Mindy Strout, left, of Brunswick has taken a week off of work each year for the past 10 to help volunteer for the Dempsey Challenge. She and a roomful of other volunteers Tuesday labeled the bibs challenge participants will wear during this weekend’s event. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — It takes about 900 volunteers to put on the Dempsey Challenge every year.

People to register runners. People to keep cyclists safe. People to organize. People to cheer. People to sell T-shirts. People to make sure kids have fun.

Some live close by. Others drive in from out of state. Some give a few hours of their time, while others dedicate months to the cause.

The Challenge is one of the area’s biggest events and is the largest fundraiser for the nonprofit Dempsey Centers — Lewiston and South Portland centers that provide support, education and complimentary therapies, such as massage, to cancer patients and their families. The services are free, regardless of patients’ income or where they live or receive treatment

Since 2009, the Challenge has raised $10.5 million. Organizers hope to raise another $1.5 million this year, the 10th Dempsey Challenge.

But those behind-the-scenes volunteers are not often seen or heard. Who are the people who work year after year for no money and little recognition?

As Challenge prepares to kick off this weekend, the Sun Journal caught up with four of them.

Ham radio operator Ivan Lazure of Lewiston will be in contact with each of the 12 support vehicles (SAG wagons) from his base inside a Maine State Police communications van during Sunday’s Dempsey Challenge bicycle ride. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Ivan Lazure

Sometimes cyclists fall, blow a tire or just cannot finish their ride.

Ivan Lazure makes sure they get help.

A licensed ham radio operator for the past 25 years — call sign N1OXA — Lazure leads a small group of volunteers whose job is to connect stranded cyclists with a roving band of support vans. Because cellphone service can be nonexistent along the long cycling routes, volunteers use ham radios to make those connections.

Lazure is, one might say, “head ham.” Not that he would say that.

“Let’s say the ‘ham coordinator,'” he said with a laugh.

Lazure, 72, is a retired Bath Iron Works employee who lives in Lewiston. A lot of major races and other events use hams — amateur radio operators — to handle communication on their course. Lazure has volunteered for a number of them over the years, including the TD Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth.

He joined the Dempsey Challenge as a ham during the fundraiser’s very first year. He knew the routes, which cross western Maine, wouldn’t provide good cell service. If support vans needed to be reliably dispatched, hams would have to do it

“We live in Maine with hills,” he said. “Cellphones do not work.”

Lazure will spend part of Saturday briefing more than two dozen volunteer hams working this weekend’s Challenge. Sunday, he said, “that’s the go time.”

Starting at 6 a.m., he will spend the whole day coordinating his team of ham volunteers. He will be based in a state police communications van parked in an empty lot behind Lewiston House of Pizza. He likely won’t finish until 6 p.m.

Lazure is not the only longtime radio operator for the Challenge. Most of his volunteers, he said, are “repeat hams.”

“We do it because we like to do it, because it practices our procedures and how we operate. We learn from it every time,” he said. “I like doing it. I enjoy it, seeing the smiles of the people when we stop to help them.”

Longtime Dempsey Challenge volunteer and fundraiser Darryl Prue is not volunteering this year, but she is fundraising and riding. She also won a contest to have dinner with actor Patrick Dempsey. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Darryl Prue

Over the years, Darryl Prue has worked in the registration tent. She has manned the booth selling T-shirts. She has been a course marshal, cheering on runners and making sure they were running in the right direction.

“I just love the Dempsey Challenge. It’s fun. I loving being there. I love being part of it,” she said. “The atmosphere there is electric.”

Prue, who lives in Auburn and is a nurse at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, also volunteers because she believes in the Dempsey Centers’ mission. Her mother died of cancer in 2001.

“She just would have loved the Dempsey Center,” Prue said, fighting back tears. “So I do it to honor her memory.”

Her family volunteers, too.

When she is not volunteering, Prue is a Challenge fundraiser and cyclist. She typically raises at least $500 a year. This year, with her husband’s help, she raised $1,000.

That $1,000 was enough to enter her name for a chance win dinner with actor Patrick Dempsey, who helped found the Dempsey Centers, at his Kennebunkport home this week. To her delight, she was one of the winners.

“You might say (I am) his biggest fan,” she said.

She will take a friend — a fellow Challenge participant and Patrick Dempsey fan. Prue hopes to thank the actor when she meets him.

“I just think it’s just amazing what he’s done for our community and I think it’s amazing he comes back every year and is a part of (the Challenge),” she said. “I’ve been to the Dempsey Center and it’s beautiful and it’s such a great thing for our community, for people around here to take advantage of.”

Between cycling, family commitments and the Dempsey dinner, Prue won’t be able to volunteer this year. The schedule was just too tight. But as a participant, as a nurse, as the daughter of someone who died of cancer, she considers the people behind the scenes of the Challenge to be “unsung heroes.”

“You know about the people who are running and riding and walking, but it wouldn’t really happen without the volunteers,” she said.

Mindy Strout of Brunswick has taken a week off of work each year for the past 10 to volunteer for the Dempsey Challenge. She and a roomful of other volunteers labeled the bibs challenge participants will wear during this weekend’s event. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Mindy Strout

Mindy Strout was among the Challenge’s first volunteers.

