3 sisters go from homeless shelter to junior track stardom
NEW YORK — Every morning, three young sisters wake up together with their mom in one bed in a Brooklyn homeless shelter. Every afternoon, they train in a sport that they hope will put them on a path to a better life.
Tai Sheppard, 11, and sisters Rainn, 10, and Brooke, 8, have all blossomed since taking up track and field a year and a half ago, rising to the top tier of age-group national rankings and earning a spot in the Junior Olympic Games, now underway in Houston.
“This is a means to get them to college,” says their mother, Tonia Handy, “to opening doors that maybe I can’t open for them.”
Handy, a 46-year-old who works answering phones at a car service, has been raising her family alone for nearly a decade, enduring constant financial hardship and even tragedy. Three years ago, the girls’ 17-year-old half-brother was fatally shot in the street by another teen over what investigators said was a perceived insult.
She always managed to make ends meet, though, until early last year, when she and the girls were evicted from their apartment in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section for failing to pay the rent, landing them first in a motel shelter in Queens and then in the apartment shelter on a gritty Bed-Stuy street.
“The first time we got there, there was just roaches everywhere,” Tai says. “Every time I looked on the floor, a roach. And every time I looked on the ceiling there was a roach. It was horrible.”
Handy, however, has worked to make the apartment clean and livable. But she has also made a point of not getting too comfortable in what she hopes is a temporary situation. The only decorations are the many awards the girls have won on the track, with trophies crowding the top of the lone dresser and medals hanging from every doorknob.
“I don’t bring in anything,” she says. “When I’m ready and I have an apartment, I’m just gone.”
The girls, who still have their estranged father’s last name, Sheppard, got into track in January 2015 when their baby sitter, looking for some kind of activity to keep them occupied, signed them up for a track meet that did not require any entry fees.
It just so happened that the founder of the Brooklyn-based Jeuness Track Club was at the competition scouting for new talent. By the end of the first day, Jean Bell had given her business cards to each of the girls separately with the instructions to have their mother call or just show up to practice.
It wasn’t until they turned out for practice together that Bell realized the girls were sisters.
“It’s been very tough for them,” says Bell, an administrative law judge who grew up in the nearby projects. “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.”
The 20 girls on the Jeuness team come from a variety of backgrounds, but none of them are rich. Parents and coaches pool their money to provide the funds for the girls to go to the Junior Olympics.
The mission of the team is to keep girls on track, both academically and athletically to set them up for college scholarships.
The sisters are well on their way.
Each has qualified for the Junior Olympics in multiple events. Eleven-year-old Rainn was the top qualifier for the 3,000-meter run with a time of 10 minutes, 44 seconds — 30 seconds faster than the next-closest qualifier.
Tai runs the 400 and 800, as well as the 80-meter hurdles.
Brooke, the youngest, qualified for the 800, the 1,500 and the high jump, even though the team doesn’t have the equipment to allow her to practice. Her only jumps have come in competitions.
The girls are set to board a plane with the rest of their team for their first time Sunday to head to Houston for the track and field events, which begin Monday. But their mother won’t be with them.
“I’m not going, because the shelter has a curfew and I still have to work,” Handy says. “It’s not that kind of job where you can take time off. You don’t go, you don’t get paid.”
But Handy is hopeful she will soon land a new job that would make it possible to get a place of her own again, and to get most weekends off so she could attend more of her daughters’ meets.
“Next year,” she says, “I think it will be different.”