Ashley Ferguson (standing at center) and Dose of the Coast supporters and participants during a special fishing weekend for VIPs and families in Empire, Louisiana, last August. photos courtesy Ashley Ferguson.

Giving back: Dose of the Coast

In line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic, Ashley Ferguson is reminded of her father, Donald Walker. The source of her memories, however, is not quite as poetic as the mere sight of a bird or gazing up at a clear sky. Rather, her attention is shifted at the sight of the bright orange and blue logo of his namesake foundation, Dose of the Coast, which Ferguson founded with the help of her family after her father’s death in December of 2015.

“Even before my dad was diagnosed with liver cancer, he was worried about how his name would live on,” says Ferguson, a fish biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “He knew he wanted to be cremated, but where would his name go if it wasn’t on a headstone?”

A transplant to Louisiana from Pensacola, Walker always enjoyed the water. Countless days were spent fishing, skiing and relaxing with friends and family. After his cancer diagnosis, he was given just 30 days to live, though he ended up fighting for nearly 8 more years. Taking no second for granted, Ferguson and her husband Adam took her father on one last fishing trip. Equipped with a charter captain—something Walker would have considered to be a sin in previous years—Ferguson says the trip was a hallmark of what ended up being Walker’s final two years.

“A year and a half later, he was on hospice,” recalls Ferguson. “In some of my last moments with him, he was still thanking me for that trip. I think it did so much to lift his spirits during treatment.”

Enlisting the help of local captains, Dose of the Coast takes its “VIPs” and their families on fishing and sailboating trips in south Louisiana and Florida.

After the passing of her father, Ferguson couldn’t stop thinking about the trip and its impact. One night, she remarked to Adam that she wanted to be able to take other adults suffering from life-threatening illnesses on similar adventures in hopes of easing the burden of sickness for both them and their families. Adam, a physician’s assistant, mentioned the idea to Dr. Jonathan Richards at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, and the project was off and running. Richards offered to finance the start of the nonprofit, and others at the hospital quickly offered to help.

“I honestly didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” remarks Ferguson, noting that this conversation happened in March of 2016 and by October the group was a 501(c)3 nonprofit. “It’s been amazing how the doctors have rallied around us.”

In the first year, Dose of the Coast took 83 people on 21 memorable trips on the water. But on the morning of the group’s inaugural trip in Slidell, one of the charter captains came down with appendicitis. Frantic, Ferguson started calling around to find a replacement captain—at 4:30 in the morning.

“Someone told me that Matt McCabe had his charter cancel last minute,” says Ferguson. “I gave him a call and he answered with a tired voice—obviously because I had woken him up. I was taking what was probably his first day off in forever, but I explained who we were and what we were trying to do and he told me that he would be there in 20 minutes. I had to slow him down to let him know that he didn’t even need to be there for an hour and a half.”

This chance encounter with McCabe ended up being the start of a relationship that would be key in the growth of Dose of the Coast.

“The Jason Hoffman Memorial Foundation was looking for a nonprofit to raise money for,” says Ferguson. “After our trip, Matt McCabe shared something about Dose of the Coast on his Facebook page, and that is how the foundation found us. They have since raised over $10,000 for us. It has been so amazing to have their support—and Matt wasn’t even supposed to be there on that trip. It gives me chills, really. This was just meant to be.”

Founder Ashley Ferguson is also working to incorporate swamp tours and other water-based excursions.

Since then, Ferguson has extended Dose of the Coast’s initiatives from just fishing to sailing trips and personalized goodie bags for those who cannot make the trips. She is looking forward to incorporating events like swamp tours and kayaking in the future.

“There is just something that happens to people on the water. They open up and relax,” explains Ferguson. “And it’s incredible how the fishing community comes together to help one another. The whole thing just gets better every year.”

On April 6, Dose of the Coast will host a fundraising crawfish boil at Tin Roof Brewing Company. With seafood donated and boiled by Boilers Cast Net, the event will also feature a unique brew inspired by Dose of the Coast and created for the event by Ferguson’s brother Drew Walker, a brewmaster in South Carolina.

Ferguson and the Dose of the Coast team, along with a growing group of volunteers from Louisiana and Florida, also host other fundraisers throughout the year, including a live redfish tournament that will take place in May and June.

“The people here have so much heart, and they are always ready to help,” Ferguson says of the Baton Rouge community. “I don’t think Dose of the Coast would have flourished so quickly without me being here. It’s really just so amazing.”