Girls With Sole featured in CBC Magazine ~ November 2011


Thanks to triathlete Liz Ferro and her nonprofit group, Girls with Sole, local abuse victims are achieving wellness through sports

By Thomas Skernivitz

Surrounded by girls with precious few role models, Liz Ferro has no trouble sharing her story as a childhood victim of sexual abuse. Her only problem arises when those girls —more than 300 of them, divided among three chapters of Ferro’s nonprofit organization, Girls with Sole —     discover that they don’t have their hero all to        themselves.
“Each group thinks that it’s my only group of kids,” Ferro says. “When they come together and see there are others, they’re, like, in shock — ‘Oh, Ms. Liz, there’s others? I thought we were your only ones.’”

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as too few when it comes to abuse. The participants of Girls with Sole, aged 9 to 18, are literally trying to run from their past. It is not an easy task. Seventy-three percent of girls in juvenile justice have experienced sexual or physical victimization, according the U.S. Department of Justice.

Fortunately, Ferro, a triathlete who knows how to cover ground, does not mind spreading herself as thin as her runner’s build. The Rocky River resident travels once a week to each of three Girls with Sole locations — Bellefaire JCB in Shaker Heights, the Intergenerational School on Fairhill Road in Cleveland, and the Multi-County Juvenile Attention System in Canton. There she works with girls who have been taken out of foster care because their behavioral levels are too high for regular family homes.

“The crazy things that have happened to them at such young ages have already put them in that place,” Ferro, 42, says. “Even if other people aren’t labeling you, you’ve already put yourself in that mindset, and it’s really hard to come out thinking that people aren’t looking at you a certain way and thinking certain things about you. That’s why I think they embrace Girls with Sole so much because it makes them feel like normal kids again. They can be themselves and blow off steam in a healthy way.”

Ferro, a native of Rochester, N.Y., moved to Northeast Ohio in 1992. She founded Girls with Sole in 2009 after serving one year as the executive director of Wigs for Kids. Two years later she is still the only full-time employee of the organization, although she receives assistance from volunteer coaches and board members. “My two big passions are kids and fitness,” she says. “I thought, ‘What is wrong with me? Why would you not put those two things together? Those are what saved your life.’”

Adopted as a foster child at age 2, Ferro experienced sexual abuse as a child. The predator: a neighbor. The result: low self-esteem. The possible (if not probable) path: self-destruction. “I was close,” Ferro says, “but it was always sports that held me back by the scruff every single time.”

It did not hurt that Ferro could look up to her adopted parents, particularly her father, who pushed her to compete in athletics, if only to wear her out. “My dad didn’t know I was abused, but he knew I had negative energy that needed to be expended somewhere, someplace,” Ferro says. “He knew I had some talent and was very supportive of my athletics, to the point where, if I was in sports, I didn’t have to get a job after school.

“In the eighth grade I was already on the varsity swim team, and I was falling asleep at the dinner table. My dad was, like, ‘This is what I was going for. This is what we need to do with this girl.’”

Still, Ferro wasn’t immune to lapses, even as a swimmer at Niagara University. Drug use and bulimia were the usual outcomes. “Stuff happened — all kinds of crazy things I’m not proud of,” Ferro says. “But every time I tried to sabotage myself, I thought, ‘I can’t mess up my body, I can’t mess up my sports.’ And that would make me stop doing it. I quit bulimia after college and never did it again. That’s an unheard of thing. Usually you need years of therapy.”

Ferro wants that same kind of intervention for the at-risk participants of Girls with Sole. Her mission is to convince them that fitness and wellness — in the form of running, yoga, and traditional team sports, along with proper nutrition — can empower their minds, bodies, and souls. “These kids are not coming from places where fitness and wellness is a norm,” she says. “Survival mode is a norm for them or for their parents even. So they don’t have anyone showing them this lifestyle at all. To get the mind-body-soul connection on their own probably isn’t going to happen.”

“My two big passions are kids and fitness. I thought, ‘What is wrong with me? Why would you not put those two things together? Those are what saved your life.”

Compounding the problem, most of the girls, unlike their leader, who has finished 14 marathons and four Ironman triathlons since 1993, do not like to sweat, let alone run 3 miles at a time. “I don’t know if that’s a teenage thing, but they don’t embrace it. They think sweating is gross,” Ferro says. “Meanwhile, I’m always pouring, and they’re, like, ‘Ms. Liz, that is so nasty.’ It’s part of my mission to teach them that sweating is actually the opposite: That it’s a badge of honor … and that it feels so good to earn your shower.”

The Girls with Sole groups combined three times this summer and fall to compete in 5K races — the Fall Classic in Strongsville, the Believe and Achieve trail run in Kirtland, and the group’s annual June benefit, the LULA (Lacing Up for a Lifetime of Achievement) race in Rocky River.

“The counselors told me that one of the girls got in the van after a race and said, ‘I can’t believe that I had so much fun that early in the morning and I wasn’t stoned or drunk,’” Ferro says. “For them to say that is huge because you would think they’d be complaining, ‘I can’t believe I had to do that.’”

With Girls with Sole “going fast and furious,” the goal, Ferro says, is to become profitable enough to hire a paid staff. Accomplishing that will be difficult, she adds, considering the organization, with the help of corporate sponsors, is already outfitting all participants with new running shoes and sports bras. “Each kid needs a brand new pair of shoes,” Ferro says. “First of all, it’s needed. They don’t have proper attire at all. But I also love it. They’re so excited. It’s a really big deal. I’ve had kids tell me it’s their only pair of shoes. And it just breaks my heart. I could cry right now just telling you.”

And she does. The tears are earned, like one of those steamy post-run showers. And there is no shinier badge of honor than making a difference in the life of a child. “You can definitely see a huge change in some peoples’ behavior. I could see it even way before two years,” Ferro says. “But with lot of kids, you can’t follow them much longer than that because they get discharged. And that’s a good thing. That’s the point.”

But not always the end.

“We had one girl who graduated her (juvenile justice) program, but she came back for the Girls with Sole program,” Ferro says. “Nobody ever goes back to where they did their juvee time.”