How Track Coach Jean Bell Helped 3 Brooklyn Sisters Go from Homelessness to the Junior Olympics
The longtime coach founded Jeuness Track Club to train and mentor underserved girls with the goal of getting them college scholarships
As a young girl, Jean Bell learned the value of three things: running, higher education and a strong mentor. Growing up in the housing projects of the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bell vowed to work her way out of poverty. A high school track coach helped her create a path toward success, eventually leading to law school.
Now an administrative law judge for the New York State Department of Labor, Bell has been helping girls like herself reach their own dreams via the Jeuness Track Club, which she established in 1985.
Three of her most famous athletes—Tai, 16, Rainn, 15, and Brooke Sheppard, 13—are featured in the new Netflix documentary, Sisters on Track. The documentary chronicles the girls' journey from homelessness to Junior Olympic superstars.
In September 2015, single mom Tonia Handy, unable to keep up with rising rent, had to make the difficult choice to move herself and her three daughters—Tai, Rainn and Brooke—into a homeless shelter. Handy was employed, but it took her years to even make minimum wage in New York City (just over $10 at the time). Bell and the Jeuness Track Club helped as much as possible, channeling the girls' energy into their running, and keeping them focused on academics — not an easy task. In 2016, all three qualified for the AAU Junior Olympics and later that year, Sports Illustrated named them Sportskids of the Year.
Still living in the homeless shelter, Handy and her daughters were invited on The View for the cover unveiling. The cheers turned to tears when Whoopi Goldberg surprised them with a special gift from Tyler Perry and his foundation: he had found and furnished a Brooklyn apartment that they could move into immediately. Perry also paid the rent for two years (he actually paid until early 2019) so Handy could get back on her feet. Their lives were changed forever. By this time, the documentary filmmakers had been shooting the family, so they were also able to capture footage of Handy and her daughters first seeing their new home. They followed the girls for three more years, through fall 2019, capturing the triumphs and the growing pains along the way.
"It has been crazy," says Bell of the positive reaction to the documentary. "I'm not used to all of this attention. The Sheppard girls, the girls on the team, they just take it in stride. I'm glad that it's happening because people now get to see the team and the girls and what we've been doing all along."
Bell credits her former mentor, famed Brooklyn track coach Fred Thompson, who founded the Colgate Women's Games (a national meet for girls, which draws college scouts from around the country), for providing a roadmap for her own life. Thompson, who was Black, was an attorney by day, moonlighting as a track coach (his runners include Olympians like gold medalist Diane Dixon), but preached about the importance of using higher education as a means to a better life.
That's why at Jeuness emphasizes academics as much as running. Over the 36 years since she founded the club, Bell estimates hundreds of her athletes have received college scholarships. "We get a lot of girls who parents didn't go to college," she says. "They never even thought of college. But when you're around a community of girls who know that this is the expectation, it becomes your goal also."
Each year, she kicks off the season by meeting with prospective parents. "I tell them, 'I'm not trying to make little Olympians here,'" she says. "That's nice if that happens later on and I'm so glad for them, but the goal is to get an education. Even if some of those parents didn't complete high school and never thought about going to college, everybody wants their children to do better than themselves. So that makes them excited and they understand that that's my goal and that's my goal for their kids. I've even gone so far to drive kids to college and get them set up in their room and everything."
As for the Sheppards, after the pandemic kept everyone apart, thing are returning to normal. In fact, says Bell, "Rainn actually is living with me right now because she wanted to come back and train so badly. She begged her mother because I live out in Long Island where it's open space. She can run. She can do her distance. So her mother agreed to let her come and stay with me."
She adds that all three "were talking to me to death about what they want to do in the upcoming season, and what races they want to run, and what they're planning to next year. So they're all very excited and that's good. I don't want them to ever lose that excitement."
Sisters on Track is available to stream on Netflix.
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