‘Girls With Sole’ Founder On Childhood Trauma & Helping Young Girls Find Their Worth

Liz Ferro pictured second from left, front row. Image courtesy of Girls With Sole.

The following is an excerpt from “Finish Line Feeling,” by Liz Ferro, out now from Library Tales Publishing. This uniquely uplifting memoir tells the compelling story of the author’s journey from foster child and sexual abuse survivor to founder of the nationally recognized running organization, Girls With Sole. With brutal honesty, Liz Ferro writes about her own experiences of trauma, and how running, biking, and swimming pulled her through the toughest times imaginable, always reminding her of her own strength and worth. This inspiring, Cinderella story—which ends with Ferro being named as an honoree for Traditional Home Magazine’s Classic Woman award—will inspire all readers, no matter their story or goals. It has been described as gritty, yet often humorously told, her story proves that with resiliency, anyone can be rewarded with the euphoria she calls the “finish line feeling.”

‘Finish Line Feeling’ cover. Courtesy of Liz Ferro

I remember the suitcase so vividly and clearly, as if I had packed it yesterday.  It had an ice blue and electric pink 70’s paisley pattern on its soft cardboard casing.  The zipper always got stuck and the plastic edges in the front that helped to guide the zipper were breaking down, but I loved that suitcase.  Although it was very small, it seemed big enough to fit all the necessities of a young world traveler such as myself.  I don’t remember the exact reason I had decided to leave that night, but I do recall feeling like it was what I needed to do and that there was no sense in putting off the inevitable. 

I was determined to pack it up, pack it in, and get going before someone could tell me that I had to leave.  Rejection is never a good feeling, but the sting is lessened when it is experienced on your own terms. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of a cycle that would continue on in my life for many years to come. This would be my approach and “M.O.” for the majority of my future relationships: Leave them -before they leave me. 

In many different ways, and on many different levels, my life has revolved around running.  For a time all I could do was try to run away. Then I ran into trouble.  As time passed, with endurance and tenacity, I ran with the idea of helping girls in need and haven’t stopped since. 

In August of 2009 I founded the nonprofit organization, Girls With Sole, that uses free fitness and wellness programs to empower at risk girls and those who have experienced any type of abuse.  Turning a negative into a positive, I have made it my life’s mission to instill strength, self-confidence and pride in girls, and to help them embrace running -for all the right reasons.  

“Saints are sinners who kept on going.”
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

I was 4 years old, and in the two years that I had come to live with them as their child, I still had never told my parents that I loved them. Although I was adopted when I was around two, I never expressed love to anyone until sometime after I turned six.  I hated saying “I love you” more than I hated peas, which was saying a lot.  It’s strange to think about that, now that I have my own children, because they have expressed their love to me nonverbally before they could speak by showing trust and by squeezing me around my neck like baby monkeys.  When they learned to talk, I heard “I love you mommy” as often as I heard “Why” or “I want juice.”  It was second nature to them and not something that they guarded and jadedly kept to themselves, the way I did at their age.

No matter how many times my parents tried to reassure me and tell me that they loved me, my answer to them was always, “OK.”  

I didn’t know she was on to me until the day my mom tried to explain that I didn’t need to take things out of my brothers’ rooms and stash them in my pillowcase.  She said that I would be staying and that I didn’t need to take souvenirs or prepare to leave.  Again, I answered with “OK,” but I didn’t believe her.  

In my mind I knew that I would be left behind or sent away, just like it was in the four foster homes I lived in before I was adopted. (The different places I lived between birth and two years old that left me petrified of men and afraid to be left alone.) I was told later in life that my time in foster care was somewhat traumatic and was said to be the root of my fear of loud and sudden noises; fear of the dark, as well as, the continuous crying and nervous rash that was always on my face when I first came to my parents’. The trauma I experienced in the foster homes may also be the reason that I sucked my thumb until college, wet my bed for way too long, and had “outbursts” that could scare a Marine drill sergeant.

Girls with Sole participant Hannah Gibbons doing yoga. Image courtesy of Girls With Sole.

The pint-sized paisley suitcase filled quickly, requiring last minute judgment calls regarding important, yet difficult, decisions such as which stuffed animals to bring and which to leave behind.  There was only room for one nightgown and one set of Garanimals. The monkey Garanimals were my favorite, so I crammed the matching top and bottom set in next to the stolen items I hoisted from the rooms of my brothers.  There weren’t many things I liked better than rummaging through their stuff when they weren’t around and pocketing the particularly choice items.  There was also a certain thrill that went along with the feeling that I could be caught in a stranger’s room looking through and possibly pilfering their personal treasures- but I lived there, so technically they were not strangers at all.

I studied each item very closely, and the ones that were up to snuff went back with me to my bedroom so I could stash them in my pillowcase until it was time for me to pack them up and take them to wherever I would end up next.  I looked at the winning trinkets that had been transferred from pillowcase to suitcase, and decided they were worth the extra weight. I left them nestled next to my yellow polyester nightgown and purple monkey corduroys, closed the lid, wrestled with the zipper and made my way down the hallway to the top of the stairs. 

I stopped to listen for my parents’ voices downstairs, which I determined to be coming from the living room.  This wasn’t ideal, because the front door of our house was just off to the right of the living room, so they would definitely see me walking past them wearing a jacket and carrying a suitcase.  The plan was to keep my head down and keep moving.  I lugged the heavy little suitcase down each stair one at a time, and when I reached the bottom of the stairs I looked down at the floor and made a bee line for the front door.  

Right away I heard my mother running toward me and yelling to my dad in a panicky voice; “Dad! Stop her! She’s LEAVING!” (Even as a young kid I found it odd that my parents referred to each other as “Mom” and “Dad”.  When they spoke to each other or about each other, they were never Elsie and Henry, which are their actual names.) My father, ever the calming voice of reason, responded with; “Take it easy.  It’s dark outside.  It’s nighttime.  She won’t even make it down the driveway.”

I walked out the front door and past the lamppost.  I passed the plum trees that flanked the driveway of my childhood home in Upstate New York, made a right turn onto the sidewalk and kept on walking. I made it all the way to the end of our street before my father picked me up in his car to take me back home, and that was the last time reverse psychology was ever used on me by my parents.

Girls With Sole ‘Camp Power’ participants. Image courtesy of Girls With Sole.

As a child, Liz Ferro experienced foster care and sexual abuse, but found solace in fitness: particularly swimming, biking and running. The empowerment gained from sports led her to found the non-profit organization Girls With Sole, which has received extensive national attention for its innovative and successful program curriculum. 
To date Liz has crossed many finish lines. She has completed 77 marathons; two 50K Ultras; five Ironman triathlons; and countless road races and triathlons.  She has completed a 26.2 Marathon in all 50 States, on the Great Wall of China, and in South Africa on a Wildlife Preserve. Liz has been featured on the NBC TODAY Show, in SELF, Runner’s World, and Family Circle Magazine. Liz Ferro is the author of the books “Girls With Sole: A Girl Power Guide to Unleashing Your Inner Superhero”; “Chameleon Girl”; and “Finish Line Feeling”. She is a mom; wife; speaker; and the Founder and CEO of Girls With Sole.