George Vooris from Naples and his wife, Janis, at last year’s Dempsey Challenge. Three years ago, in his first year at the challenge, Vooris raised $210. This year he raised $17,825.
LEWISTON — After nearly 18 months of crippling arthritis and psoriasis, George Vooris was finally able to move. In 2015, the then-55-year-old celebrated by running 5Ks for the first time in his life.
That fall, he found himself at the Dempsey Challenge.
Looking at other racers that day, he noticed all the cancer survivor T-shirts, the number of people wearing wigs and missing eyebrows.
“I said, ‘Wow, this woman just ran this course with me. How inspiring is that? How cool is that?'” said Vooris, from Naples. “From that day forward, I felt like something just took over and said, ‘OK, George, you’ve got a job to do,’ and ever since then I’ve been on a mission to raise money and do benefits for the Dempsey Center.”
That first year he’d raised $210. This year, $17,825.
Thousands of fundraisers with Vooris’ passion will fill the Twin Cities this weekend for the ninth annual Dempsey Challenge, the Dempsey Center’s largest fundraiser of the year.
Founded in 2008 by actor Patrick Dempsey, inspired by his mother’s battle with cancer, the center provides free services and support for cancer patients and their families.
The challenge has raised millions of dollars over the past eight years, breaking a record with $1.3 million last year.
In addition to the nearly 3,800 participants in 2016, it drew another 1,000 volunteers who will once again gather at points along the route to cheer cyclists on and work the Festival in the Park at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston on Saturday and Sunday.
According to a spokeswoman, 3,436 people are scheduled to walk, run or cycle this year.
Vooris will run and walk the 5K on Saturday and he’s contemplating getting on his bike for the 10-mile course on Sunday.
Four years ago, Vooris said 80 percent of his body was riddled with psoriasis and the cartilage in his joints was so inflamed he couldn’t walk. After getting a diagnosis and the right medicine, a form of a chemotherapy drug, he was mobile within a few months.
“I started doing 5K events for exercise, and just because I can — (it was) a whole different outlook on life,” he said. “It was like being paralyzed and someone taking you out of the wheelchair and saying, ‘Hey George, now go. You can do this. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.'”
Vooris, who owns a painting business, said his first impression of the Dempsey Challenge was the fun, carnival atmosphere of the event. His next impression was of the strength of the cancer survivors around him and being touched by the work of the Dempsey Center.
To fundraise he now organizes a 5K race, partners on raffles and promotions with local retailers and has even organized comedy and trivia nights. Anything he can think of.
Vooris won the challenge’s top fundraising award for 2017, having raised the most by the Sept. 29 award deadline. (Another fundraiser has since narrowly raised a little more, in total.)
“I don’t complain when my feet hurt, I don’t complain if I’ve got a backache, I don’t complain about anything anymore, because it’s irrelevant to the treatments that they go through, the chemos,” Vooris said. “They still have the strength and the desire and the will to carry on and keep going and keep moving and that’s why they’re a survivor, and that’s what it’s all about. Every year I just try to do better and better.”