Feb. 21 2019 05:57 AM

Rodney Smith Jr.’s desire to help others is building character in young people while benefiting those in need of lawn care services across the country and beyond.

It was just another ordinary day in Huntsville, Alabama. Rodney Smith Jr., a student at Alabama A&M University, was driving through a typical neighborhood when he happened to spot an older gentleman in front of his house mowing his lawn. The man looked as though he was having a difficult time of it, so Smith, without even giving it a second thought, decided to step in.

“He looked like he was struggling, so I pulled over and I helped him out.”

He didn’t know it then, but that ordinary day in an ordinary neighborhood would lead to an extraordinary effort that would enhance people’s lives and profoundly change others. His single, random act of kindness became the driving force behind a much bigger idea.

That same night, Smith decided this gift of service was going to be more than just a one-time thing. “I decided I would start mowing lawns for free for the elderly, the disabled, single moms and military veterans,” he says.

The year was 2015, and Smith was in his senior year of college working toward his bachelor’s degree in computer science. Despite his demanding college major, he set a goal to mow 40 lawns by the end of winter. When he met that goal well ahead of schedule, he upped it to 100 lawns. A month and a half later, he achieved the 100 lawn goal, too. That’s when he decided he could do something even bigger yet and get young people involved in the effort as well. And Raising Men Lawn Care Service was born.

Mowing multiplied

Smith figured that including kids aged seven to 17 in mowing lawns for those who needed help would show them the importance of giving back to their communities. “So the foundation just took off, just like that,” he says.

To recruit kid volunteers, he came up with the 50 Yard Challenge. “The 50 Yard Challenge was issued to kids nationwide, and even worldwide, to mow 50 lawns free for the elderly, the disabled, single moms and veterans,” Smith explains.

It’s easy for a volunteer to get started. The youngster simply sends a picture to RMLCS stating “I accept the 50 Yard Challenge.” RMLCS then sends the child a white T-shirt bearing the RMLCS logo and he’s ready to roll. Once a volunteer has mowed 10 lawns, he gets an orange shirt. Mowing 20 lawns earns a green shirt; 30, blue and 40, red. Upon mowing his 50th lawn, RMLCS awards a kid a black tee. Smith likens it to the karate system where you earn different colored belts as you progress through each level.

Don’t be fooled by the name Raising Men Lawn Care Service — young women can, and do, participate. Their T-shirts say Raising Women Lawn Care Service.

Once a young volunteer mows 50 lawns, it’s a big deal. Rodney and his team will fly or drive out to mow lawns alongside him. But that’s not all; a challenge completer also gets a brand new mower, a weed eater and a blower from RMLCS. “The goal is to keep kids volunteering in the program,” Smith says.

“To date, we have 25 kids who have completed the challenge, and 280 kids total, including one in Canada, seven in Bermuda and three in Australia who are taking part in this challenge.” Looks like Smith’s going to have a lot of travel coming up.

Simple, but needed

Smith has seen how volunteering has helped many shy kids come out of their shells. “Now that they’re getting out in the community, they’re talking more and getting more active,” he says. “By getting out there and getting to know people and their stories, it helps build relationships. It also gives them something to do and puts them on a positive path.” He hopes that by giving them the tools, the kids will keep mowing lawns well after they complete the challenge and encourage their friends and families to volunteer, too.

You might be wondering how RMLCS gets the money and equipment it needs to keep the foundation going. It all comes from private donations. People can donate money at www.weareraisingmen.com or can purchase equipment on RMLCS’ Amazon Wish List.

Social media and the RMLCS website play an integral role in keeping donations flowing and finding new volunteers and clients. People can submit names of those needing free services on the website. So far, donations have come in from more than 100,000 people and organizations.

Smith never anticipated the foundation growing this big, saying he didn’t do much to spread the word other than post pictures on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Certainly, Smith’s positive attitude, friendly personality and contagious smile has something to do with it. But he’s humble about the success of the foundation he started, saying, “You can never expect something like this to grow. It just grew naturally.”

