LEWISTON — By 7:30 a.m. an impressive crowd of cancer survivors, 5K and 10K walkers, visitors, volunteers and support staff was assembled in front of a large stage on Oxford Street.
It was cold Saturday morning, with temperatures in the 40s and a constant wind. And the unofficial emcee admitted as much. But, he said, people would get a chance to warm up when the walks began. “We’re lucky to be walking today because some people can’t,” actor Patrick Dempsey told the crowd, which numbered in the thousands.
“And that’s why we do it.”
The Dempsey Challenge is a spectacle for many reasons, not least because it brings out so many local celebrities. During the opening ceremony next to Simard/Payne Memorial Park — between 7 and 8 a.m. — local radio hosts Dave Winsor and Michelle Taylor (the official emcees) entertained the crowd. Speeches were given by the mayors of the Twin Cities, as well as this year’s top youth fundraiser.
As the crowd observed a moment of silence, just prior to the singing of the national anthem, the first rays of sunshine were still being felt, light playing off the tiara of Molly Bouchard, better known as Miss Maine.
The most well-known attendee was Dempsey, who’s responsible for creating the event and expanding it over four consecutive years. The real focus, however, was the cancer fighters, survivors and families that benefit from the weekend’s activities.
“I’m so proud of this community,” Dempsey said from the stage. “All the proceeds go to the center, so all the services are free. And you make that possible.”
This year is the largest Dempsey Challenge to date, in donations and participation, according to Mark Turcotte, the event’s communications specialist. Money raised from the Dempsey Challenge supports the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing in Lewiston, which offers education, support and wellness services to those affected by cancer.
“We have 4,250 registrants as of this morning,” Turcotte said during the opening ceremony. “This year, there’s been an outpouring of support for this event ... and we actually exceeded a million dollars (in donations) yesterday.”
One-hundred percent of the funds will benefit the Dempsey Center, he said.
At 8 a.m. sharp the 5K and 10K walks began. Roughly 2,600 people participated in those, Turcotte said.
Magan Hanson of South Paris was doing the 5K walk with Team Angela, which raised $39,000 this year. “I have relatives with cancer," Hanson said. "And I had met Angela a few times.” Angela Black was the original team captain.
“This year her goal was, I believe six people and maybe five thousand, ten thousand dollars. And it just started growing," Hanson said. When Black died in August, “we said, ‘You know, she was 39 when she passed. Let’s get thirty-nine thousand.’”
Burt Poisson of Jay, a two-year leukemia survivor, said that when he was diagnosed, his son got counseling at the Dempsey Center. Poisson was leading a team called the Burt and Ernies on the 5K. “Being able to come here and pay back what they did for my son means a lot to me,” he said.
The Challenge is not a race, not a competition, Turcotte said.
“The beauty of the walks is that the teams get to stay together on the course," he said. "So, to be at the finish line is a really emotional experience. ... You’re walking in memory or in honor of people.”
The 5K and 10K routes, criss-crossing downtown Lewiston and Auburn, ended by crossing the Auburn Riverwalk trestle bridge and entering Simard/Payne Park. After the walks concluded, activities continued in the park, where a large music stage had been built and dozens of vendors were selling or giving away food, beverages, bike parts and wellness supplements.
Turcotte estimated that several thousand people turned out Saturday. The vast majority of attendees interviewed said they had been personally affected by cancer, most commonly because a close friend or family member had suffered from it.
Maggie Humphrey of Gray was leading a team of 10 walkers. “My father had pancreatic cancer,” she said. “At the time, the (Dempsey) Center wasn’t around, but we ended up hearing about it and wanting to make a difference.”
Running With Al, a team composed of Bates College students, had participated in the 10K walk. Because Positive Tracks, a youth fundraising group, was matching donations for any participant under the age of 23, the team had raised roughly $10,000. Of the five Running With Al team members interviewed, all had loved ones who had suffered from cancer.
The most poignant moment of Saturday’s events, for many, was the Survivors' Walk.
At 10 a.m., volunteers cut a curving path through the crowd. It began near the trestle bridge and ended in front of the stage near the center of the park.
A procession was led by the Edward Little High School marching band. Behind them walked about 200 people, cancer survivors and their families. On either side of the pathway, supporters and attendees clapped, cheered, rang bells and offered congratulations.
Many of the walkers in the procession looked somber, in clear contrast to the jubilation of the onlookers. At the end of the walk, the crowd — both survivors and supporters — gathered in front of the stage where Dempsey approached a microphone.
“I have so much pride in this community for stepping up and supporting this idea," he said. "I’m so moved by it. I can’t thank you enough. To be able to come home and to talk and see all of you — it’s great. Let’s celebrate life and congratulate the survivors. It’s their day.”
Barbara Richards of Sabattus had just finished the Survivors Walk and was watching Dempsey on stage. She is a one-year breast cancer survivor.
“The support is so incredible,” she said. “I just can’t believe so many people care.”