Two years later city cops are releasing new information to help solve the murder of a little girl.
|There and back again: Mecca Harris' days revolved around her trips from Aspen Street to the stables she loved.|
Mecca fed and groomed the mare, spent hours standing by its side, speaking gently into its ear. "Patience," says Russell Neugent, a member of the Black Cowboys and a former Philadelphia mounted patrol cop. "That's what it takes to win a horse, and she had it."
The Cowboys also helped her develop an athlete's physical courage.
"They don't baby you there," says 22-year-old Samantha Lyons, who also rode at the stable. "If a kid fell off a horse, they were supposed to buy everyone else a juice."
Mecca adapted so well to tough cowboy love that Sealve White recruited Lyons and her sister to soften the little girl. But when Samantha and Stephanie Lyons arrived at the stables on a dark winter night in 1998, they didn't see a girl.
"It's all boys," said Stephanie, disappointed.
Then a high voice peeped out at them. "I'm here," said Mecca, her braids hidden by a snowcap, her body buried beneath a bulky parka. "I'm a girl!"
"She looked like a tomboy," remembers Stephanie. "A cute little tomboy."
A tomboy who was about to grow up.
>Lezlie Hiner spotted Mecca a couple of times on her pony before she asked if the 11-year-old might come to her stables.
Hiner had been running the Work to Ride program, a nonprofit that teaches city kids horsemanship, searching city streets for candidates like Mecca.
"She was pretty good when she got here," Hiner says of Mecca. "Kids that learn to ride on the streets of Philadelphia are rough-and-tumble. She could stay on a horse. She just didn't have the formal education."
Hiner brought her to the Chamounix Equestrian Center in Fairmount Park in 2001, teaching her to manage the elegant turns of dressage, jumps popular at horse shows, and the more combative skills of polo.
Hiner has numerous videos featuring Mecca and her teammates-kids from the inner city playing the sport of kings. One tape shows their matches against Yale and the University of Connecticut. Hiner's all-black Work to Ride team rides in white uniforms, shirts untucked, against all-white teams in perfect pressed black vests.
On the tapes, Mecca plays forward-a speck on a sea of horseflesh. Hiner's voice provides narration as she hollers instructions. Some players require constant coaching: "You're not listening, Kareem!" But Mecca receives only encouragement. "Keep pushing," Hiner calls to her. "Stay with her!" Mecca is always where she's supposed to be.
When the more experienced riders wanted to put Stephanie Lyons on a horse that was likely to throw her, Mecca played the responsible adult. "Don't you give her that horse," she'd say. "That's a crazy horse."
|The littlest trooper: Horses toughened Harris, who outworked most|
When Hiner needed work done around the stables, the boys often resisted. But Mecca shamed them into action. They complied in part because Mecca was one of them-a tough kid from a bad neighborhood-and she carried herself with confidence. When the polo team went to Yale, Mecca took the kids on a tour of the locker room.
"Yeah," she said, unfazed by the world-class facilities. "These are our lockers."
"I never would've thought to ask about her home life," says fellow rider Richard Prather. "There was no evidence of any problems in how she behaved. She did well in school. She showed up to ride. She almost always had a smile on her face."
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4