A friend had died of cancer in 2008. When Strout learned that a center to help cancer patients needed some help itself, she was determined to be part of it.

“I knew that if she had made it, I knew she would have used (the center). I knew she would have benefited from it,” Strout said. “That’s when I decided I needed to step up my game and really help out.”

Today, Strout, who lives in Brunswick, coordinates the massive effort that is labeling every bib worn by every one of the 3,000 to 4,000 runners, walkers and cyclists in the Challenge. She is also co-captain of the registration tent.

Strout, 62, takes a week’s vacation from her job as an electrical designer for BIW just to volunteer for the Challenge.

“I just can’t imagine doing anything but,” she said. “It’s very humbling, it’s very joyful, it’s happy, it’s just all the emotions this week and this weekend.”

The week of the Challenge, she spends at least one full day, sometimes two, labeling bibs with other volunteers. Then she helps set up the registration tent. Then she mans the tent.

While other registration volunteers work in shifts, Strout stays all day, every day. Saturday she’ll start at 4:30 a.m. or so. Sunday she’ll start at 5 a.m.

Not that she would complain about the hours.

During the early days of the Challenge, there was not enough room to work in the Lewiston center. Strout and the other volunteers had to take thousands of bibs to a free space in the Auburn Mall to label them, then box them up again and take them to the Challenge site.

“There was one night it was rainy and cold and I’m like, ‘Suck it up, Mindy. These people are going through cancer. You can do this,'” she said. “That’s when it really started to sink in. This is nothing compared to what people go through.”

Lisa Daniels holds a computer at the Lowell Street building in Lewiston where she works for CMMC, a few floors below the Dempsey Center. She will hook up this machine and a dozen more at Simard-Payne Memorial Park before the Dempsey Challenge this weekend. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Lisa Daniels

Like so many other volunteers, Lisa Daniels had a loved one with cancer.

But unlike so many, her mother, who died in 2012, got to use the center during her four-year battle.

“She was so excited to go to the makeup class, and she had massages and she borrowed some books,” Daniels said.

The second year of the Challenge, someone asked Daniels to volunteer. Daniels, who works as webmaster for Central Maine Healthcare’s intranet, took one shift as a computer operator for the Challenge.

She got hooked.

“After that, I knew I wanted to volunteer more,” she said. “Then I got my family involved.”

She began working on the organization committee. Soon, she recruited her husband to the same committee. One son and his wife began volunteering with the Challenge’s kids zone. Two other sons volunteered in different capacities.

Today, Daniels, who lives in Sabattus, spends eight months working on the organization committee, then volunteers for Challenge weekend as co-captain of the registration tent with Strout. She also helps with the Challenge’s IT needs on site. (You don’t want to be there when wi-fi goes down.)

While most Challenge events do not start until Friday evening, she will spend all day Thursday working for the Challenge — and all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

It is a lot of work, she said, and a lot of fun.

“The atmosphere in that (registration) tent is amazing,” she said. “There’s a lot of noise in that tent. We do a lot of cheering. We’ll cheer if you’re a survivor. We’ll cheer if you raised a lot of money. We’ll cheer if you’re a small child who has raised a lot of money, or even a child who’s raised $5. We cheer if you’re from out of the state or out of the country. We look for any reason to cheer.”

[email protected]

Ham radio operator Ivan Lazure of Lewiston will be in contact with each of the 12 support vehicles (SAG wagons) from his base inside a Maine State Police communications van during Sunday’s Dempsey Challenge bicycle ride. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Patrick watch: Where to see the star this weekend

The Dempsey Challenge starts Friday evening with a concert in Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston and continues Saturday and Sunday with various events and a free festival in the park.

Want to see actor Patrick Dempsey? These are his scheduled public appearances this weekend:

FRIDAY

6:10 p.m.: Dempsey leads Challenge to Conquer Cancer riders into the park

SATURDAY

7:15 a.m. Dempsey opens the Challenge from the Start Stage

8:20 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.: Dempsey visits tents around the park

9:59 a.m.: Dempsey kicks off the Survivor Walk

10:15 a.m.: A thank-you from Dempsey and his family at the Entertainment Stage

SUNDAY

7:10 a.m.: Dempsey on stage for opening ceremonies

4 p.m.: Dempsey takes the stage for closing ceremonies

  • Due to a schedule change, Patrick Dempsey will not be at the center open house on Saturday.

Longtime Dempsey Challenge volunteer and fundraiser Darryl Prue is not volunteering this year, but she is fundraising and riding. She also won a contest to have dinner with actor Patrick Dempsey. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Mindy Strout, left, of Brunswick has taken a week off of work each year for the past 10 to help volunteer for the Dempsey Challenge. She and a roomful of other volunteers Tuesday labeled the bibs challenge participants will wear during this weekend’s event. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Lisa Daniels holds a computer at the Lowell Street building in Lewiston where she works for CMMC, a few floors below the Dempsey Center. She will hook up this machine and a dozen more at Simard-Payne Memorial Park before the Dempsey Challenge this weekend. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Mindy Strout of Brunswick has taken a week off of work each year for the past 10 to volunteer for the Dempsey Challenge. She and a roomful of other volunteers labeled the bibs challenge participants will wear during this weekend’s event. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.