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Merrimack teen raises money through Dempsey Challenge, wants donate even more in 2013

Friday, November 9, 2012

By ERIN PLACE

Staff Writer

Little did Merrimack teenager Ainsley Smart know when she was looking for something to do in her free time that she would befriend a famous actor and cyclists, and raise lots of money for worthy causes. 

For the second year, Smart participated in the Dempsey Challenge, an annual fundraiser for the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing. The event was held last weekend in Lewiston-Auburn, Maine.

Dempsey’s center is a Lewiston, Maine-based facility and located at the Central Maine Medical Center. It provides free support, education, integrative medicine, outreach and prevention to patients and family members diagnosed with cancer.

After years of playing sports, the 17-year-old decided to focus on her music and acting career. With this change in routine, Smart found herself with more free time during the summer. She had never heard of Dempsey, a Maine native and actor best know as neurosurgeon Derek Shepherd on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Smart was always busy studying martial arts and didn’t watch much TV, but her mom and friends were fans of the show. The teen said she grew up watching cycling with her dad and decided that training to ride 50 miles while raising money for a good cause was definitely worth her time.

“I decided to go door to door to see how much I could raise,” said Smart about last year’s challenge.

She raised more than $3,000 in donations from her neighbors. Since much of Smart’s family lives in Bedford, many of her donors came from Bedford, as well. As part of the challenge, participants are required to gather a minimum of $150 for the center, which she blew past in 2011.

But this year, Smart decided to kick it up a notch.

She tapped into her 17,500-plus followers on Twitter, a base she already had built up as part of her growing music career.

“I am able to reach out to a lot of kids,” Smart said, who uses the Twitter handle @ainsleysmart. “It’s a good platform to connect with youth.”

Through her online campaign efforts and door-to-door outreach, Smart was raised 1½ times the amount she had last year. She brought the total to be donated to the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing up to $4,500.

“For the most part, everybody said yes, and I’m grateful for that,” she said.

At the same time, Smart garnered the award of top youth fundraiser and was sent out to Santa Rosa, Calif., at the end of September to participate in Levi’s GranFondo. The charity event was founded by famous cyclist Levi Leipheimer and benefits a number of organizations in Southern California. There, she shared a stage with Dempsey, talking about his major fundraiser. She also got to ride alongside some of the best cyclists in the world.

For the Dempsey Challenge, participants can cycle distances ranging from 10-100 miles or walk or run in a 5K or 10K race. Smart chose the 50-mile race and ended up meeting Dempsey last year as a result.

“I kind of met him in an unconventional way,” she said. “My bike chain came off. Of the 5,000 bikers behind us, he was the one who stopped. He’s so gracious to everyone.”

Dempsey stopped to help Smart put her chain back on and they got to talking.

Since then, the two have grown close.

“You can tell he’s touched people, they’ve touched him right back,” she said.

Smart has helped Dempsey and Leipheimer champion their causes through Positive Tracks, a nonprofit youth program that partners with youth charitable athletic events. The Hanover-based organization doubles every dollar raised by participants ages 23 and younger.

The teenager is home-schooled and has a more flexible schedule than most people her age. She is already looking to next year’s challenge, and a kick-off of her fundraising campaign is near.

“This year, I have a lot of massive plans,” Smart said. She noted that she wants to create a team with 500 members to raise $50,000 for Dempsey’s center, which he started because his mother was a cancer patient.

“It’s a lofty goal,” she admitted. “That’s what I want to do.”

Like Dempsey, Smart and her family have been affected by the disease. Her maternal grandfather died of cancer before she was born.When Smart was 9 or 10, her friend was diagnosed with the disease.

“I thought it was contagious. ... We would visit her in the hospital and I didn’t know what was going on,” Smart said.

“With my career, I always want to be able to give back.”

The Dempsey Challenge is a great way to do that, she said.

“It really brings the community together. I’ve seen it grow, it becomes closer,” she said. “It’s a great way to inspire people to help others.”

Smart said anyone can participate in the fundraising portion of the challenge without actually attending the event. The challenge is streamed live on the event’s website so those at home can watch.

To join Smart’s Dempsey Challenge team can contact her at ainsleysmart dempseychallenge@gmail.com.

Erin Place can be reached at 594-6589 or eplace@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Place on Twitter (@Telegraph_ ErinP).

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