The Heart of the Matter
Amid the mid-morning bustle of the Erie Island Coffee Company in Rocky River, Liz Ferro sits at a table and chats with acquaintances as they walk by. She pets a fellow customer’s Belgian shepherd that seems drawn to her outgoing personality. Even without her black “Girls With Sole” T-shirt — showing a simple stick figure in running shoes with a glowing heart designed by her son Jake— Ferro, a very fit 41-year-old, would be instantly recognized as a woman for whom exercise is a way of life.
Ferro, however, is not a personal trainer or professional athlete. She’s a sexual abuse survivor and the founder and … well … soul of Girls With Sole, a non-profit organization that teaches young women to “lace up for a lifetime of achievement” through activities such as running, yoga, dancing and team sports.
Simply stated, Ferro wants to give young female victims of abuse — be it verbal, physical or sexual trauma by family members, neighbors, or even school-aged friends — a reason to feel empowered.
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For Ferro, the path to her current career wasn’t a straight sprint to the finish. Like the marathons, triathlons and countless other races she’s run, the founding of Girls With Sole was a long process that required years of training and some pain along the way.
As a child, Ferro spent time in four foster homes before she was adopted at the age of 2 in Rochester, New York. Although Ferro doesn’t remember her time in foster care, she does remember the insecurity she often felt as an adoptee. Despite her mother’s reassurances, Ferro did not tell her parents that she loved them until she was about 6 or 7. She also remembers taking things from her two brothers’ rooms and stashing them in her pillowcase or suitcase, preparing for what she felt was an imminent departure to her next home.
Eventually she became comfortable with the idea of a permanent home, but then suffered another trauma: a neighbor began sexually abusing her.
“Unfortunately, [abuse] is so prevalent that somebody could have multiple traumas occur before they’re even 9 years old,” she says.
She found that her best coping mechanism was channeling her energy into sports. Ferro was a swimmer from age 6 and began running during her pre-teen years. Not only did exercise boost her self-esteem, but the team camaraderie also helped her feel like less of an outcast.
“I really, truly had to find out how to cope and handle things. There’s a gamut of emotions that you’re experiencing, from anger to self-loathing,” she says.
“As a kid, that’s hard to do — putting it all into sports and finding out, ‘Wow, this is something that makes me feel good about myself.’”
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Ferro formulated the idea for Girls With Sole over several years, but was reluctant to give up her regular paycheck as executive director of Wigs for Kids. Then, in April 2009, she decided, with the support of her family and friends, to devote herself to the organization full-time. By August of that year, Ferro was working 80-to-100-hour unpaid workweeks, putting her public relations and fund-raising backgrounds to use to help young women.
According to Ferro, Girls With Sole mirrors her life experience, because sports literally saved her.
She also says that, statistically, nearly 80 percent of drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes and women in prison have been abused in some way. Ferro admits that, in her late high school and early college years, she came dangerously close to veering down a self-destructive path.
Which is why, for Ferro, it’s worth devoting unpaid hours to Girls With Sole. She sees it as giving abused girls the tools — literally and figuratively — to deter them from making unhealthy choices.
Each program participant receives a free pair of running shoes (a lot of the girls don’t have proper workout attire, Ferro notes) and a fitness journal, incentive to keep working out on their own after they’ve participated in Girls With Sole activities.
“It’s like Christmas, they’re so crazy excited,” she says of the gifts. All programs are free; girls are often referred by agencies, social workers and, occasionally, the juvenile justice system. While Ferro is not licensed to provide counseling services, she can make referrals to various agencies if necessary.
Money for programming and shoes comes from fundraisers and donations from businesses, like Second Sole in Rocky River, an athletic apparel retailer, and the mail-order PromiseCare Pharmacy in Tennessee, which found out about Ferro through one of her Girls With Sole board members and nominated the organization as the 2011 Charity of Choice. The pharmacy is donating a portion of its sales through a special phone number, plus 200 pairs of shoes over the next two years.
It’s donations like these, plus the help of dedicated volunteers, that keep Ferro motivated.
Still, Girls With Sole can grow only so fast. With the help of her volunteer coaches, Ferro is able to hold programs all over Cleveland and its suburbs, in places like yoga studios, school gymnasiums, outdoor recreation areas and even library meeting rooms. She offers a variety of activities, hoping to encourage young women to pursue any exercise — be it dancing, running or traditional team sports. If a coach has to cancel (which rarely happens), Ferro leads the activity, because she doesn’t want to lose a kid who’s already used to disappointment.
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Ferro is pleased with the progress Girls With Sole has made in just over a year.
“It’s amazing. I can’t believe where Girls With Sole is going and, at some point, I could see it going national because it’s very easily duplicated in other cities.”
For now, Ferro is running Girls With Sole out of what she jokingly calls her “world headquarters”: her dining room table in Rocky River. And that’s just fine by Ferro, who has the help of friends and family, including logo designer Jake, now 12, and daughter Morgan, 9, her “junior executive director,” who has made a point of telling her mother that she’s proud of mom’s accomplishments.
“This is all purely for empowerment, self-esteem building, having some fun and getting physical, and finding what makes you feel good about you,” Ferro says.