Following Ryan Ferguson’s release from prison, supporters gathered under the Ryan Ferguson Fund to raise money to help Ferguson begin life as a free man.
Ferguson spent nearly a decade behind bars for the 2001 murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. The 29 year old was released Nov. 12. The Ryan Ferguson Fund campaign was launched Nov. 9, a few days after the conviction was overturned.
Mike Rognlien, who is spearheading the Ryan Ferguson Fund, decided to get involved with the cause after seeing coverage of Ferguson on 48 Hours and Dateline NBC. For the last year, Rognlien has been managing a Facebook page to raise awareness about Ferguson’s case.
“I think what we tried to do, and I think successfully, on Facebook is to aggregate (support) and actually have a number that does nothing but grow,” Rognlien said.
After Rognlien set up the Facebook page, the number of likes continued to grow on a daily basis, eventually reaching the current number of nearly 90,000 likes.
“And we didn’t just get supporters, we posted updates,” Rognlien said. “Otherwise, I was afraid people would be like I was. (They would) see the story and be like, ‘Oh, that sucks,’ and then just go on with your life. So that was a big reason that we started (the Facebook page), just to galvanize action.”
Since the Ryan Ferguson Fund’s establishment, the crowdfunding campaign has raised more than half of its $100,000 goal. Rognlien began the campaign by donating the first $1,000 himself.
“The fact of the matter is when he got out he had nothing,” Rognlien said. “His financial life is basically that of a 19 year old. When you’re in your 20s, that’s when you really start building your foundation. You buy an apartment. You buy furniture, a job, an income, and he didn’t have any of that.”
The campaign is through Fundly, a crowdfunding-for-all platform. Fundly CEO Dennis Hu said the organization focuses on human interest stories and social good.
“I think with cases like Ryan Ferguson’s case, it’s really a huge honor for us as well to be involved because these are very special stories and I do think that it really does impact people at a national level,” Hu said. “Part of what we’re really trying to do at the end of the day is help people. This story in particular really struck a nerve on my side as well just because it really could happen to anybody. We want to be a part of this. We want to help get this guy back on his feet.”
Along with individual campaigns like the Ryan Ferguson Fund, Fundly also works with large nonprofit organizations such as Habitat For Humanity and Teach For America.
The Ryan Ferguson Fund has received donations from more than 1,500 supporters, who, Rognlien said, have donated anything from $10-$1,000 individually.
“We’re not trying to make him wealthy. We’re just trying to give him some money to get him started,” Rognlien said. “Kind of like an insurance policy. Like if your house burned down, you’re not going to get wealthy off of it, but the insurance company will try to help you build a new house and fill it with some stuff you lost. So that’s really what we’re trying to do.”
Rognlien plans to continue involvement in the Ferguson case in the future, possibly concerning Charles Erickson, who was arrested with Ferguson and is serving his 25-year sentence, Rognlien said.
“Ryan and his attorney have both said he’s innocent, too,” Rognlien said. “Chuck’s journey is going to be much different because he actually confessed to doing it. I don’t know what getting him out can entail or if it’s even possible, but I’m certainly willing to help with that.”
Rognlien said he hopes the money the fund raises will not force Ferguson to worry about finding a job right away, letting him focus on speaking out against his experience and wrongful conviction.
“So he’ll definitely continue doing that, and to the extent that I and others can help him, we certainly will,” Rognlien said.