Meet the Alabama College Student Mowing Lawns of Needy Homeowners in All 50 States: It 'Gives People Pride'
"I felt like I'd won the lottery when he showed up to mow my lawn," Kelly Teeter says. "People need to help each other when we can."
You have your plans for summer vacation and Rodney Smith Jr. has his. You won’t find him sitting by a pool sipping margaritas or sprawled beneath a shady tree with a best-selling mystery novel, but you will find him behind a lawnmower, neatly cutting his way across America, one yard at a time.
It’s for a good cause: As the founder of Raising Men Lawn Care, Smith, 27, is driving coast-to-coast to cut at least one lawn in each state for a person in need, hoping to inspire others to follow his example in their own communities, all summer long.
Since he started his journey on May 10, the Alabama A&M University social work student has brought some “lawn and order” to 20 states, with help from Briggs & Stratton, a lawn mower engine company that donated equipment to Smith, along with travel expenses.
“With each lawn Rodney mows, he’s making someone’s life a little bit easier,” Rick Carpenter, the company’s vice-president of corporate marketing, tells PEOPLE. “He’s a great example — living a mission that’s making a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis.”
Smith, who grew up helping his neighbors in Bermuda, came up with the idea to mow lawns for the elderly, disabled, single-parent mothers and veterans about two years ago, when he saw a man struggling to mow his lawn in Huntsville, where he has lived since 2012.
“After I helped him, I got on Facebook that night and told everybody that if they heard of somebody else who needed a lawn cut to let me know,” he tells PEOPLE. “My goal was to cut 40 lawns and I ended up cutting 100. From there, it just grew.”
Last year, Smith started Raising Men Lawn Care to teach young men (and women) in Huntsville the importance of giving to those in need. People are often fined if they can’t cut their lawns, he says, and “there’s something about a well-groomed front yard that gives people pride.”
“My goal is two-fold — to ‘pay it forward’ and provide someone in need with a manicured lawn, and to teach kids to choose a positive path as they learn their value in society,” Smith says. “I have 60 kids now who help to mow lawns, and we’ve started chapters in six other states. My dream is take it nationwide.”
He’s well on his way now that he’s taking his lawnmower to all 50 states, stopping by the homes of people who have been nominated for free yard grooming on his website.
“In Texas, I mowed a lady’s lawn and she was so grateful that she broke down in tears,” he tells PEOPLE. “She told me that she hadn’t been able to cut her lawn in more than a year. It feels good to put a smile on somebody’s face. It’s the best reward imaginable.”
In Marysville, Washington, Danielle Ockerman, a single mom who works full-time as a physical therapist and has little time for outdoor chores, was surprised to hear Smith’s lawnmower roaring outside, late one afternoon.
“His work ethic and dedication is truly unbelievable,” she tells PEOPLE. “My mom nominated me on his website to have my lawn done, and meeting Rodney face to face and hugging him, it was like we’d been friends for years. He’s an incredibly kind person.”
Adds Kelly Teeter, a 50-year-old single mom who works three jobs in Portland, Oregon: “I felt like I’d won the lottery when he showed up to mow my lawn. People need to help each other when we can. My heart is big because of people like Rodney.”
Although he doesn’t accept payment for his service, Smith will be rewarded with a bit of R&R when he visits his final state, Hawaii, sometime in June.
“I’ll probably spend a little time on the beach after mowing a lawn or two,” he tells PEOPLE, “but then I need to get back to helping my kids mow lawns in Huntsville.”
The grass of summer, he says, “doesn’t stop growing for anyone.”