ATA Turftimes – The Turf Zone Show Host Interview
The Turf Zone: Welcome to the Turf Zone. In this episode, we’re talking to Rodney Smith, Jr. of Raising Men Lawn Care. Rodney, thanks for joining us.
Rodney Smith, Jr.: Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.
TTZ: I want to start and let you introduce yourself and what you do. What is Raising Men Lawn Care?
RS: Raising Men Lawn Care Service is a nonprofit organization and we mow free lawns for the elderly, disabled, single parents and veterans. We have kids nationwide and also in a few countries world-wide taking part in our program and doing free lawns in their communities, so that’s what we do.
TTZ: Where did that idea come from? How did you start this business?
RS: Back in 2015, I was driving, leaving school one day and I came across this elderly man outside mowing his lawn, it looked like he was struggling, so I pulled over and helped him out. That night I just decided, look, I’m going to start mowing free lawns for the elderly, disabled, single parents and veterans. At first my goal was to mow 40 lawns by the end of winter, because at the time I was getting my bachelor’s in computer science and I thought I could mow 40 lawns in between classes. So I was going to class and mowing lawns and leaving the lawn to go to class and then come back and do another lawn. I was doing that – I done it so quick — that I upped my goal to 100. A month and a half later I mowed my 100th lawn and that’s when I came up with the idea of Raising Men Lawn Care Service, where I would still mow free lawns for the elderly, disabled, single parents and veterans, but now I would also include kids ages 7 to 17 and show them the importance of giving back to their community with a lawn mower. That’s how it all started.
TTZ: That’s amazing! So how many youth do you have involved in your program now?
RS: Right now we have about 500+, I guess. I don’t the exact number, but I can tell you it’s about 530 kids nationwide, and worldwide we have 2 kids in Canada, 7 in Bermuda, 3 in Australia and 2 in Germany that are taking part in our 50 Yard Challenge, so it’s a lot of kids.
TTZ: When you started out with that goal of 40 and then 100 lawns, did you ever imagine that it would be nationwide and have so many people participating both from the working end (the people volunteering to do those lawns for free) and the people you’re serving?
RS: No, I had no idea where it would take me. At the time, I just thought of just helping people in my community, that’s all I was doing and seeing the support that comes from it nationally, it’s kind of amazing. We started in Huntsville, Alabama, but we started to see people wanting the service nationwide and it kinda gave me the idea of, that’s where we got the 50 Yard Challenge where we got kids involved in just about every single state. The only state we don’t have a kid in is Rhode Island. I would never have imagined it would be where it is today. The best way to put it is God had the book already written and I just had to read the book and go chapter to chapter and get started and chapter one was when I came across the elderly man, so I believe there’s a lot more chapters to go.
TTZ: So this has kind of evolved into you’ve started doing a lot of public speaking and you’re on tour. How did that element come into play?
RS: Yeah, public speaking. I remember during the time of starting, when I was mowing my 40 lawns, I believe during that time I had a speech class and I had a C in it – speaking was never really my thing. Now I’m doing public speaking and talking at events, but now I feel so comfortable because I’m talking about something I love and I do it every single day, so it comes easy, but the way I came across going to all 50 states mowing lawns – I’ve done it 6 times now, 6 times in total I’ve gone to all 50 states – this whole foundation was started, I found my true purpose in life and that was helping people and after I got my Bachelor’s in Computer Science, I decided I’d go get my Master’s in Social Work. During my first year of getting my Master’s in Social Work, I was at my internship on my lunch break and looking at Netflix and skimming through one of the things I watch, documentaries. One of the documentaries I watch is this guy who had traveled the world off the acts of kindness of others and he’s just being kind to people. That gave me the idea of 50 States, 50 Lawns. That was February 2017 and I soon as the idea came to me, I started writing it down – Look, I’m going to go to all 50 states and mow free lawns for the elderly, disabled, single parents and veterans and make people aware of the foundation and encourage people to join the 50 Yard Challenge – get kids to join the 50 Yard Challenge. At this time, I probably had about 100 kids, probably less, maybe 60 taking part in the 50 Yard Challenge. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I was going to do it. Before deciding I was officially going to do it, the farthest I had driven was about 3 hours, but now I’ve decided to go across the whole country. I didn’t know – I said I’m going to do it. At this time as well, Briggs & Stratton, the world’s largest maker of small lawn mower engines, they were supporters of the organization, they’d done a short clip on us, and I was very close with one of their PR guys and I told him this is what I was going to do. He ended up going back to Briggs & Stratton and telling them “Look, Rodney’s about to go to all 50 states.” And I asked him to ask Briggs & Stratton if they could just give me a lawn mower for this trip, and he got back to me and said that Briggs & Stratton would like to help fund the whole trip. Wow! So in 2017 I was just driving around that summer to all 50 states. Driving to 48, then flying to Alaska and Hawaii. So that was the summer of 2017 and I decided again in 2018 that I wanted to get back on the road and do it again, but this time I wanted to stop at schools and organizations and talk to kids about the importance of lawnmower safety, the importance of community service and encouraging kids to take part in the 50 Yard Challenge. So I did it the summer of 2018 again and that was the tour that really exploded because it got a lot of national attention. So that was the second time, and the third time I ended up going in October 2018, a few months after, but this time I teamed up with a guy by the name of Uri Williams. He dresses up as Spiderman and he goes to children’s hospitals to visit sick kids, so yeah, I went to all 50 states again, with him tagging along. Along with me mowing, we also stopped at children’s hospitals to visit kids with cancer and made a few home visit to visit kids who were very sick and also made home visits to kids that were getting bullied in school to show them some encouragement. So that was my third time in October 2018, and in December 2018 I decided I wanted to do something different. I had a huge following at this point in time on social media and always did things for the homeless community locally in Huntsville, Alabama so I decided I want to do something nationwide for the homeless in each state, so I got in my car again, driving to all 48 states, then flying to Alaska and Hawaii, giving out gifts to the homeless for Christmas, dressed up as Santa Claus. This whole time – it was just a wonderful experience. So that’s my fourth time and my fifth time was 2019, I did it again. So yeah, six times altogether, just finished my police mowing tour. So that’s how it all started, just from an idea.
