The Dempsey Center, with locations in Lewiston and South Portland, was founded in 2008 by actor and Lewiston, Maine native Patrick Dempsey with the mission of making life better for people impacted by cancer. Dempsey has a personal experience with cancer--his mom, Amanda, valiantly fought ovarian cancer before passing away in 2014. The nonprofit provides a variety of no-cost classes and support services including holistic, group, one-on-one, and grief counseling to not only those facing cancer but their family, friends, and caregivers. They also feature another layer of special comfort with their Dempsey Center Dogs.
Currently they have five Pet Partner certified teams sponsored by Maine based IDEXX Laboratories, and a few more are about to be onboarded. The conversation started about adding therapy teams to round out their Wellbeing Support profile in 2019. While COVID put that on hold, they came back strong in 2021.
The teams, each consisting of a dog and volunteer handler, are often in the lobby of the centers. Those working each day wait for clients to approach them, who are either coming in for a session or are leaving. Teams can also be found in classes, virtual meetings, and scheduled appointments are also available.
“Our clients become so attached to the Dempsey Dogs in the most beautiful way,” said Katelynn Davis, Marketing and Communications Manager for the center. She added she’d try to explain their importance without crying: “It’s a healing experience…It’s a cool opportunity for them to come in and be more relaxed.” Clients, including children, may be apprehensive upon arrival, but after petting a dog, they visibly calm down.
The handlers include a wide range of folks, from a retired animal control officer to an employed thirty-something, and the dogs who represent the Dempsey Center aren’t the usual suspects, not a Lab or Golden among them. There’s Forest the Great Dane, Australian Shepherd Meadow, Bruce the Poodle, Bernadoodle Lilo, and a Bull Mastiff name Louis the Cheese.
Meadow - Photo courtesy of Dempsey Center,
Photographer – Meredith Brockington
Katelynn said recently a client came out of a session and immediately approached Forest. “You could see her shoulders relax.” She got down on the floor, held his head, and petted him. It was a good way for her to let out all of her feelings from counseling without saying a word. “The dogs don’t require anything from clients. They’re the last opportunity of the day to get all their emotions out before they leave and carry on.” The dogs’ reassuring presence is “really, really cool.”
Jim L. Stone Jr., Production Coordinator at IFF in Rockland, also uses the facility. He became aware of the center as his niece Amy Van Peepeghem works there. He was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer three years ago, and it was upgraded to stage IV once it spread to his brain. “Since then, I have been on chemo two different times and am currently back on. And Immune therapy Keytruda for the last two and a half years.”
Jim and Lilo
He’s had 30 rounds of radiation on his lungs and 33 on his brain as new spots kept popping up. He’s had five seizures and four brain surgeries in the last two years. He added his current lung scans are clear, and his last spot on the brain is shrinking from the chemo. “My punch card for brain radiation is pretty much full. I feel pretty good right now, just at times of extreme fatigue.”
The Dempsey Center has been good for him to lean on through this journey. He shared that recently he and his wife, Sherry, visited the Lewiston facility. “We both got to enjoy a massage. It’s not just a massage but also a lot of questions on your everyday life, including mentally and physically. Getting to know the patient and caregiver if you will. Once the therapist has an idea of where you are currently in your life now, then in the future it will be fewer questions, and more massage. It was really relaxing for both of us and very much needed.” He also met Lilo the Dempsey dog and that bolstered his day.
In addition to the two facilities, the Dempsey Center has a hospitality center, Clayton’s House, in Portland’s East End. The home was given to them by a cancer patient’s family who had bought it and lived there during treatments in Portland. It’s now for those who travel a distance for cancer treatments. The Dempsey Center, which has served 2,500 clients in the first nine months of 2023, is funded through donations and the annual Dempsey Challenge.
The 15th Annual Dempsey Challenge took place on September 23rd at Simard-Payne Park in Lewiston. It’s a run/walk/cycle event, and since 2020 it’s been international through virtual access. Corporate sponsors cover the cost of the event, so every dollar raised by participants goes directly to the Dempsey Center and its services for cancer patients.
Katelynn said roughly 2,500 people participated, including a couple hundred virtual international folks. “We were grateful our Dempsy Community stepped up.” Their goal for the event was $1.8 million, and they were only $15k shy of that when we spoke. A few of the Dempsey Dogs and dogs-in-training were in attendance to cheer participants on.
Jim has been thankful for the Dempsey Center and was a big contributor. He organized the team, Crushing Cancer, with a logo of a lobster claw crushing the word cancer. The team’s goal for the Dempsey Challenge was $14k, and he and his supporters of family and friends have bested that by $600. He also had 200 shirts and hats made with the logo that were sold to raise additional monies.
He had the opportunity to present Patrick Dempsey with a Crushing Cancer button-down polo shirt and said he loved it. Jim and Sherry had professional photos taken with Patrick, and they enjoyed speaking with him at a private event. “Patrick was telling Sherry some of this year's money might go to buying some mobile units to branch out to other areas in Maine.” Jim was impressed by his down-to-earth, real persona with a passion for the foundation.
Katelynn echoed that sentiment. She said not only is Patrick an active board member who attends every meeting, he spends time addressing groups on the Dempsey Center goals. “He’s passionate about it and is speaking about it from his heart.”
Forest and Patrick Dempsey Photo Courtesy of the Dempsey Center