Why Liz Ferro is Running a Marathon in Every State
There are numerous studies outlining the long-term benefits of participating in sports as a child. From learning how to work with a team, to building confidence, to instilling healthy habits, getting a kid to play anything from soccer to softball is almost always a good idea. For Liz Ferro, it was even more important. The founder of Girls With Sole, a non-profit geared toward at-risk young women, was sexually abused by a neighbor at age nine; her local swim team turned out to be her saving grace. “I needed a release. I needed somewhere to feel normal,” she says. “When things like that happen as a kid you feel like it is your fault or you aren’t a good person. The water was so cleansing for my soul; I felt like I was good, like I was normal.” Not to mention, she adds, “It was fun. It was an escape—but a healthy one—so I stuck with it.”
Sports were her only therapy for over a decade—Ferro didn’t receive actual counseling until she was in her 20s—and says, “Athletics saved my life.” It’s why she launched Girls With Sole in 2009, to help girls build their confidence and, if necessary, develop coping skills through fitness. “There are a lot of kids that don’t have somebody showing them that sports are a healthy coping mechanism for a lot of negative emotions,” she says. “Sometimes kids use other things like drugs, alcohol, cutting, acting out, or not going to school. They might not have sports in their life, they may not have the ability to find that body and mind connection.”
Girls with Sole launched in Cleveland, Ohio with just four girls; since then, Ferro has worked with over 800. She partners with social service agencies, schools, juvenile detention centers, and local hospitals to target girls ages 9 to 18. When they sign up, the girls get free running shoes, sports bras, water bottles, a fitness journal, and free entry into at least two 5K races a year. And Ferro does her best to introduce them to a variety of fitness programs so that the girls can find their thing, be it yoga, football, volleyball, basketball, or running.
Not surprisingly, the curriculum runs deeper than just physical training. Ferro shares her own experience with the girls, including her book Finish Line Feeling, and talks about everything from how to prepare for a race to the connection between physical achievement and overcoming life’s challenges. “One of the things I tell them is that once you set a goal for yourself, no one else can do it for you, especially if it is an athletic one. You are the only one who can do it,” she says. On the flip side, she stresses the importance of realizing that once you achieve that goal, it’s yours and no one can take it away. “That is really powerful,” she says. “Especially when something is going wrong in your life, and you’ve achieved something that you didn’t think you could do physically, you can use that as power to get through a tough experience. You think, ‘I did that, so I can definitely do this.’”