LEWISTON — For many participants of this year’s Dempsey Challenge, the fundraiser was a reminder not just of cancer’s devastating impact in communities across the United States, but the strength that is found amid battling the disease or losing loved ones.

At Simard-Payne Memorial Park, thousands crowded Saturday in the chill of the windy, early fall morning around tents and fences, as the 5k and 10k walk and run events commenced. Schools of participant teams in brightly colored t-shirts and affixed numbered bibs swam amid the teeming cluster of volunteers and attendees.

According to the Dempsey Center, 2,300 people registered to participate in this year’s events and an estimated 1,400 people were in attendance Saturday. So far, $1,570,000 has been raised, just $30,000 short of the Challenge’s overall goal.

Susie “Q” Morton, a survivor with stage 4 breast cancer from Woodstock, Illinois, cheered with her team, “Q’s Minions,” during the run/walk/bicycling event. This is her seventh year as a Dempsey Challenge participant and her fifth with her team of 18 members, a mix of friends and family from Wisconsin and Illinois.

Susie “Q” Morton of Woodstock, Illinois, cheers on her teammates Saturday on the second day of the Dempsey Challenge in Lewiston. Morton is a cancer survivor, and she and her family and friends travel each year from Wisconsin and Illinois to participate in the three day event. Morton’s sister, Amanda Hemmrick, is on the right. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“It was a bucket list item that has become an annual girls’ trip. I saw an interview that Patrick (Dempsey) did about the center a long time ago and I was like ‘that sounds like a lot of fun,’ and I came out here and experienced it and fell in love with it. We love the message that Dempsey Center (sends) and we love the energy here. I was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma at age ten so I’ve been dealing with cancer for 30 years of my life,” Morton said.

Actor and race car driver Patrick Dempsey, the founder of the Dempsey Center and the event’s usual master of ceremonies, addressed participants virtually, from Italy, thanking them for their attendance and wishing them luck in the challenge from one of three big screens erected in the park.


“I’m thinking of you on the run and walk today. Have fun! I am not with you today but I am with you in spirit. So be safe, have a great day. Now we begin.”

Aiden Couple and Filip Wiberg and the rest of the Nordiques Hockey team cheer on participants Saturday, the second day of the Dempsey Challenge at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

In that spirit, the starting line bustled with pre-race excitement, underscored by classic rock performances by Camp of Rock, a music summer camp based in Auburn.

“The commitment that continues every year and the weather — it doesn’t seem to matter what the weather is, people still come to be present and honor their loved ones and their journey,” said Mary Dempsey, sister of Patrick and co-founder of the Dempsey Center. “It is ever so humbling to see; it’s beautiful. Even though there’s a lot of grief that surrounds it, everyone is here for the same cause and to support each other.”

A 14-year veteran of the challenge, Nina Houghton-Brown of Portland lost her husband to colon cancer in 2011. He cycled 25 miles with an ostomy bag the year he was diagnosed. Her team has raised over $18,000 this year.

“We do this for the joy of it, the sadness of it, the impact we make,” said Houghton-Brown, whose team includes participants from Virginia and California. “We’ve raised over $200,000 dollars since we started. The sense of community is everything. I remember the year I did it after my husband died, thinking ‘How can there be people laughing, joyful, singing and dancing?’ And you realize that you have to smile, you have to find the joy, because if you don’t, what is there? I wouldn’t be anywhere else honestly.”

Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline praised this year’s extraordinary fundraising efforts.

“The Dempsey Challenge is always an important event for our community and for cancer survivors across the state,” Sheline said. “This year is especially meaningful though, not only because we were able to come together in a large-scale event to support each other, but the Dempsey Center has also smashed the previous fundraising record. Take that, cancer. I am incredibly proud of the Dempsey Center staff and all of the 800 Dempsey Challenge volunteers.”

Runners take off Saturday at the beginning of the 10K run during the second day of the Dempsey Challenge in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

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