Dempsey Center to become independent, add location

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Patrick Dempsey, right, talks with Wendy Tardiff and Central Maine Healthcare CEO Jeff Brickman before a news conference Monday morning. Dempsey was there to announce that The Dempsey Center plans to merge with Cancer Community Center. The Dempsey Center will keep its headquarters and services in Lewiston.

LEWISTON — The Dempsey Center is separating from Central Maine Healthcare to become its own nonprofit.

But it won’t stay single for long.

The Dempsey Center plans to merge with Cancer Community Center, a 19-year-old South Portland nonprofit that also provides free support to cancer patients and their families.

The Dempsey Center will keep its headquarters and services in Lewiston. CCC will also maintain its services on Main Street in South Portland, but it will change its name.

Both will be called Dempsey Center.

“This is a really amazing opportunity for us . . . (to) take what’s great about the Dempsey Center and what’s great about the Cancer Community Center and take the best parts of each and make it work across the board,” said Danielle Colvin, marketing manager for the Dempsey Center.

Dempsey Center leaders hope the merger will be the first in continued expansion.

“That’s the dream, especially if you talk to Patrick (Dempsey, co-founder),” Colvin said. “This is like step one of 200 steps.”

Founded in 2008, the Dempsey Center — then called The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing — was created in partnership with Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston to help cancer patients and their families. Actor Patrick Dempsey and his siblings, who grew up in Buckfield, helped found the center in honor of their mother.

Amanda Dempsey was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1997 and battled the disease for 17 years. She died in 2014 at age 79.

The center provides free cancer support, education and complementary therapies, such as massage, regardless of where patients and families live and regardless of which hospital patients receive their treatment.

It currently has an annual budget of about $2.2 million. It employs 20 staff members and serves over 4,000 people a year.

The Dempsey Center is a department of CMMC, which is owned by Central Maine Healthcare. The center is located within CMHC’s Lowell Street building and it does business under the hospital’s nonprofit designation. Dempsey Center employees are paid by the hospital system.

But while both Dempsey Center and hospital officials have said the relationship has been a good one, there have been challenges. Because the center is part of the hospital, the two typically can’t compete for the same grants. When the center does apply for grants, its applications are generally judged on the hospital’s mission, which differs from the center’s more focused mission to provide free help to cancer patients and their families.

Separating from CMHC and CMMC will allow the Dempsey Center to become an independent nonprofit, which will make it eligible for a wider array of funding and could lead to greater growth. 

“That’s purely what’s driving this,” said CMMC spokesman David Landau. “We’re happy to see them expand. We’re all for it.”

The center has applied to the IRS to be designated a tax-exempt nonprofit. It expects to hear the results of that application in the coming weeks. 

Center leaders hope the Dempsey Center will officially separate from CMHC and CMMC on Nov. 1. Some details still have to be worked out between the center and the hospital system, including how to transition employees. The two must also decide whether the center will rent its current hospital-owned space, the hospital will donate it or there will be another way to pay for the space

“This will always be our flagship location. We’re bound and determined for that to remain the same,” said Dempsey Center Executive Director Wendy Tardif.

A few months after it becomes independent, the Dempsey Center hopes to merge with CCC. Board members for both groups have approved moving forward with the merger, though details still need to be worked out, including where various employees will work and who will report to whom. 

“We’re looking forward to it. As you can imagine, any time of major change brings questions, but everyone here is excited,” said CCC spokeswoman Nancy Audet.

CCC was founded in 1998 by Jane Staley, a Maine woman who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1994. She’d heard about cancer support programs in Boston while getting treatment there, but she could not find similar groups in southern Maine.

With help from friends and donors, Staley created CCC, an independent nonprofit, to provide free help and support to adults dealing with cancer. Staley died in 2001, but the center continued. Today it serves about 1,200 people a year with seven full time employees and an annual budget of just under $700,000.

CCC is much smaller than the Dempsey Center. There are other differences as well: Dempsey serves both children and adults, while CCC serves only adults; Dempsey provides professional counseling, while CCC offers only some individual support with counseling student interns; CCC connects newly diagnosed cancer patients with people who have been through the process, while Dempsey has no such program.

However, the two centers are similar enough that they’ve been collaborating in recent years, swapping ideas about volunteer recruiting, sharing resources and consulting each other on the best way to do things.

About a year and a half ago, the two centers began talking about merging.

“It was very organic,” Colvin said. “It was serendipitous, I think, in terms of when that conversation started.”

For years, Patrick Dempsey has publicly said he’d like to see the Dempsey Center expand its reach. This merger would do that, giving the Lewiston center a second site while boosting resources and recognition for CCC.

“The Dempsey name definitely carries some weight,” Audet said. “One of our challenges has been that a lot of people don’t know about us. Sometimes people will find out and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I’d known about you when I was going through cancer or when my Mom was going through cancer.’ So I think the Dempsey name will help a lot. We’re really expecting to serve a lot more people over the next few years.”

Dempsey Center leaders said the merger will not affect the annual Dempsey Challenge, the center’s largest fundraiser and one of the biggest events in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

They said clients will also see little change, except the addition of a location. And, in the future, maybe more locations.

“Patrick definitely has a vision for growing this center beyond the borders of just Lewiston and Portland to help more people in Maine. But also even beyond the state borders,” Tardif said.

For Lewiston-Auburn residents who’ve taken pride in Patrick Dempsey being a local — he was born in Lewiston — and felt a sense of ownership over the Dempsey Center he started in their backyard, there’s no need for that feeling to go away, Colvin said.

“Growth is natural, but Lewiston will always be the home of Patrick and the home of the Dempsey Center,” she said.

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