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Sports and Fitness: A Source of Empowerment for At-Risk Girls

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By founder Liz Ferro

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 hard work, 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, which uses free fitness and wellness programs to empower the minds, bodies and souls of 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 (and other sports) -- for all the right reasons. Our programs include traditional team sports, running, yoga, dance and self-esteem building exercises, as well as nutritional support, free running shoes, sports bras, water bottles, fitness journals, and entry into 5K races and other events.

I lived in four different foster homes before I was adopted at the age of two. When I was eight years old I was sexually abused by my next door neighbor.

Because I did not receive any help or support when I was abused as a child it became necessary for me to seek out and find an outlet and a healing strength on my own. I found it in sports. I found a special, almost magical, bliss in movement. Pulling my body through water, pumping my legs on a bike, or running anywhere and everywhere equated to pleasure, and seeing how far I could go tapped into a primal thrill.

The at-risk communities and kids in the system (foster or juvenile justice) have very little, if any, access to fitness programs of any kind, and therefore might never make the mind/body/soul connection that I made as a child. Girls With Sole shows them that there is a way out of the darkness, and each of them can find her way out without drugs, alcohol, or self-harm.

So often I see (and hear) myself in my Girls With Sole participants and can empathize with their fears and worries, because I felt the same at their ages. In the same way that I did, they see themselves on the perimeter of the "real world" like unwelcomed visitors, fearing the way they will be perceived by others, and how their behavior will affect the outcome of their lives. In Girls With Sole the girls are a team and they experience a sense of purpose and belonging that is often lacking in their lives. They are in a safe and accepting environment where negative voices in their heads are quieted, and the positive and encouraging voices get louder with each new achievement. They may not like every activity, or be the best at it, but they learn to try and to keep moving forward.

Being an athlete teaches you to get up when you fall, and to be resilient in times of pain or adversity. It's incredible to witness how quickly the girls respond to the programs in such a positive way -- even those who walk into the room in the worst moods, proclaiming they will not participate. Within 20 to 30 minutes those same girls are running, dancing, or playing basketball or volleyball. They're laughing and smiling, and having a great time being kids, which is really what it's all about.

Fitness and wellness may not be on their radar at the start, but to see the progression as the girls begin to believe in themselves, reach their goals, and cross the finish lines as a result of Girls With Sole is truly incredible.

Girls With Sole is a game changer for many girls. Together they become healthy, strong, well-rounded young women and leaders who are ready to overcome obstacles and "Lace Up for a Lifetime of Achievement."

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