A track coach takes girls from homeless shelters and turns them into junior Olympic stars

Coach Jean Bell by the side of a running track.
Coach Jean Bell founded the Jeuness Track Club 36 years ago. Netflix/Sisters On Track
  • Coach Jean Bell has run the Jeuness Track Club in Brooklyn for 36 years.
  • The club helps underprivileged Black girls stay out of trouble and create better futures for themselves.
  • Bell told Insider she encourages the girls to strive for track scholarships for higher education.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As the founder of Jeuness Track Club in Brooklyn, Coach Jean Bell teaches girls to run.

But the club is about so much more than running. Bell’s goal is to educate the girls about the world, keep them on the right track, and help them further their education by winning scholarships.

“You can literally run yourself into a future,” Bell told Insider.

Three of her members, the Sheppard sisters, are the subject of a new Netflix documentary, “Sisters on Track,” premiering June 24, which tells the true story of the girls’ journey from living in a homeless shelter to competing in the Junior Olympics in 2016.

None of the sisters, Tai, Rainn, or Brooke, had ever run before, but their lives changed when a babysitter took them to Jeuness on a whim, and Bell took them under her wing.

Jean Bell and the Sheppard sisters in an airport.
Coach Bell traveled with the Sheppard sisters to meets across the country. Netflix/Sisters On Track

Bell said she quickly realized the girls had exceptional talent and were so special.

“I tell them all the time, because that’s something that Black girls need to hear: ‘You’re special,'” she said.

Bell has been running Jeuness for 36 years, entirely unpaid. As a lawyer, she ran the club on her own for years before her sister came on board to help. There’s now a team of seven coaches (four of whom are former members) training 30 girls.

Bell aims to empower young Black women

Many of the girls in Jeuness come from underprivileged backgrounds, and Bell says poverty can affect people in two main ways: Either you think you’ll be homeless forever and feel like you want to give up, or it makes you stronger.

“I grew up in poverty and I always said to myself, ‘I’m not going to continue to live like this, this is not going to be my life. I have to find a way out,'” she said. “And it makes you stronger. It makes you more determined.”

Bell believes women and girls have extra barriers to overcome, too.

“All girls have been undervalued and underestimated, so I always tried to impart on the girls, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t, that’s not in our vocabulary.’ It’s systemic throughout society, especially in the US where women aren’t given the opportunities that they should be given, but if you give them a chance, they’ll do it.”

The coaches teach more than running

Although Jeuness started out as a simple track club, Bell soon realized many of the girls needed more support.

“As I got older and had more experience in life in general, I just stepped in to be that person that the girls could come to,” Bell said, adding that a lot of the girls call her “Mom.”

She teaches them about everything from menstruation to dealing with male attention.

Members of the Jeuness Track Club having their photo taken on a running track.
There are currently 30 young women in the Jeuness Track Club. Netflix/Sisters On Track

If the girls don’t do well in school, they’re suspended from the club.

“You have to get good grades in order to run,” Bell said. “They want to run so badly that they turn it around. I’ve seen it literally hundreds of times.”

She encourages people to see that not only are the girls great students and great people, but they’re great athletes on top of that.

“I teach them to do what they set out to do,” Bell said.