When a traumatic event happens to you as a child, it can be extremely hard to find the strength and courage to work past it and believe in yourself. Liz Ferro, of Girls With Sole, experienced this hardship firsthand when she was younger. She turned to exercise and realized it filled a missing void in her life. Today, Liz is the founder and CEO of Girls With Sole, a non-profit dedicated to helping girls use free fitness and wellness programs to empower the minds, bodies and souls of those who are at-risk or have experienced abuse of any kind. Read on to learn more about Girls With Sole and Liz's story!
Please note, Liz’s story may be a trigger for some of our readers.
Haley Mills: How did you come up with the idea to start Girls With Sole?
Liz Ferro: You only have an hour lunch! Well, it’s definitely something that spawned organically from my own life experiences and I just came up with the idea one day when I was trying to give back to the community. I was doing a lot of volunteer work with different organizations and I wanted to start my own because I realized that there wasn’t anything being done that was like Girls With Sole.
When I was a kid I was in foster care and was adopted by the time I was about two and a half or three, but there was abuse in the previous homes I was in so I had a lot of problems going into my adoptive home. When I was 8 I was raped by a neighbor for about a year, so I had a lot of issues for many years. I mean big time stuff. Regular traditional therapy wasn’t enough for me to feel good about myself in the way that I needed to be a healthy person in my brain and my body. I put it together that every time I was about to go over the edge, the thing that held me back was being involved in sports and fitness and just movement; exercise cleared my head and my heart.
So then I was like holy shit, this is like a thing, what the hell… I mean, I didn’t invent it, it's scientifically proven, but it just truly saved my life. You fast forward all these years later and now they don't have gym class anymore. A lot of the kids that I work with don’t play sports at school, because their schools don’t have sports and they are certainly not able to do a “pay to play” or any of that kind of stuff. They don’t have access to that thing that I was able to tap into, so I thought, ‘I’m going to start something so that they understand this connection, otherwise they’ll never make it.’ So that's where Girls With Sole sort of spawned from.. I’m thinking, ‘God, there's so many kids out there that are cutting, whether they are in a dating violence situation, domestic violence; whether they are taken out of their homes, they are in foster care, they are homeless - there are so many different forms of abuse or trauma that they could work through in a really healthy way instead of masking it with drugs, alcohol, cutting, and all of the stuff they usually do.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to be the one that shows them!’
Then when I started it - everyone was like, “you’re nuts, nobody's gonna do that” and whatever. I had been called crazy my entire life, this was nothing new. It wasn't phasing me that no one thought that I could amount to anything - because I was told that a lot, too. 10 years later we’re saving a lot of lives and making a big difference. It’s still a tiny, tiny organization and I’m only one person running it by myself. The funding is not always there so I can’t sustain paying anybody but we’re kicking ass. I’m just moving forward and that’s what it’s all about - resilience and moving forward - it's what I teach the kids, so I’ve got to do it myself, right?
HM: Absolutely! I was reading some of their testimonials on your website and those were really powerful. It was cool to read that and kind of see it from their perspective.
LF: I think so, too! It’s hard core. If you’re in residential treatment, it’s not just for small things, and a lot of times at first you’re not even sure if you’re getting through to these kids. The things that they write and the different points of view - you’re like, ‘holy crap, I didn't even know they were thinking that!’ It’s a teenager, they don’t write stuff, let alone tell you how they feel, so I was like, ‘wow! That’s pretty cool!’
HM: Explain to me how your program works.
LF: Over the past nine years or so - I do programs everywhere, like in elementary schools, high schools. I’ve been at Metrohealth Pediatric Wellness Center, I’ve been at residential treatment centers, so basically, I take the program to the kids wherever they are. That eliminates that whole issue with transportation or having to be someplace, because they wouldn't be able to get there if I had a building or a space. That was something I figured out real quick in the beginning. You have to go where they are or it’s not going to happen. I usually meet them once a week for an hour or an hour and a half. A lot of times people want to know, ‘how do the girls come to you?’ If it’s a residential treatment center, it's usually whatever girls are living there at the time, but if it’s at the school, that's a little different because they aren’t a “captive audience” so it’s more the counselors of the school know which girls need the program. In the schools, it's usually either 6 weeks or 12 weeks long and then with the residential kids, I’m usually there indefinitely, because those kids come in and out if they are placed there by the courts or children's services. So I just go there every week.
