the weekend — and they attend the annual National Ovarian Cancer Coalition Conference.
“We are always advocating,” Watters-Fischer said. “(Seana) writes from the patient point of view and I write from the care partner’s point of view.”
They contribute their information to websites and admit they are “candid” about their experiences.
Roubinek has participated in the Dempsey Challenge for seven years and Watters-Fischer has been to four. On Saturday their running attire featured giant double ‘W’s for Wonder Woman.
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Patricia Rosi and Benjamin Gelassen have done the Dempsey Challenge four years running. Rosi runs the 5k and Gelassen does the 10k run.
Rosi is CEO of Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four medical marijuana dispensaries, an edibles outlet and a growing facility. It is also a sponsor of the Dempsey Challenge.
Rosi has done the challenge for four years, to support the Dempsey Center. But this year it was different. Rosi did the challenge for a friend’s 6-year-old daughter, Sally, who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 10 months old. Her Facebook Village name was Sweet Sally Sunshine. Sally passed away Sept. 19.
On Sunday, Dempsey will ring in the festivities with an opening ceremony at 7 a.m. The first cyclists will depart at 7:30 a.m, and the festival in the park will continue. Audet said about 1,000 cyclists will participate in the rides today.
Tina Green of Turner and her Team Never Say Never teammate Brian Marshall make the turn at the 1-mile mark of the Dempsey Challenge 5-kilometer walk in Lewiston on Saturday. Green was diagnosed with cancer in January. “I’m doing it. I’m surviving,” she said. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Cancer survivor Renee Lindsay of Lewiston participates in the Dempsey Challenge 5-kilometer walk in Lewiston on Saturday. Each of Lindsay’s pins represents one of her friends, family or herself who has battled cancer. “I call it my chest of honor,” she said. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Cancer survivor Bonnie Goulatis, right, and Jean Nielsen carry an image of Nielsen’s daughter-in-law prior to the start of the Dempsey Challenge 5-kilometer walk in Lewiston on Saturday. “She is a (cancer) survivor but could not be here today. So we made her,” Nielsen said. Both Goulatis and Nielsen live in Portland. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Dempsey Challenge participants walk along Lincoln Street in Lewiston during the 5k walk on Saturday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Patrick Dempsey meets fans at Simard-Payne Memorial Park during the Dempsey Challenge in Lewiston on Saturday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Scott Penney of Mechanic Falls walks toward the start of the Dempsey Challenge 5k walk/run in Lewiston on Saturday. Penney participated in the challenge in memory of his 37-year-old daughter, Anne, and mother, Diana. Both Anne Penney-Pickett and Diana Parker-Penney passed away from cancer. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Volunteer Bill Williams, right, of Westbrook high-fives people as they pass by the mile mark during the Dempsey Challenge 5k walk on Saturday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Carlie Leavitt, center, of Greene volunteers at the water station during the Dempsey Challenge 5k walk/run in Lewiston on Saturday. Stacie Gooldrup of Lewiston volunteers at right. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Dawn Wheeler gives her niece Abigail Wheeler a hug prior to the start of the Dempsey Challenge walk/run in Lewiston on Saturday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Stanley Hollenbeck of Lewiston takes a selfie with Patrick Dempsey, right, and U.S. Sen. Angus King during the Dempsey Challenge Festival in the Park in Lewiston on Saturday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Cancer survivor Dave Nattress of Auburn participates in the Dempsey Challenge 5k walk in Lewiston on Saturday. Nattress was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago and is cancer free today. This year’s challenge is the second that Nattress has participated in. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Edward Little High School drum major Finn Goodwin, 17, leads the ELHS marching band during the Dempsey Challenge Cancer Survivor Walk at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston on Saturday. Band director Bill Buzza said the band has participated in the challenge the past five or six years. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)