WHO TO WATCH: NONPROFITS
LIZ FERRO: Founder, Girls With Sole
April 22, 2013
Liz Ferro knows how devastating abuse can be to a young woman — but she also knows how empowering athletics can be.
So much so, in fact, that Ms. Ferro credits athletics with her own survival.
Ms. Ferro, who was in the foster system and later adopted, said the experience of being sexually abused by a nonfamily member as a child ultimately led her to create Girls With Sole, a fitness and wellness program for at-risk young women, ages 9 to 18.
“I just don’t want any girl to feel like they’re worthless or like their life isn’t going to go anywhere,” she said.
Ms. Ferro had worked as the executive director of Westlake-based Wigs for Kids before she decided to combine her passion for fitness with her passion for helping young adults.
She founded the Girls With Sole program in August 2009, and she estimates about 550 young women have taken part since.
The program consists of participation in and exposure to a wide variety of sports, from football and yoga to running, as well as self-esteem building activities. It is for young women who have experienced or are at risk for any type of abuse, from sexual abuse to bullying.
Currently, Girls With Sole hosts six weekly groups in Northeast Ohio. Ms. Ferro does get help from volunteers, but she is the only one dedicated to the effort full-time.
Bobby Taylor, director of operations at the Boys & Girls Club of Lorain County, said the participants look forward to the meetings. Ms. Ferro helps build their self-esteem, he said, and she creates an environment where “it’s OK to try.”
“The girls really gravitate to the energy that Liz brings,” Mr. Taylor said.
Rocky Melendez, the youth and recreation coordinator at the Merrick House in Cleveland, called the program “invaluable” and said it helps empower the young women and gives them confidence.
As for the future, Ms. Ferro, a runner, triathlete and married mother of two, said she eventually would like to earn a salary and hire a small staff.
She also hopes to by 2020 spread the Girls With Sole program nationally. Ms. Ferro said a lack of funding is the group’s biggest obstacle to expansion — it’s hard to hire people to run chapters without money for salaries — so she has been fundraising and looking into available grant funding. She also plans to encourage interested volunteers to hold fundraising runs.
Ms. Ferro said there’s often a lot of eye-rolling at the start of the program, but she’s had breakthroughs, too. Indeed, some girls tell her the program changed their lives and some choose to come back to Girls With Sole even after they’ve left residential treatment or a juvenile detention center. Ms. Ferro said she’s always shocked when the young women choose to come to the program after they no longer are required to attend.
As for the curriculum that Ms. Ferro created, she said she tries to ensure that there is something for everyone, which includes the focus on self-esteem.
“They find their way to feel good,” Ms. Ferro said.