Marathoner Liz Ferro knows all about the feeling of empowerment that comes with crossing the finish line. That's why she started Girls with Sole, a nonprofit that puts troubled tweens and teens on track to a brighter future.

By Sondra Forsyth

On a sunny afternoon in Cleveland last June, crowds had gathered along Lake Erie to cheer on the hundreds of women running a 5K race. Known as LULA (Lacing Up for a Lifetime of Achievement), the event was sponsored by Girls with Sole, which offers free fitness and wellness programs for at-risk tweens and teens. There was a festive, feel-good mood in the air—bystanders wore balloon hats and snacked on watermelon, clapping and shouting out support as participants jogged by. No one was rooting harder than Liz Ferro, 45, the group's founder, who congratulated each and every Sole mate as she completed the course. "Running races like this helps girls believe in themselves and their dreams," she says. "They come away with more self-esteem and the confidence to overcome obstacles—what I like to call that 'finish-line feeling.'"

Liz knows all about the transformative power of athletics. She spent her early years in foster care, shuttling between four different homes before being adopted by a loving family—only to be abused by a neighbor when she was 8. "I had so much anger and negative energy," she says. "What got me past it was sports. Swimming and running kept me from doing unhealthy things like alcohol or drugs and helped me make smarter choices." She excelled on the swim and rugby teams while attending college in New York, then added lacrosse to the mix after transferring to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Settling in Cleveland to be near her parents, she eventually became the director of Wigs for Kids, a nonprofit for children who have lost their hair due to illness, medical treatments or burns. And she never stopped running, graduating from 5K and 10K races to marathons and Ironman triathlons.

All those years of going the distance gave her time to brainstorm. "The idea for Girls with Sole had been brewing in me for a long time," Liz explains. "I wanted to give teens who came from circumstances similar to mine the chance to fulfill their potential." She launched the program in 2009, setting up a website where people could register for the inaugural LULA race and make donations to the cause. Liz partnered with service organizations, using their facilities to offer free training for the event. That has since evolved into weekday classes—a 45-minute mashup of Zumba, yoga and aerobics—that Liz now conducts at five Cleveland-area locations, from a county residential treatment center in Canton to the Lorain County Urban League. "She gets you moving," says Tajanece Jackson, 18. "I have to take a bus, a rapid-transit train and then another bus to get there, but it's worth it."

All the students, who range in age from 9 to 18, are at risk for health issues or have suffered abuse of some kind. "I give them life lessons, not just exercise instruction," says Liz. "I'll start off by asking them to tell me why they're amazing, and they can't think of one reason. I felt the same when I was young. We work on developing strength—physical and emotional—and before long they're able to see how great they really are." The girls view Liz as both a kindred and a guiding spirit—someone who understands them, offers support and is never judgmental. Susan M. Brown, a former counselor at the Canton center, credits Liz with turning young lives around. "Many of these girls can be difficult to reach," she says, "but Liz has helped give them a real sense of accomplishment and purpose."

So far, more than 550 tweens and teens have taken the program and proudly crossed the LULA finish line. Thanks to corporate support, grants and donations, Girls with Sole sponsors every single participant and provides each with sneakers, a sports bra and a water bottle. Liz, who doesn't have a staff or receive a salary, often relies on her family for help. She and husband Frank, an insurance broker, work as a team setting up the annual run. Her son, Jake, 15, designed the Girls with Sole logo, and daughter Morgan, 13, sells raffle tickets.

But as Liz sees it, there are many miles to go. She's already at work creating chapters in other cities, with the aim of Girls with Sole becoming a national organization by 2020. "As an athlete, meeting your goals feels so great you don't want to do anything that might mess that up," she says. "I'd like for girls everywhere to experience that. They deserve no less."

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Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.