GirlsWith Sole ~Helping Girls Achieve Through Athletics

By Diana Simeon

Research shows that involvement in athletics can help adolescent
girls in many ways. But for girls
growing up with abuse, sports
can be a lifesaver.
That’s what Liz Ferro, executive director and founder of
the Cleveland-based Girls With
Sole, discovered growing up near
Rochester, NY. After spending
the first two years of her life in
foster care, Liz was adopted by a
family.At the age of nine, she was
sexually abused by a next-door
neighbor. “Athletics was what
I turned to,” says Ferro. “It was                                                    
my coping mechanism; a way
to channel my negative energy.
Every time I would start down
a risky path, my involvement in
athletics would hold me back”
Ferro’s personal story led to
the formation of Girls With Sole,
a not-for-profit organization
whose goal is to bring athletics
into the lives of adolescent girls
who are currently living with, or
are at risk for, any type of abuse.
Today, more than 150 girls participate in programs run by Girls
With Sole.
There are a number of organizations that seek to encourage
girls to be athletic, such asthe nationwide program Girls on the
Run. However, Girls With Sole is
unique in its emphasis on helping girls in abusive (or potentially
abusive) situations. “Many girls
who are abused end up in the juvenile justice system or hooked on drugs or alcohol,” says Ferro.

“These girls need an outlet. We want to empower them with free fitness and wellness programs.”

Indeed, studies have shown that
girlswho participate in athleticswhich include but are not limited
to team sports- have higher selfesteem, get better grades, and are
less likely to become pregnant or
involved with drugs and alcohol
than their non-athletic peers.
Girls With Sole programs
run the gamut from traditional
sports, such as running or volleyball, to more fitness-oriented
activities, like yoga. “That way,
some girls will discover their athletic strengths or identify an activity that makes them feel good
about themselves, while others
may try something they have
never done before,” says Ferro,
Girls who participate in athletics have higher self-esteem,
get better grades, and are less likely to becomepregnant or involved
with drugs and alcohol than their non-athletic peers.
who swam competitively from
age six through college and is
now a triathlete.
Girls with Sole has partnered
with several Cleveland-area agencies and schools to bring its programs to the girlswho will benefit.                                                                                                             
For example, Ferro runs a weekly
program with sixth, seventh and
eighth graders with the Salvation
Army Mentoring Program in
Elyria, Ohio, and another with
the Youth Corps program at
Cleveland’s Intergenerational
School. She also regularly works
with girls at the Cleveland Rape
Crisis Center and is exploring a
newpartne~hip with the YWCA
Her sessions include fitness, but
also activities that help the girls
envision the potential they can
achieve. “We sit in a circle and
talk about different topics, or I
give them an exercise to write in
their journals about something
they have always wanted to try,
but lacked the courage or opportunity. Then they’ve created a
to-do list,”explains Ferro.
“Girls With Sole ties in perfectly with what we want our
girls to get out of our mentoring
program,” says Dale Jones, program director for the Salvation
Army Mentoring Program.
“We’re promoting overall wellness and obviously physical fitness is part of overall wellness. It also gives the girls an opportunity to build self-esteem in a group
setting where they are surrounded by positive energy.”
Ron Harris, director of Youth                                                          
Corps, adds, “Girls With Sole
is much more than just about
the sports. It does a lot for their
psyche, and for many of these
girls, this istheir first exposure to
anything athletic.”
These days, Ferro is running
hard to keep up with all the interest in Girls With Sole. Recently,
the organization was selected as a charity of choice by the
Tennessee-based PromiseCare
Pharmacy, a mail-order prescription drug service that donates a
percentage of its profits to charity each year. And interest is
pouring in from across Ohio and
elsewhere in the United States.
Says Ferro: “I thought I would
have to bang on people’s doors to
get them to listen to my dream,
but my experience has been exactly the opposite.”

The Heart of the Matter ~ Ohio Magazine, December 2010 Issue

December 2010 Issue

The Heart of the Matter

Entrepreneur and exercise guru Liz Ferro empowers young women through sports.

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.

*   *   *

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.’”

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *
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.

Brecksville Soccer Organization Kicks in Support for Girls With Sole

Brecksville Magazine January, 2010

Ohio Sport and Fitness ~ Given a Sporting Chance