Since the beginning of the 50 Yard Challenge, the number of lawns mowed has climbed into the hundreds, maybe even the thousands; Smith says there’s too many to count. The volunteers also rake leaves, weed eat and shovel snow.

This free lawn maintenance means the world to people on fixed incomes. “I hear from a lot of veterans who wish they could mow their own lawns because they like keeping them up; it gives them a sense of pride,” Smith says. “If you can come cut their lawn and maintain it for them, it gives them back that sense of pride that they seek with their lawn. They feel happy about having a nice, clean, cut lawn.”

There’s another important aspect to RMLCS services that goes beyond giving people’s pride back. Oftentimes people who can’t cut their lawns and can’t afford to have someone do it for them, can be fined by the cities they live in. “When we can come do it for free, it gets the city off their backs, and they can save that money for food and medication,” says Smith. “It’s a much-needed service, and it gets the kids involved. It’s something that’s so simple but so needed.”

For all the time and effort Smith puts into RMLCS, he doesn’t take a salary. He earns money as a keynote speaker, talking to industry groups and kids about the foundation. He relies on some friends to help on a local level, but he’s basically a one-man show. “I mainly do everything myself,” he says.

Going places

What is Smith’s favorite part of the job? “Meeting people and doing their lawns,” he replies. He’s travelled to all 50 states to do just that, and he’s done it four times so far. It’s been a powerful experience for him each time.

“It’s seeing that this is needed everywhere — not just in my community, or in the United States, it is a worldwide need that we are fulfilling,” he observes.

In 2018, Smith drove across the U.S. mowing nearly 130 lawns for free. It took him approximately two months to get to every state. Briggs & Stratton, Milwaukee, financed the trip and provided the outdoor power equipment he needed.

The purpose of the trip was to raise awareness for RMLCS. And it was a success, considering how much media coverage he got. He still gets a lot of attention on both local and national levels as he travels from state to state and city to city, always with that broadly smiling face, ready to get to work and pose for a selfie with those he’s helping or with the welcome sign of the state he is in.

All this exposure and the subsequent overwhelming response has led Smith to realize that this is what he wants to do with his life. So much for that computer science degree.

“I got my bachelor’s in computer science, and then I found my true purpose, which is helping people. So I went back to get my master’s in social work. I believe that what I’m doing now is close to being social work,” he says.

Smith, originally from Bermuda, moved to the U.S. when he was 16 to attend Maplebrook School, an international boarding school in upstate New York.

After graduation, he moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for six months before landing in Alabama to attend college. Today, the 29-year-old calls Madison, Alabama, home.

Smith still thinks back to the very first gentleman whose lawn he helped mow and the reaction he got from him. “He was shocked. He didn’t expect anyone to pull over and help out.”

Now that he’s encouraged so many kids in other communities to volunteer their services, he’s hoping that the act of giving a helping hand to those who need it won’t come as such a surprise anymore. He encourages others to take the bull by the horns, or should we say, the mower by the handle.

“So many people say they have all these ideas, but they don’t do anything about it. Ideas come to you for a reason. If you don’t do it, someone else will take the opportunity,” Smith says.

Just maybe, some of these young men or women volunteers will one day turn their childhood green industry experiences into a profession. And maybe the next time we see someone in need, we will follow Smith’s example and help out.

From mow, mow, mow to ho, ho, ho

Rodney Smith Jr. may be best known for the joy he spreads with Raising Men Lawn Care Service, but this past Christmas he was spreading cheer in a more festive way. Rather than travel across the country to mow lawns, he decided to don a Santa Claus costume, complete with the red suit, hat and curly white beard to spread Christmas cheer to another needy group — the homeless. In every city he visited, he surprised homeless people with gifts.

People heard about Smith’s Santa visits on RMLCS’ social media pages and started making donations toward his expenses. His efforts even caught the attention of a major news network. CNN included Smith in an article titled “Five people who inspired us in 2018 — and the impact they continue to have.”

You can see pictures of him with some of the folks he visited and the states he went to on the RMLCS Instagram page.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kristinsmithely@igin.com.