Child Abuse Prevention Month–a ‘soleful’ organization in The Examiner

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and Liz Ferro is putting her footprint on child abuse. Ferro’s organization, Girls with Solein Rocky River, serves girls from 9-18 years old and aims to empower girls who are at-risk or have experienced abuse of any kind.

Ferro was adopted at the age of two and was later sexually abused as a young child. Through her organization, Girls with Sole!she shares with girls how athletics and fitness helped her through challenging times and how they too can overcome. I met Ferro at an event in February where she talked about her journey. Her story was so riveting that I recently interviewed her for Child Abuse Prevention Month.

I read where you were sexually abused by a male next door neighbor when your 8 and 9 years old. Did you ever tell anyone? I never verbally told anyone about it, however, in order to get it out, I wrote some things about what was going on with the neighbor in an assignment pad that I had in my room, but never used this pad for school. While at school, my mom was in my room and read it. When I got home that day, she was waiting for me with it in hand, and she was upset with me. She asked me if it was true, and I told her that it was. Then she asked me, “Was it so important to you that you wrote it down?” (As if I was happy about it or something.) After that she told me that we would never tell anyone about it. She said that if my father found out about it, he would kill our neighbor and then go to jail. I didn’t want it to be my fault that my dad was in jail so both of us never told anyone, and went on about our lives.

Liz Ferro, Founder/Exec. Dir. (Girls with Sole)
Liz Ferro, Founder/Exec. Dir. (Girls with Sole)
Photo credit:
Liz Ferro

Why do you think it’s hard for kids to tell someone about abuse? I think kids struggle for many reasons and being dismissed, or not believed, is one of the big ones. For me, there was also a lot of shame and embarrassment. I also felt as if I had done something wrong and feared that it was my fault. My mother’s reaction to it further reinforced those fears.

To this day, have you ever spoken to the abuser? I have never spoken to him about it and actually never had to see him again after I went away to college in Ohio. He lived in Rochester, NY, where I grew up. When he was abusing me he was already retired. Recently, when I got my book published, I searched the internet for him and his wife to see if they were still alive. They are both deceased.

You started Girls with Sole! in July of 2009. What were some of the challenges you faced when starting the non-profit? I started in during the height of a recession and many people told me that it would fail. Some people even told me that I should take out the word “abuse” from the mission.

Why did you persevere? I persevered because I knew in my heart that I could not divert from our mission and that Girls With Sole! was extremely needed for a population of girls that was not being served. These girls needed someone to give them hope, strength and healing, and I couldn’t turn my back on them. I figured if it didn’t work out, and Girls With Sole! fizzled away unsuccessfully, at least I would have tried, and maybe helped a few girls along the way. But that isn’t what happened and I am so glad I listened to my heart.

How do you think Girls with Sole! will empower girls who have experienced sexual abuse?
 My hope is that they survive by gaining emotional and physical strength and high self-esteem through fitness; that they realize abuse is never their fault, and that no matter what, they can always move forward. They are encouraged to be themselves and to believe that they can do great things and achieve. It gives them the ability to cross a finish line and release painful emotions in a very healthy way.

In June, Ferro along with several girls and supporters will cross the finish line in the Team LULA 5K run in Rocky River. The race is open to anyone who wants to run and is part fundraiser, which goes toward training the girls and registering them for free. The race also coincides with the promotion of her new book, Finish Line Feeling, an uplifting memoir about her journey from foster child, to sexual abuse survivor to founder of Girls with Sole.

The first federal child protection legislation, Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was passed in 1974.

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.”

Freshwater Cleveland ~ Challenge Cuyahoga: hot dogs, running shoes, and community change

Challenge Cuyahoga: hot dogs, running shoes, and community change

Justin Bibb, Assist to Ed FitzGerald and Mike Shafarenko Pres of Civic Commons - Photo Bob Perkoski


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.”

For more information click here. For tickets click here.

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

See GWS in Runners World, September 2011









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.