You could say that Liz Ferro runs for her life – literally – and is sharing her journey with girls who have traveled the same road.
“I actually work from my dining room table and then bring programming to the girls where they are,” wrote the founder of Girls With Sole, a program for at-risk girls that combines fitness and esteem building, in an e-mail setting up our interview.
“I wrote ‘Finish Line Feeling,’ which is one of the many things that the girls who participate in our program receive. Most of the book was also written at my dining room table. (Once in awhile my family and I eat at the table as well.),” her unassuming candidness coming through.
Liz is just as straightforward about the childhood experiences that caused her to turn to sports to ease her emotional pain, even though she admits it took years to feel comfortable in her own skin. “I started Girls With Sole basically from my own life experiences and what saved my own life literally: fitness and wellness,” she said in her upbeat manner.
“I had been in four foster homes as a baby and then was adopted. But there was abuse and trauma in the homes. That’s why they moved me around as a kid. When I was eight, I was sexually abused by my next-door neighbor for about a year. My mom found out and wouldn’t help. So I had to figure out a way to cope on my own.”
She survived through sports, particularly running. Liz ran her first 5k in seventh grade, joined her high school track team and has kept moving forward..
“There’s something special about running,” said Liz, who also swims, does triathlons and is planning to run a marathon in each state to raise funds. (So far she has done 36 and raised about $22,000.) “It’s the movement of it. It makes you feel you’re really free.”
Six years ago, Liz decided to share her empowering message with girls ages 9 to 18, by partnering with urban schools, mental health treatment centers and pediatric wellness programs. The six to 12 weekly sessions start with 30 minutes of physical activity and end with a morale boosting project. The girls receive running shoes and apparel from Second Sole of Rocky River, and the option of entering a 5k race, which most do.
While boys seem to instinctively know what to do when presented with a ball or stick, Liz said girls, especially those in her program, often need to be taught. “Kids who don’t grow up playing sports aren’t comfortable with it. They don’t want to sweat. They don’t understand it. They don’t realize how good it can actually feel, so they just don’t do it.” She said she often sneaks running into other games.
“Girls have a harder time (than boys) with self-esteem and body issues. It’s even more difficult for those who have suffered abuse,” she added.
Removing the stigma of abuse is a key part of Girls With Sole. “People told me to take the word abuse out of the mission statement. I refused. It was a chance I was going to take,” said Liz, adding that abuse in any form − physical, emotional or psychological − is equally damaging and is often “swept under the rug.”
“It helps for me not to be ashamed of it. The girls didn’t do anything wrong, so they have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Liz gave my phone number to a few of the girls so they could tell me about their Girls With Sole experience. I thought, with luck, I may hear back from busy young women in a few days, but no sooner that I hung up with Liz, my dog-bark ringtone began. One after the other, these ladies offered their testimony.
“I was not really into sports, but I’m in marching band,” said Emily, 16, of Lorain. Now, with two 5ks under her shoes, the high school junior plans to try out for soccer. She also had the confidence to sing the national anthem at last year’s Girls With Sole 5k.
Samantha, 19, from the Canton area, said that Liz’s visits made her time “locked up in a residential treatment center” go faster. “Liz would come in smiling and so enthusiastic. Her smile lights up the room.” Still running two to three times a week, Samantha added, “Girls With Sole woke up my life. It showed me good activities instead of destructive behaviors.”
Debbie, from Akron, said the program made her feel “confident and brave about myself.” Miranda, one of Liz’s first “girls,” recalled, “I didn’t realize what I was getting into” when she started the program. She ended up running three 5ks in 2011. “Liz is like a mom to me. I learned it’s OK to be yourself. It’s OK to be different.”
“That melts my heart,” said Liz, when I told her about the responses. “The girls look at me and say, ‘You’re so open and honest and happy. If you can do it, I can do it.’”