I have an adaptive curriculum that works with mind, body and soul fitness. The first portion of the hour is centered somewhere around the physical part of it. So we start with the Girls With Sole creed. It’s almost like the Girl Scout Creed - isn’t there something that you say in the beginning of the session?- it’s like that. We start this way just to get everyone on the same page and same belief system - it makes us all one. Then we do the workout or whatever it is that we are doing - it might be yoga, basketball, running - we do a wide range of activities because I think it’s important to tap into the things that sort of set your soul on fire. It might not be the same for you as it is for me. I love running, not everyone does. The second half of the program is more focused on self-awareness and self-esteem building activities. You can call them art projects, I guess. Some of them are discussion-based but most of them have to do with them tapping into activities that are going to make them believe in themselves but also be able to build up other people. We call them the power principles; so a lot of the activities are based on those principles of gaining power and peace from things that you are passionate about. POWER is an acronym: Perseverance, Optimism, Wisdom, Energy, and Resilience. Those are all super powerful attributes that anyone can have, you don’t have to be anyone special or live anywhere particular or have money but you have to work for them. They are all things that you can gain and learn from fitness and wellness. You can also use them in your regular life too, like for school or work or interpersonal relationships.
HM: Currently during the week how often are you teaching?
LF: Right now 4-5 times a week. I have three residential treatment centers and one school.
HM: Where are you teaching?
LF: Out in Stark County for a multi-county juvenile detention system, and then Carrington is on the east side of Cleveland. Belfaire is also on the east side of Cleveland and then we’re at Nordonia High School in Macedonia right now doing programs.
HM: What would you say is the biggest thing that motivates you?
LF: Other than achieving a goal that I or others didn’t think I could do - the girls motivate me. When I see that light go on in them that's what drives me. For them to go from that initial look at me like I’m insane, which I think is hilarious - I love when they do that - and then it goes from that to, “can you come back tomorrow?” or all of a sudden they start believing in themselves or they see that it's not so much that things are getting easier, but it’s that they are getting stronger. We are not trying to say that these problems are going away, it's just that we are able to deal with it better. So when I see them realizing that and it’s clicking, that's what motivates me.
HM: What are some ways that someone who is reading this can get involved with Girls With Sole?
LF: Some people will volunteer and come to programs, but they are not the easiest to volunteer for because the locations are sometimes too far away or we meet in the middle of the day and people have normal jobs. We do have some events. There is a race in November that we benefit from that we do every year, but it order to do so we have to provide all of the volunteers for the race and it’s a lot for us to get that many people. We need at least 50 people to volunteer for this race. So volunteering for that race is really important and we are always looking for people for that. Anytime people want to do a shoe drive - part of the program is not just the curriculum, we also give brand new running shoes, sports bras, water bottles and copies of my workbook to all of the girls that are in the program. So any time people purchase those things for the girls - it helps us a lot because the people who do it know they are giving directly to the kids and then we don't have to buy it.
*Note - On June 22, 2019 Liz will face fears and wild animals as she runs the Big Five Marathon to raise the funds needed to offer a summer camp experience for girls who might only dream about going to camp. Learn more about her mission and donate towards Camp Power, here.
HM: Where does your funding come from?
LF: It’s kind of a variety. We have some corporate sponsorships and I do get grants. I write the grants usually myself so it's tough for me to do that full time and run Girls With Sole full time too. So, the grant funding is there but like I said it's not enough to have a staff or anything like that. So the funding mostly comes from individual donations and fundraisers.
*If you are interested in sponsoring Girls With Sole, click here.
HM: Is there anything else you would want readers to know about Girls With Sole?
LF: I created a new workbook for the public but it's also for Girls With Sole, too because I give it to all of the kids and it benefits the organization.
*The workbook will guide you through the process of reinventing yourself and unleashing your inner superhero. It will provide you with the tools to becoming a badass, rock star, super version of yourself. Girls With Sole shows you how to further develop and unleash your gifts into the world and take real-world steps towards becoming the fit and fierce person you want to be. We don’t need anyone to save us; we save ourselves! Capes optional.
HM: Do you have a favorite place to be in Cleveland?
LF: Probably the Metroparks. As a runner and a person who loves nature, I feel super lucky to have the Metroparks. I grew up in Rochester, NY and we didn't have those kind of parks systems there.
HM: Where is your favorite place for dinner in Cleveland?
*EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute is a 501(c)(3) organization. We give formerly incarcerated adults a foundation in the culinary and hospitality industry while providing a support network necessary their long-term success. Our mission three-fold: is to teach a skilled and in-demand trade in the culinary arts, empower willing minds through passion for hospitality management, and prepare students for a successful transition home.
HM: What’s your favorite season in Cleveland?
LF: Oh, summer! If it could be summer all year round, I’d be so happy and it’s so beautiful here in the summer it's an awesome place to be.