I KNOW HOW I WILL FEEL OUT ON THAT FIELD running to hit the ball air flying in my face, 12-year-old Mecca Harris wrote on her application to join Work To Ride. When I came to your last polo game just watching little Bee play I wanted to play as I was saying in my head look at him go so fast.
More than a decade later, Harris and the boy she witnessed, “Bee,” stand as the sad totems that haunt Work To Ride: the kids who don’t make it. “I think Mecca might have become the best female polo player in the world,” says Harvard women’s polo coach Cissie Snow. “I have no doubt Bee would have played for a living.”
Work To Ride produces a steady stream of talent. The team won the national scholastic championship last March, the first all-black team ever to do so. They might repeat this year. And they’re so good that most high schools no longer want them on their schedule, forcing them to challenge college teams like Harvard and Cornell instead. But … so what?
Work To Ride has never been about polo. Work To Ride is about moving kids from poverty to plenitude. It’s the brainchild of Lezlie Hiner, a brash white woman with a degree in psychology and a deep love for horses. Inspired by her experience mentoring an inner-city child, she founded Work To Ride in 1994. “I want the kids to see,” she says, “that another, safer world is available to them.”
At any given time, Hiner’s little nonprofit includes roughly 30 horses and 20 kids. Though many children show up during the week, Saturday attendance at the Chamounix Equestrian Center in Fairmount Park, a venue more run-down than its fancy name implies, is mandatory. The kids muck stalls, haul feed, clean the leather gear polo ponies require. They also must maintain “C” averages in school. In return, they receive tutoring and learn how to ride horses and play polo. But the most important thing they get is a broader perspective—a sense of themselves as people who can succeed in that other, safer world.
All of Hiner’s kids qualify as impoverished; only five of her current 21 come from two-parent households. In these terms, Mecca Harris and Bee exemplified what Work To Ride is all about—kids from struggling homes who can leverage polo into college degrees. “Those two,” says Hiner, “had every opportunity in front of them.”
But Mecca was assassinated in 2003, murdered at 14 because her mother dated a drug dealer targeted for robbery. A gunman marched Mecca, her mother and that boyfriend down to their basement, then shot each in the head. The positioning of the bodies, Mecca slumped against her mother, conveyed the girl’s terrible last moments: She watched her mother die, then waited for the bullet that ended her own life.
“Bee” is Jabarr Rosser, the eldest brother of the most accomplished players in Work To Ride’s history, Kareem and Daymar Rosser, and by all accounts more talented than either. But he punctuated years of brilliant play and edgy behavior—he always resisted the rules—by leaving the program at 16. Even now, at 21, he could easily return to polo, round back into form and go pro, playing for money in Florida or Argentina. Hiner’s door is open. But Jabarr chose a different path—one that now includes two arrests for drug dealing.
The lesson is raw: The streets can claim an innocent suddenly, as they did Mecca. Or they can get a kid the way they got Jabarr, slowly and insidiously. “I think people are hesitant to say it,” says Richard Prather, who knows Jabarr. “But the kids who go all the way, and truly get out, are special.”
He should know. Prather is a 32-year-old Work To Ride grad who now holds a master’s in criminal justice from New Mexico State University, with a concentration on at-risk youth. Prather says that while some kids will flee their volatile neighborhoods for Hiner’s peaceful horse stable, proximity to violence can still deaden their souls. “Poverty, shootings, drugs, is what these kids are used to,” says Prather, “and there is a sense of comfort in what’s normal. To embrace all the opportunities they get through Work To Ride and really get out—to free their minds—they essentially have to reject the neighborhood they sleep in every day, the kids they grew up with, maybe even their families. That’s hard for anyone to do. And we’re talking about children. It takes a special child, with a strong internal will, to do that.”