TTZ: It’s amazing that you’ve had that amount of growth in that relatively short period of time. What I think resonates in general is that it’s a service-related project, but also (and I think this is what the turfgrass industry picks up on) you’re teaching work ethic, but you’re also teaching actual marketable skills. You’ve spoken at different turfgrass conferences for associations and I think that’s what the industry loves. With us facing some work force challenges, you’re giving kids skills that they can – if they’re going to join the workforce right out of high school, they have this experience from a service perspective, but also they can come into the workforce and be a part of the turfgrass industry and be a part of helping grow that and keep it strong and healthy. Was that just a nice side effect, or was that in your mind as you started going through it?
RS: It just happened naturally. I really didn’t know where it was going and I still don’t know where it’s going. I’m still reading the book. It’s just amazing to see the turfgrass industry showing so much love. I never expected to be talking to different turf conferences. I did keynote speaking for social work because I got a Master’s in that, but never expected to be talking to different turfgrass conferences. It’s kind of amazing to see what has happened.
TTZ: It is amazing – the growth and the good you’re doing for the youth and the people whose lawns you’re mowing. Is there a memorable story from somebody who has been a part of the program, either on the receiving end of the free lawn mowing, or the people who are doing the work?
RS: You hear back from a lot of parents. There’s one kid by the name of Vasily, and he signed up about two years ago and his mom was telling me he’s just a shy kid in school. He lived way up somewhere in Michigan, on the border, almost near Canada. And his mom was just telling me that he was a very shy kid before taking part of the 50 Yard Challenge. He’s opened up, he’s meeting people, and one of the favorite people that he met during this whole mowing experience was the veterans. He built a strong connection with all the veterans in this community. And sadly, that one of the veterans has passed while he’s been mowing and that really affected him, but he’s no longer shy, he’s doing more things in his community and his mom thinks that it’s because of him taking part in the 50 Yard Challenge and getting out there and talking and meeting people. Before he was just inside playing video games. And he’s even started his own little movement. He made a bench called The Buddy Bench, where kids who get bullied in school—if a kid is getting bullied, they can just come to that bench and others can comfort them. It’s cool to see different kids evolve. For my whole travels, going to all 50 states, I’ve met a lot of amazing people and some of the amazing people I’ve met have been veterans. I believe my fifth tour, a tour called “Thank You for your Service,” we went to all 50 states just thanking veterans for their service, and I came across so many World War II veterans. They would share their stories with me. Every time they talked, it was like I was a kid being told a story during story time because they remember everything so clearly, like it was just yesterday. I was like Wow, they’ve done so much and they overcame so much during their time in war. So a lot of amazing stories that I’ve come across and a lot of people.
TTZ: I love those great connections from shy kids to veterans who experienced so much and the service aspect and the turfgrass industry, it really all comes together so nicely. I know that everybody I talk to in the turf industry kind of has that foundational story of “well, I got interested in this type of career when I was a kid mowing lawns for spending money or I was mowing my grandma’s lawn because my dad made me…” But I love that you give that a positive spin – “Hey, I mowed lawns because it helped people and it made an impact.” And the confidence that gives the kids in the program that they can do something useful and helpful and they can make a difference, that really is an incredible aspect of the work you’re doing — for the kids, for veterans, for the elderly – for everyone you’re serving and for this industry as a whole.
Rodney, in closing, what are your goals for the next few years, the next steps for Raising Men?
RS: So the goals for Raising Men, you know we have also started a program, a sister program called Raising Women, where we’re trying to encourage young ladies to be a part as well, so when young ladies join the 50 Yard Challenge, they get a Raising Women tee shirt. The goal is to someday be in all 50 states, have chapters in all 50 states. Because I’ve realizes by traveling to all 50 states that it’s a needed service, not just in Alabama, but nationwide and even worldwide, so that’s the goal someday to have chapters in all 50 states and have more kids nationwide taking part because it’s important that kids learn to give before they receive. They should start young, don’t wait until they get old to give. Let’s start them young and show them the importance of giving back to the community first. That’s the goal of Raising Men Lawn Care Service and Raising Women – is to be an organization like Big Brothers and Big Sisters and help people nationwide and eventually worldwide, so that’s a big goal.
TTZ: It’s a big goal, but it’s a great one. It seems like you’re well on your way. Thank you again Rodney for taking the time to talk to us today. If you’d like to support Raising Men, you can visit their website at weareraisingmen.com. You have options to donate, Rodney has an Amazon wish list to help support this organization and you check out Rodney, you can Google him and see some great, encouraging news stories. Check out our show notes for these resources, and as always, follow us on theturfzone.com.READ THE ISSUE