Fifteen years ago, Travis Bell needed a job.
He’d left college during his sophomore year and returned home to Highland Springs after his father died.
“When my dad passed, it was just a lot for me,” recalled Bell, who also played football at North Carolina Wesleyan University. “Being at school was not where I wanted to be.”
He wanted to be home near his mother, but he needed to work. A friend made some calls for him, one of them to Sheila Muse, director of the New Bridge Baptist Church Child-Care Center on Nine Mile Road.
“He walked in the door … and he helped me out, but I wasn’t thinking long-term with him,” Muse recalled.
Bell started off as an after-school worker — taking out the trash, cleaning the bathrooms, doing actual heavy lifting as a rare male worker at the center — then moved into helping with the kids.
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“We worked together for a while,” Muse said, “and my mommies started coming up to me and saying, ‘The young man really knows children and loves working with children.’”
He was “like one of the little boys,” Muse said. He ran the halls with them and laughed with them, but also taught them and guided them. He did everything.
“I realized all of a sudden, I couldn’t make it without him,” she said. “I needed him.”
When Muse retired a decade ago, she recommended Bell as her replacement.
“It’s all about the heart, and Mr. Bell” — she always called him Mr. Bell, not Travis — “has the heart.”
Bell, 36, is still director, having built an unlikely career for a young man — he’s grown accustomed to “getting that stare” when people learn what he does, but he proudly believes he’s filling a void of male authority figures in the lives of some of the children — but that’s merely his day job.
For years, he was a rec-league football coach before moving in 2016 into a coaching role at Highland Springs High, where he played football and graduated in 2004. He currently is defensive coordinator for the junior varsity and an assistant on the defensive coaching staff for the varsity. The teams this year went a combined 25-0, with the varsity capping off its undefeated season earlier this month with its sixth state title and fifth in the last eight seasons.
“It’s double special to me being that it’s my alma mater,” said Bell, who played center and defensive line during his high school days and has known some of the players he coaches now from when they were young children at New Bridge. “I pride myself on being a Highland Springs guy.”
He added with a laugh, “I’m a much better coach than I was a player. Just being honest.”
None of that counts to the kids he’s given special attention, filling a parental role, as he’s done for Anya Ford.
Ford, 21, is a junior at the College of William & Mary, where she’s a neuroscience major with a goal of medical school in her future. She graduated in 2020 from Highland Springs, where she was valedictorian.
She says flatly that she wouldn’t be where she is without Bell, whom she first met when she was 3 or 4 years old at the child care center.
“He pretty much took me under his wing,” Ford said. “He kind of noticed that I didn’t have as much as the other kids and that I lacked a father. He kind of stepped in and decided to be there for me.”
He helped Ford and her mother in a number of ways: clothes, transportation, tuition assistance at the child care center. He attended her basketball and volleyball games. He pushed her to do her best in school (“he didn’t accept B’s,” she said) and generally guided her to do the right things.
“Not to be dramatic, but I definitely feel like he saved my life,” she said. “I feel like he made sure I went in the right direction, because you know how easy kids can be steered when they lack a father in the household. He stepped in and was a father to me.”
Asked how he feels seeing Ford grow up and succeed, Bell said, “Makes me feel proud … and makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing by these children.”
Bell is married and the father of two: Kierstin, 12, and Kasei, 4 (a student at the New Bridge center). He calls his wife, Tracey, “the real MVP. I couldn’t do what I do in the community without her playing her role.”
Bell said it’s easy to get wrapped up in yourself and worried about such things as status and money and the kind of car you drive. His role models were his parents, who served their community in a number of ways, including youth sports. His father, the late William Reginald Bell Sr., also was a drug counselor who worked at Rubicon and the veterans hospital.
“I saw the dedication that he gave to his community,” said Bell, who recalled people his father had helped coming up to their car and telling him, “Thank you.”
The child care center serves about 50 students — ages 3 to 12 — in its preschool and after-school components.
Every morning at 7 when he unlocks the facility, Bell opens the door to a new day of new experiences.
“Some people go to the same job [every day] and kind of do the same thing,” he said. “But in a day care center, these kids are going to bring you a different attitude and a new story every single day. So every morning I open that door, and I’m getting ready for the next challenge.”
It’s been a pleasure watching Bell through the years, said Brad Alston, who was a teacher at Highland Springs when Bell was a student and recently was named associate principal at Pocahontas Middle School. He also is a colleague of Bell’s on the coaching staff of Highland Spring’s football team, where he is the offensive line coach.
He called Bell “one of the heartbeats” of Henrico County’s eastern end.
“I’ve been on this journey, watching him progress,” Alston said. “He just really pours himself into the community in ways that don’t get measured or talked about.”
Alston knows the quality of Bell’s work on the football field, but he marvels over his work at the child care center — the field trips he arranges for the students to broaden their horizons and the theatrical productions that keep things interesting — and with kids in the community who need a helping hand.
“He’s just done a great job in the community trying to lift up those kids so they have great opportunities down the road,” Alston said. “I love the guy, and I love seeing him being a man and a leader.”