FERRO OF FITNESS
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.
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.”
What do hot dogs, running shoes and wooden cutting boards have to do with bringing about community change? Sponsors of the Challenge Cuyahoga promise to answer that question and more during the official Kick-Off Party, which takes place on October 28 at Legation Gallery in the 78th Street Studios.
Challenge Cuyahoga is a new social innovation competition created through a unique public-private partnership between Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald and The Civic Commons. The kick-off event — in addition to being an all-around good time — will culminate with a specific challenge, delivered by FitzGerald, for county residents to generate innovative ideas that will propel community change. The Office of the County Executive will work to incorporate the winning idea into its public policy agenda.
“We wanted to do this project because in this age of austerity, where government has fewer resources, it’s going to take doing more with less,” explains Justin Bibb, Special Assistant to County Executive FitzGerald. “We are going to need greater involvement from citizens to advance Cuyahoga County. Our hope is that this social innovation competition will create a movement where we are engaging people outside council or town hall meetings to do the public’s work of solving big challenges and problems.”
Part of what’s being billed as “A Day of Social Innovation,” the kick-off bash follows on the heels of Cleveland Social Venture Partners’ bigBANG!conference, which runs all day at the Cleveland State University Student Center. The two events are separate but feature overlapping themes of driving change through social innovation.
The Challenge Cuyahoga event will feature TED-style talks that showcase other successful innovative ideas and best practices, explains Emily Cole, Civic Commons Community Connector.
“We hope that these stories of small grass-roots projects will inspire the audience of young professionals to create projects of their own design; to show them that it’s possible to take a simple idea and make an impact.”
For example, Liz Ferro manages to empower female abuse victims by providing free running shoes, a fitness journal, and unfettered access to fitness programs throughout the region. As founder of the Cleveland-based nonprofit Girls With Sole — and as an abuse survivor herself — Ferro instills self confidence to people who can use it most. Thanks to Ferro, many have completed their very first 5K run.
Minneapolis-based Brian Wiley will be on hand to explain how something as simple as a hotdog cart can foster multicultural acceptance. His Halal Hotdog stands offer Somalia immigrants entrepreneurial lessons and a shot at ownership while creating cultural exchanges between populations.
Other speakers include Chris Kious of A Piece of Cleveland (APOC), who transforms building materials destined for the dustbin into beautiful, repurposed products. Syreeta Gates’ The SWT (pronounced “sweet”) Life provides entrepreneurial coaching to members of the millennial generation.
Additional events will take place throughout the year, all leading up to next year’s Challenge. At that time a winning idea will be selected and a new challenge handed down.
“This is a great opportunity for talented citizens to contribute to and support the success of Cuyahoga country and the region,” said Mr. FitzGerald. “We want to see some of the great ideas that our citizens have and provide a mechanism by which they can see those ideas become reality. The County is really excited to get this effort going.”
Photos Bob Perkoski *except where noted
– Image 1: Justin Bibb, Special Assistant to County Executive Ed FitzGerald and Mike Shafarenko President of Civic Commons
– Image 2: County Executive Ed FitzGerald *Plain Dealer file photo
– Image 3: Emily Cole, Civic Commons Community Connector
– Image 4: Justin Bibb, Special Assistant to County Executive Ed FitzGerald
– Image 5: Featured Innovator Liz Ferro of Girls With Sole * courtesy of Liz Ferro
– Image 6: Featured Innovator Chris Kious with P.J. Doran of APOC
– Image 7: Legation Gallery in the 78th Street Studios