LEWISTON, Maine — The 2022 Dempsey Challenge has officially come to an end.
On Saturday, Sept. 24 and Sunday, Sept. 25, hundreds of people flocked to Simard-Payne Park in Lewiston for the first "normal" weekend-long event since the pandemic began.
The Dempsey Challenge raises money for the Dempsey Center during this annual event. Through its two physical locations in Lewiston and South Portland and its online platform Dempsey Connects, the Dempsey Center provides support to cancer patients and their loved ones at no cost. Services range from counseling to fitness guidance to nutrition help. Staff members said at any given time, there are about 90 programs running.
"I feel elated. I cannot believe the support we’ve gotten from the community," Cara Valentino, CEO and president of the Dempsey Center, told NEWS CENTER Maine Saturday morning.
Valentino hasn't even been in her role for an entire year, so this is the first Dempsey Challenge she has experienced as a part of the Dempsey Center. She said she feels like the work she does now is her life's calling. She said hearing from people participating in the Dempsey Challenge has meant a lot.
"What folks most prominently have said to me over the last two days is they’re so grateful to be here, because they can share in this experience with others who understand what they’re going through," Valentino said.
Cheri Dvorchak and Susie "Q" Morton can relate to that sentiment. Their team (the "Shenanigans Squad") traveled all the way to Lewiston from Illinois and Wisconsin. It's their team's fifth year doing the Dempsey Challenge run and walk, but it's Morton's seventh or eighth year. She's battling stage-four cancer.
"You’re thankful you’re alive every day," Morton said. "You just keep rocking it. You stand up for your fellow warriors and just support [each other]."
Dvorchak is a cancer survivor herself. She battled breast cancer and said the Dempsey Challenge makes her heart "so full".
"It’s just so amazing, all the support," Dvorchak said, later adding, "[It's the] best day of the year. Well, best weekend of the year."
Jennie Hogan and her son cheered on 10-K racers and then did the 5K on Saturday. For them, the Dempsey Challenge hits closer to home this year. Jennie's mother-in-law died last October of pancreatic cancer, just two and a half months after learning about her diagnosis.
"She was a lover of books, her garden. She loved debates," Jennie said.
"Every time we went [to see her], she always gave us Klondike bars," Cashel added.
Hogan said she and her family have been coming to the Dempsey Challenge from Haverhill, Massachusetts, for 13 years now. She said it's helpful to be around a community with similar experiences, which is why she still wants to show her support for everyone.
"They all have a mémère in their life or somebody else that they are fighting for or cheering for or missing today," Hogan said.
For Dr. Lizzie Baker, that person is her mother, who lost a seven-year battle with terminal lung cancer in May. This past Friday would have been Baker's mother's birthday. Baker said while it has been a tough weekend, she has still found a way to push through, calling her mother a "fighter".
"When she was passing away, I told her we’d always be together, and I really believe that," Baker said. "I carry her with me every day."
Baker said this year, she donated $10,000 to the Space to Breathe program, which allows teenagers who have lost people to cancer to go to camp for a retreat. She said she did so in her mother's memory.
"I told my Mom that was going to be her legacy before she died, so that makes it really special this year," Baker said.
On Sunday, more than 600 people showed up in Lewiston for the Dempsey Challenge bike rides of 10, 25, 50, 65, or 100 miles.
It's an event that wouldn't have been possible without volunteers like Deidra Edgecomb and her family, who were working the beer and wine tent. Edgecomb was diagnosed with breast cancer in February and has since received support from the Dempsey Center.
"I never thought that I’d be that person, but now that I am, I’m so thankful that there’s something available for people like me," Edgecomb said, explaining how services like acupuncture helped her through chemo treatment and a double mastectomy.
Edgecomb said the Dempsey Challenge is an eye-opening event.
"It’s incredible to see the number of people that actually come and give to something like this," Edgecomb said. "But, it’s also kind of like, 'Huh' — because then you know how many people are actually affected by cancer, which is an outrageous amount of people. It’s nice to have a community that understands."
A lot of the bikers taking part on Sunday have been touched by cancer, too.
"My mother passed away from pancreatic cancer. She benefited from the Dempsey Center, so we keep rallying for that every year," Matthew LaPierre said.
LaPierre biked with his wife and two kids for the first time this Dempsey Challenge, but he has been taking part in the race for six or seven years — often doing the 50-miler. He said the Dempsey Center helped them through so much during his mother's battle with cancer.
"When my mother was sick, we were able to go to the Dempsey Center and get wigs. The kids had counseling. [Staff members] provided rides and whatever you needed," LaPierre said.
Ariel Greenlaw and her 11-year-old son, Robert, biked the 10-mile race after doing the 10K on Saturday. Robert apparently really liked the "Wendy's Way" rest stop.
"They had donuts!" Robert said.
Robert wasn't the only young person biking on Sunday. The Daniels family cheered on their four- and six-year-old boys, as they crossed the finish line. It was an emotional moment, since the boys' grandmother, Lisa, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018.
"Cancer is such a downer, but the Dempsey Challenge is so uplifting," Lisa Daniels said. "Everybody is happy here. Everybody is happy to raise money and support."
"You realize how big your community actually is when you come to something like this, and you get to see all the people that you didn’t realize participated, or you didn’t realize volunteered, or you didn’t realize have been affected in that way," the boys' mother, Allie Daniels, also said.
Organizers with the Dempsey Center said this year was a record for fundraising. They officially hit their $1.6 million goal!