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.’”
Of course, getting young girls—especially at-risk youths who’ve been exposed to any kind of abuse—to get excited isn’t always easy. “I’ve had girls tell me they are not going to participate in this crazy Girls of Sole thing,” Ferro says. “After about 6 to 12 weeks, those girls become the leaders. It is just amazing to see the transformation, an awesome ripple effect of going from some of the darkest parts of their lives to feeling like there is hope and inspiration.”
Ferro’s girls-only policy is rooted in her belief that girls need extra attention in their teen years to counteract the pressures from the outside world, many of which directly affect their self-esteem. “A lot of the girls have been told they aren’t going to amount to anything, “ Ferro says, noting that they’re inundated with negative chatter on social media, in entertainment, and at school. “Our message is that we believe in you,” she says. “Once they are getting the serotonin and dopamine, everything is firing and their skin is glowing—once that all comes together, there is no stopping them.”
There is also no stopping Ferro. She’s running a marathon in every state to raise both awareness and money for Girls With Sole. “The whole idea is to challenge kids and build their self-esteem through achieving things that they did not think they could accomplish,” she says. “Obviously I need to walk the walk, so I am always challenging myself to do something that might scare me a little bit.” She’s run 21 so far, with two planned back-to-back marathons at the end of this month. How? “I can’t worry that I can’t do it. I am just going to do it. The girls give me more strength that I give them, I carry them with me everywhere I go.”