Patrick Dempsey laughs and hugs Kathy Bailey of Portland at the Dempsey Center in South Portland on Wednesday, joined by Executive Director Wendy Tardif. Lindsay Tice/ Sun Journal

SOUTH PORTLAND — Patrick Dempsey has plans for the Dempsey Center.

Some are concrete and happening soon, like this news: Dempsey Center will open a hospitality house where cancer patients and caregivers can stay while receiving treatment in Portland. Clayton’s House is expected to open sometime in the first half of next year.

Other plans are more long-range. Like a new Dempsey Center in northern Maine — somewhere, at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Dempsey, the actor, producer, philanthropist and Mainer who helped start the Dempsey Center, will be there to see them all through.

“I am completely committed,” he said Wednesday. “When I finished with ‘Grey’s (Anatomy),’ I made a commitment to come back at that point and really focus on the center.”

Founded in 2008, the Dempsey Center — then called The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing — was created in partnership with Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston to help cancer patients and their families. Dempsey and his siblings, who grew up in Buckfield, helped found the center in honor of their mother.

Amanda Dempsey was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1997. She died in 2014 at age 79.

Last year, the Lewiston center separated from CMMC to become an independent nonprofit. Six months later, it merged with the Cancer Community Center in South Portland to add a second Dempsey Center location.

The two decisions caused anxiety among some members of the Lewiston community who thought the center was planning to leave the area.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Dempsey said with emphasis Wednesday. “It was never our intention to do that.”

Both Lewiston and South Portland locations provide free cancer support, education and complementary therapies, such as massage, to cancer patients, their families and caregivers, regardless of income, where they live or from which hospital they receive their treatment. Both locations benefit from the Dempsey Challenge, an annual two-day fundraiser — and one of the largest events in Lewiston-Auburn — in which people run, walk or cycle to raise money.

The 2019 Challenge will be held this weekend.

At the South Portland location Wednesday, Dempsey, Executive Director Wendy Tardif and board member Tim Griffin talked about the importance of the Challenge. While the center has other fundraisers, and more are likely to be added, the 11-year-old Challenge remains its largest.

Dempsey Center board member Tim Griffin, left, Executive Director Wendy Tardif and Patrick Dempsey meet at South Portland center Wednesday. Lindsay Tice/Sun Journal

Generally, the fundraiser brings in about $1 million. This year, organizers hope for $1.5 million.

It’s money that helps keep the center running and could help reduce the month-long waiting list it has for a few services, including acupuncture, counseling and massage therapy.

“We’re getting the word out there (about services), but at the same time we also need more people to be able to serve people in a faster manner,” Dempsey said. “It’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing.”

Dempsey will attend this year’s Challenge, as he does every year. He is expected to open the run/walk and cycling events each morning, lead the Survivor Walk and make other appearances.

But while those are among his most public appearances for the center, they are a small part of his work for the nonprofit. Despite a home in California, three kids and a busy career — including filming the TV series “Devils,” producing the movie “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and executive producing the documentary “Hurley” — Dempsey tries to spend a week every month at the Dempsey Center.

He is so much a part of the center that people often approach him to share their experiences with cancer and to talk about the services they’ve received — more often than they approach him to discuss his latest movie or TV show.

“I feel great about that because you really engage with someone on such a deep level — if they’ve used the services, if they know someone, how do you help them get through the door to get the services, things like that,” Dempsey said. “That’s why I’ve been spending a lot of time. I come back and try to be here one week a month, to be on the ground, to be out in different communities talking about what’s happening and getting feedback. Because that really informs us what we need to do to improve, what we’ve got going that’s working, all of that.”

As a board member, Dempsey is also involved in planning for the center’s future. Now, that includes Clayton’s House, a three-story, eight-bed home for Mainers who need to travel to Portland for cancer treatment.

“Some cancers are only treated in Portland. So if you live in Aroostook County and you have to get treated in Portland, it’s pretty difficult sometimes,” Tardif said.

Additional details, including the home’s location, weren’t released Wednesday.

“It’s still unfolding,” Griffin said.

The Dempsey Center is also helping to form the Association of Maine Cancer Support Centers, a new organization that will help Maine cancer groups network, share information and learn from each other. That association is finalizing its charter.

Further into the future, the Dempsey Center would like to add a location in northern Maine. It would also like to offer stress-relief and other programs geared toward doctors, nurses and others who help treat patients with cancer. It would like to expand its work outside Maine.

“Sustainability with everything that we do is important,” Dempsey said. “We want to be able to reach more people, but at the same time then, we have to raise more money.”

The Dempsey Center offers massage, reiki, acupuncture, counseling, support groups, specialized programs for children, workshops, consultations and information on resources. All are free. Referrals aren’t needed.

While a few services have a waiting list, most don’t.

“I think one of our barriers has just been getting people to come in the door for the first time,” Griffin said. “A lot of times, unfortunately, it’s an acceptance of a diagnosis. It’s ‘OK, I’m really admitting I have cancer.’ It makes it really hard to walk through the front door that first time. So it’s really important that we get the message out that our arms are wide open.”

Knowing that about 8,800 Mainers are newly diagnosed with cancer each year, Dempsey has a goal.

“The number’s rising,” Dempsey said. “We’re reaching 2,500 in Maine, 2,700. We want to be able to reach everybody.”

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