Dempsey Challenge going strong as it plans for its third year

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AUBURN — After two Dempsey Challenges — and thousands of miles run, walked and ridden to raise money to help people touched by cancer — the charity is finding its stride.

The annual challenge is getting close to signing a second two-year deal with its biggest sponsor, Amgen. The two-day event is earning wider national attention by sponsors and media. And informal discussions have begun that would share the center and the challenge with another community.

“There is some talk of taking the concept of the Dempsey Center and a lot of things that have worked really well for us and replicating it in other places,” said Wendy Tardif, the center’s executive director. “What we’ve talked about is talking to another nonprofit program like ours and splitting proceeds or starting some kind of a Dempsey center.”

It’s a long way from March 2008, when actor Patrick Dempsey announced the creation of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing. Back then, there were no offices and nothing to ensure that the center would last after Dempsey’s initial $250,000 donation was spent.

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On Friday, Tardif and several other leaders shared the story of the center’s growth with members of the Maine Public Relations Council.

They gave much of the credit for the success to the “Grey’s Anatomy” star for whom the center is named.

“It’s so easy for a celebrity to throw money at a cause,” said Mark Turcotte, communications specialist for the center. Instead, Dempsey talks often with center staff, including his sister Mary Dempsey, the center’s assistant director and volunteer coordinator.

“Patrick always asks, ‘What do you need?'” she said.

At first, the answer was money.

Dempsey, who grew up in Turner and Buckfield, used $250,000 he earned as a spokesman for Amgen’s “Breakaway from Cancer” to start the center, a place for people with cancer and their families to go for help. At the center, someone might get a massage, join a group counseling session, use the library or talk with someone who can help them navigate the sudden swirl of decisions and difficulties that can follow a diagnosis or treatment.

All of the help is free.

Dempsey announced his idea for the walking, running and cycling challenge in late 2008. It has since become the center’s chief fundraiser. During each of the two challenges, the movie and TV star has been visible in press conferences and meet-and-greets, on his bicycle or walking through the crowds of runners and cyclists.

Turcotte said he marvels at Dempsey’s stamina.

“He probably got six hours of sleep for the weekend (in 2011),” Turcotte said. “I don’t know how he does it.”

The work by Dempsey, hundreds of volunteers and a growing number of runners and cyclists has paid off.

In 2009, the 3,474 participants raised $552,000, Tardif said. In 2010, 4,177 participants raised about $1.2 million. The number of sponsors increased, too. In 2010, sponsors’ revenue covered the entire cost of holding the event, allowing every dollar raised on the challenge course to go directly to the center, Tardif said.

Not surprisingly, given Dempsey’s sex-symbol status, a majority of the participants have been women. Fully two-thirds, or 66 percent, are female, Turcotte said.

They get to help the center, he said, “and they get to see McDreamy.”

Part of the increase in numbers has come from the maturing of the event. In 2009, the cycling, running and walking challenge had never been tried locally.

“We hadn’t existed before,” Tardif said. ” We didn’t know how many people would come.”

And when they tried putting together their first publicity photo, they found they had a big hole.

“We were trying to market this thing when we didn’t have a picture of Patrick on a bike,” Turcotte said.

That all changed after 2009. Seemingly everyone who attended had a camera. In 2010, they had plenty of photos to work with. They also had a track record that inspired more covered and more sponsorship.

Dempsey appeared in magazines and on several national TV programs, talking about the challenge. It has led to some thoughts of how long Dempsey’s fame will be able to give the center and the challenge such a spotlight.

“How long does that notoriety and ‘celebrityness’ last to carry us through?” Tardif said Saturday.

So far, the answer is: longer.

Dempsey’s TV show has been renewed for an eighth season. And the 45-year-old actor — who made his first movie as a teenager — has a role in this summer’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”

This year’s Dempsey Challenge is scheduled for Oct 8 and 9.

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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