Good things happen when Liz Ferro runs. During the 26-mile Asheville Marathon in North Carolina on the Biltmore Estate in March 2015, for instance, the affable Ferro befriended a woman as they chugged toward the finish line. A seasoned athlete who has competed in marathons and triathlons all over the US and Europe for more than 24 years, Ferro had plenty of breath to tell her about the nonprofit organization she had founded in Cleveland: Girls With Sole (GWS).
It just so happened her fellow marathoner had a foundation. Intrigued by GWS’s mission, she decided to donate $15,000. Money well spent, considering GWS introduces girls between the ages of 9 and 18 to running, fitness and empowerment programs. While there are plenty of youth fitness programs, what sets GWS apart is that program participants include at-risk girls or those who may have been abused or assaulted.
“It’s kind of a weird story," says the sinewy, slender racer of the impromptu on-the-run donation, "but I feel these are all signs that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Ferro is near the end of her three-year-plus endeavor to run marathons in all 50 states to raise funds and awareness for GWS. Thus far on her “50 States with Sole” campaign, she’s collected $30,000, spoken at various expos and pre-race dinners and garnered hundreds of new friends and supporters of her innovative program to help girls heal and "Lace Up for a Lifetime of Achievement," per the organization's tag line.
She has seven races left to complete. From March through June, she will run her way through Oklahoma, Kansas, Washington, North Dakota, Iowa and Alaska. In July, she will complete her 50th marathon in Missoula, Montana, which is home to the University of Montana. It's a fitting end as the school looms large in Jon Krakaur’s 2015 book Missoula, which chronicles a series of sexual assaults on the campus.
Growing up in Rochester, NY, Ferro lived in four different foster homes before she was adopted at age two. Her parents loved and treated her well, but without their knowledge, she was repeatedly molested and raped by a neighbor. Unfortunately, she did not receive any support from her mother when she later found out.
Nor did she learn of any effective support mechanisms until she discovered the positive impact of school athletics, which fostered her own healing after she joined the swim team in high school. Ferro went on to become an accomplished long distance runner at Miami University and has never looked back. In addition to marathons, she has completed two 50K Ultras, four Iron Distance triathlons and countless road races and triathlons.
After college, as a way to deal with her anger and frustration at having been sexually assaulted as a child, she lived a fairly adventurous and, at times, recklessly wild life. Fortunately, it was running that became a healthy addiction for Ferro.
“I was running so much that I took care of myself and started treating myself better because I didn’t want to ruin the one good thing I had going for me,” she says. “A lot of people don’t think that it all goes together, but it does. That’s why we teach each girl to train her mind, body and soul, because you need to address all three to be healthy.”
Prior to establishing GWS, Ferro had worked a number of jobs in marketing, recruiting and human resources before accepting a job as executive director of the small nonprofit agency Wigs for Kids, then in Rocky River.
“I have a passion for helping people, primarily children,” she says. “So I loved it, but it still wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do because it didn’t incorporate my love for fitness.”
Shaker Youth Center
Hence she began to research, but found few programs that combined fitness and running to help young girls get on track for a healthier lifestyle. She decided to do something about it, and in August of 2009, she took a risk, left her job and launched GWS in order introduce running to young women who may not have previously done much in the way of exercise. The programming also includes yoga, dance and nutrition classes to get the girls more focused on their health and help them appreciate their bodies.
It also teaches them to overcome obstacles by applying the Perseverance, Optimism, Wisdom, Energy and Resilience (POWER) Principles. Ferro has an in-kind donation of shoes, sports bras and water bottles for each girl, generously provided by the running supply shop 2nd Sole Rocky River.
The girls, notes Ferro, think it's all pretty cool, starting with Abigail Clayton, a fifth grader at Windsor Elementary School in Elyria. She was pretty jazzed about a new game Ms. Liz improvised in the gym by turning trash cans into soccer goals.
“She really helped me want to do more sports,” says Abigail, who went on to teach other kids the crazy new sport. “I thought it was all just for fitness activities, but it also helped you develop into a good person.”
Ferro has worked with nearly 1,000 girls throughout the region, but mainly in the Cleveland area, from programs within the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to the Intergenerational School, which was GWS’s first program partner, to several residential treatment centers, where she even gets the girls to compete in 5Ks or other races. She’s also spoken at a variety of elementary and high schools, Tri-C and other colleges and universities, as well as corporate gatherings. For the past four summers, she’s done a workshop at Camp Create, an empowerment camp for girls run by the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.
Ferro's impact has not gone unrecognized. Her accolades include a 2011 Classic Woman Award from Traditional Home magazine and being named a 2011 Hero by the American Red Cross of Greater Cleveland. In 2012, she published her autobiography, Finish Line Feeling.
Ferro's partners are also quick to laud her efforts.
“Inviting Liz to make GWS an outlet was really a gift to our girls,” says Susie Akers, a dietitian who manages the Pediatric Weight Management and Wellness Program at MetroHealth Medical Center. “Her program offers not just fitness classes, but connects empowerment, soul searching and finding support with peers that’s so beneficial for this high-risk urban population.”
In an effort to expand those benefits beyond Northeast Ohio, earlier this year Ferro traveled to Charleston, SC, where the first regional office of GWS opened at the Orange Grove Girls Charter School, thanks to the assiduous planning and work of Carol Bowers, a retired sexual assault nurse examiner who had also been assaulted as a child.
Looking further into the future, Ferro’s goal is to make GWS national by 2020, but right now her main focus, she says, is on building her nonprofit’s infrastructure in Cleveland so that she can hire staff and pay herself. She's also looking forward to no longer working at her dining room table, and having to shuffle around her files every evening so her husband and two children can have dinner. Until then, nothing is going to stop her on her run to help girls in need.
“These are the things that helped me and literally saved my life,” Ferro concludes. “So, if no one else is going to do them for these girls, I am."
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, Credit.com, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and Time.com. He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at