LEWISTON — Just as scores of walkers and runners were about to take their first steps in the 5-kilometer run/walk Saturday, Patrick Dempsey wove among them and exclaimed, “Thank you, guys, for being here. You are amazing. Thank you!”

Dempsey then approached a middle-age woman among the participants at Simard-Payne Memorial Park. He spoke to her, and she answered back softly, barely above a whisper. “You’re a survivor,” Dempsey said with admiration.

Such kinship was felt among the crowd of thousands who attended the first day of the 10th Dempsey Challenge under a jet-blue sky. The Challenge raises money for the Dempsey Centers, founded by the actor, a Maine native, to offer free services to those affected by cancer.

Nancy Audet, communications director for the Challenge, said the day went swimmingly. “It was great,” she said. “There was so much energy and emotion during the 5k and 10k.”

Fundraising teams from all over the state spent time and effort throughout the year raising money to donate to the Dempsey Centers, based in Lewiston.

“We don’t call it a challenge for nothing,” Audet said. “We want everyone to work harder than they thought was possible.”

Audet said that while the final dollar amount raised hadn’t been totaled, at last count Friday, this year’s challenge had raised $1 million. She thought that number may have bumped up to $1.1 million. The final amount will be released Sunday, she said.

Victor Oboyski, 70, retired to Maine after a career in law enforcement in New York and moved to Brunswick with his wife, Paulette, nearly 20 years ago. They were among the walkers. She was diagnosed with cancer last December. She was operated on, and underwent radiation treatments.

“It brings tears to your eyes to see all these people out there,” Victor Oboyski said. “They’re either survivors, or they know somebody who survived cancer, or they lost somebody. It’s really very moving.”

Crowds of participants at the Dempsey Challenge on Saturday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Oboyski said he was “pretty strong” until his wife was wheeled into an operating room. “I was standing there – gave her a kiss on the cheek, said, ‘OK, honey.’ But once they wheeled her in that room I broke down and started crying like a baby. I just stood there crying.”

The Oboyskis learned about the Dempsey Center while Paulette was taking the Livestrong Program with the YMCA.

“I heard about it,” Victor Oboyski said. “I didn’t know what it was all about. I thought it was a private medical facility.”

The Dempsey Center was founded in 2008 by Patrick Dempsey and his siblings to honor their mother, Amanda Dempsey, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died in 2014 after fighting the cancer for 17 years. In 2017, the Dempsey Center merged with Cancer Community Center, a 19-year-old South Portland nonprofit. Both are now called Dempsey Center.

The centers provide free cancer support, education and complementary therapies, including massage therapy, Reiki and acupuncture, regardless of where patients and families live and where patients received their treatment.

“That center is such a resource for people,” Victor Oboyski said. “We were just blown away from all the great work they do. People with cancer, cancer survivors, caregivers, children, all these programs. It’s really fascinating.”

Shawna Austin of Monmouth took the challenge Saturday, along with three boys, Evan Burnell, 17, Keegan Turner, 14, and Dawson Churchill, 6.

Austin said her group arrived in the morning and found a spot in the 5k around 8 a.m. Dawson took many dance breaks along the way, grooving along to the music but ended up completing the entire race with his father, Dana Churchill, of Livermore Falls.

“I walked for my mom,” the boy said.

Every boy in the group walked for someone he lost. Evan walked for his papa, who died of cancer in June 2016. Keegan, Dawson’s older brother, also walked to honor his mom.

Austin’s fundraising group raised $2,258 this year, more than the $1,771 the group raised last year. Austin said her group raised money throughout the year.

“The little one was selling lollipops,” she said.

Seana Roubinek drives two hours from Rockport to go to the Dempsey Center. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011.

“I am a full-time chemotherapy patient,” Roubinek said. She said her cancer is a chronic condition and it is “exhausting.” She has had several operations.

When Roubinek learned about her cancer, she phoned her friend of 50 years, Patricia Watters-Fischer, who is a former nurse. Roubinek moved to Maine from Texas 12 years ago and Watters-Fischer remained in San Antonio.

“I can ask her, ‘What does this mean?’ and she lays it on the table, which is great because I can put out that knowledge for others,” Roubinek said.

They get together at least twice a year, here at the Dempsey Challenge, and they attend the annual National Ovarian Cancer Coalition Conference.

“We are always advocating,” Watters-Fischer said. “(Seana) writes from the patient point of view and I write from the care partner’s point of view.”

Roubinek has participated in the Dempsey Challenge for seven years and Watters-Fischer has been to four. On Saturday their running attire featured giant double ‘W’s for Wonder Woman.

Patricia Rosi and Benjamin Gelassen have done the Dempsey Challenge four years running. Rosi runs the 5k and Gelassen does the 10k run.

Rosi is CEO of Wellness Connection of Maine, which operates four medical marijuana dispensaries, an edibles outlet and a growing facility. It is also a sponsor of the Dempsey Challenge.

Rosi has done the challenge for four years, to support the Dempsey Center. But this year it was different. Rosi did the challenge for a friend’s 6-year-old daughter, Sally, who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 10 months old. Her Facebook Village name was Sweet Sally Sunshine. Sally died on Sept. 19.

On Sunday, Dempsey will ring in the festivities with an opening ceremony at 7 a.m.

The first cyclists will depart at 7:30 a.m, and the festival in the park will continue. Audet said about 1,000 cyclists will participate in the rides.

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