The Sheppard sisters of New York City are literally running toward a better life.
Tai, 11, Rainn, 10, and Brooke, 8, have all earned the chance to compete in track and field at the 2016 AAU Junior Olympic Games, underway in Houston. Impressive on its own, the sisters’ feat is even more remarkable as the girls are homeless, the Associated Press reported.
The Sheppards have lived with their mother, Tonia Handy, in a Brooklyn homeless shelter since last September. All four share one makeshift bed, made up of two twin mattresses pushed together. The apartment’s only other adornments? Piles of the siblings’ medals.
After coping with the murder of her son three years ago, and facing rising rent, Handy’s job answering phones at a car service wasn’t enough to make ends meet. She and her daughters were evicted from their apartment, relocating first to a shelter in Queens before being placed back in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“It’s horrible … it’s infested,” Tai said of the shelter apartment. “It’s unsanitary.”
Luckily, the sisters have found an escape in track, which they were first signed up for in January 2015, to give their babysitter a reprieve from the active girls. At the 2015 open meet, the siblings were each noticed separately by Jean Bell, the founder of Jeuness Track Club. She invited them individually to the club, only learning of their relationship later at the first practice.
Now, they’ll each compete at the Junior Olympics in multiple events. Rainn will run the 3,000-meter (she’s the top qualifier). Tai will tackle the 400-, 800-, and 80-meter hurdles, and Brooke qualified for the 800, 1,500 and the high jump.
“It’s been very tough for them,” Bell, an administrative law judge, said. “They’ve been moved from one shelter to the next. Their belongings are shuffled around. They don’t have a lot to work with but they do the best with what they have.”
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Bell will accompany the girls to the competition on their first-ever plane ride on Sunday, as Handy couldn’t afford to make the trip and the Sheppard girls are estranged from their father. Handy will watch them run via the Junior Olympics’ livestream, when the track and field events kick off Monday.
Handy says she sees the potential in her daughters’ athleticism, explaining, “This is a means to get them to college, to opening doors that maybe I can’t open for them.”
“They’re about to tear that up,” she told the AP, adding, “I’m telling you, when these girls hit the big stage, they show off. They do not back down.”