It was the summer of 2015, and Bed-Stuy track coach Jean Bell was shuttling the Sheppard sisters — three talented little girls she’d recently started to train — home from a meet.
“They were telling me, ‘We’re moving, we’re moving,’ and I was saying, ‘That’s nice,’ I didn’t think anything of it,” Bell recalls.
“When I brought them home after the national meet I said to their mom, ‘Oh Tonia, the girls tell me you’re moving?’ She whispered, ‘We’re moving into a shelter.'”
Bell was shocked. The first thing she thought was: I could have helped.
What she also didn’t know was, in the coming years, her help and guidance was going to propel Tai, Rainn and Brooke Sheppard — and herself — onto the world stage.
Bed-Stuy story coming to millions
On June 24, their story will become available for streaming to Netflix’ more than 200 million subscribers worldwide.
Sisters on Track starts as the girls find themselves living in the Brooklyn homeless shelter. Soon after, through their track success, they are named 2016 Sports Illustrated SportsKids of the Year, propelling them into the national spotlight. At the time, Tai was 12, Rainn was 11 and Brooke was 9.
After an appearance on The View, actor Tyler Perry surprises the girls and mom Tonia Handy with a fully furnished apartment with the rent paid for the next two years.
The documentary, directed by Corinne Van Der Borch and Tone Grøttjord-Glenne, starts to unfold from the moment the girls move into the apartment.
“The sisters’ incredible story began with how they received amazing help from other people,” Grøttjord-Glenne said.
“But as filmmakers, we were much more interested in what happened afterwards, when the girls started revealing the strength they had within themselves through their own achievements: getting into high school, doing homework, excelling at track and growing up.”
Over the coming four years, the production team follows the sisters closely, from home, to the track, and at school, with the documentary ending in 2019.
The result is an intimate portrait of life as a young Black woman growing up in Brooklyn; the power of sisterhood, education and a pivotal mentor. Coach Jean is shown not just teaching the girls to run, but telling them how to use a tampon, warning them about men who may make them feel uncomfortable, and holding a book club discussing systemic racism.
“I realized, from the very moment that I met [Coach] Jean, that she was someone that I would never want to let down,” Van Der Borch said. “She is an extraordinary and selfless human being, who at that time had spent 33 years shepherding girls through their most vulnerable years.”
The film touches on social issues affecting many Bed-Stuy families — the gun violence that claimed the life of the girls’ older brother, Kamaui, domestic abuse, segregation and financial disparities in education.
“We wanted to make sure that we captured the girls as they were in these circumstances without making it the whole story, because they are so much more than the issues and struggles that they face,” Van Der Borch said.
The documentary is set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival Saturday in Brooklyn Commons at MetroTech. On Thursday, the girls were looking forward to seeing the final product after four years of living their lives in front of a film crew.
Brooke, now 13, laughed talking about how her friends had gone to lengths to find the Netflix trailer online, after following up on what happened “when that person was following you around with a camera.”
Rainn, now 15, said the short version of the film was “a rollercoaster” to watch, both sad and funny in parts, while Tai, 16, said it was “embarrassing,” but great. “It almost brought me to tears.”
Ahead of the screening, the girls spoke of how Coach Jean changed their lives.
“After we went to the shelter we were just gonna leave the team, we didn’t have money to pay, but she let us stay,” Rainn said. “I remember track being an escape, and I’m glad Coach Jean gave that to us.”
“We would always put our best foot forward for her,” Tai added. “She’s like another mother to us.”
Coach Bell — an administrative law judge by day — started the Jeuness Track Club in 1985 in her spare time and using her own money to make uniforms and enter girls in meets. She herself had competed in track in junior high and college, and wanted to pass on the experience.
“I didn’t see it as a burden to do something with my money that I wanted to do,” she said. For me it was a privilege to show them what I learned through track and field.” Apart from a grant from Tyler Perry, Coach Bell has had no additional funding.
She said she never anticipated what would happen with the Sheppard sisters, but her life hasn’t changed — yet — as a result of the documentary.
“I still go to work every day and I go to practice and do what I’ve always been doing and what I need to do to help out the girls.”
Jean said hundreds of girls have come through the track team, and she has a similar relationships with all of them as she does with the Sheppards. In one of their car rides, she remembers telling the girls all about childbirth.
“I try to be straightforward with them, and they have grown so much in what they know about track and field and how to show themselves as young women.”
She said she’s been doing it so long now that girls have run, gone to college, got married, had kids, and their daughters have run in the Jeuness Track Club. “I’m just waiting for the third wave,” she laughed.
For Jean, who was born-and-raised in Bed-Stuy like the Sheppards, she said the issues facing young women in the neigborhood haven’t changed much. One of the biggest problems is a lack of programs for kids, which sees young people getting into trouble, she said.
She said her dream for Bed-Stuy was to see the homelessness problem tackled, and she would love to take over one of the old armories in Bed-Stuy and turn it into a safe haven for kids, with programming for children and seniors alike.
“If I ever win billions of dollars in lotto, I will buy an armory. That would be amazing.”
Sisters on Track is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, and launching on Netflix June 24.
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