Caysen, mowing his first lawn at age 12, is not a natural. With Smith’s help, though, he gets the hang of starting the engine. Staying in a straight line is more of a struggle. Mom looks pleased regardless as Caysen and Smith fill a paper bag with dead leaves and move on to the backyard. Caysen improves and seems increasingly confident about the prospect of doing this on his own in the summer. Caysen’s a cutup, so it’s hard to tell when he’s being serious, but he seems more sincere about wanting to help his mother than he does about his career aspirations of becoming a rapper like Cardi B.
Afterward, Smith, Caysen, and Session pose for a selfie, which Smith will upload to Facebook later that day. Caysen and Smith then make quick work of another lawn down the street, at a house that belonged to Session’s late mother. Smith proposes a “mow-by” at yet another house a few doors down, where the grass is especially untidy, but a woman inside peeks out a window and doesn’t come to the door. Smith speaks some more with Caysen and his mother and says he’ll keep in touch. He may be back in Dallas later this year and can check in then.
Smith knows what it’s like to be in Caysen’s shoes. He cut grass for the first time while growing up in Bermuda. His father owned several properties, and Smith would help out with the lawn work and gardening. It was, like many chores, not especially memorable or pleasant, and there wasn’t much of a hint then that he would one day lead a life dedicated to charitable landscaping. He was fortunate to have strong role models and credits his father and an uncle, who died when Smith was young, as influential figures. His family remains supportive—in Raising Men Lawn Care’s early days, he could count on his mother for gas money.
Senecia Smith, Rodney’s younger sister by six years, says her brother has always had a quiet and humble attitude. When their parents divorced, Smith was a steadying force. “It was hard,” Senecia says. “Rodney stayed positive about it. I guess he was trying to stay positive for me because I’m always worrying.”
For his final two years of high school, Smith went to a boarding school for students with learning disabilities in upstate New York. He had struggled keeping up with his studies. Once placed in an environment where he could learn at his own pace, he began to excel. “As I grew up, I realized that everyone has potential. It just needs to be tapped into,” he says. “Everyone’s good at something.”
After high school, he went to a technical college in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was truly alone for the first time, far from family and friends. He’s had practice telling most of the following story, for good reason. In the saga of Rodney Smith Jr., it’s a turning point, the moment he began to see his future. In comic book terms, it’s his origin story, the birth of Lawnmower Man.
“I was [in Florida] for about six months, and it was the worst time of my life,” he says. “During those six months, I asked God to use me as His vessel. He didn’t give me an answer that day, not a month later, not even a year later.”
It would be several more years, Smith says, before he got his sign. By this time, he had left Florida and, after a few months back in Bermuda, returned to school, this time in Alabama. He graduated from a technical college in Huntsville and began pursuing a bachelor’s in computer science at Alabama A&M. He was in his senior year there, driving one day, when he saw an older man struggling to mow the lawn. Smith pulled over, got out, and helped. This was what he’d been waiting for. And once that happens, once you realize the meaning of your life might smell an awful lot like freshly cut grass, you don’t have to ask too many more questions.
Smith started mowing lawns for free around Huntsville, following tips he got online. He had to borrow a lawnmower for the first five or six until a man gave a used lawnmower to Smith after hearing his story. A goal to cut 40 lawns became 100 lawns. A friend, Terrence Stroy, joined him. Together, they recruited local kids, adding the notion of instilling values in young people to their still-forming mission. They founded the Raising Men Lawn Care nonprofit the next year. Smith graduated, and then went back to school for a master’s degree, this time in social work. In 2017, he began crisscrossing the country and hasn’t stopped.
Ever since his fateful encounter with the elderly man in Alabama, Smith has known what to do. When he tells kids to follow their hearts, he means it. It’s worked for him. There’s a reason he can be so casual about, say, the logistical challenges of going to Antarctica to shovel snow. Smith recalls days, early on, when donations were scarce and Raising Men’s future was uncertain. Whenever things seemed to be at their most dire, he would receive a needed equipment donation or get just enough gas money to keep going.
He seems driven by a matter-of-fact sense of his own destiny, a belief that permeates everything he does. He began traveling to give gifts to homeless people at Christmastime because he “just came across a homeless man on my way to a lawn one day, and it gave me the idea.” He expanded his nonprofit work to a fundraising program for families in need because he has the platform to make it possible and it felt right. He visits those families in person and mows lawns along the way because of course he does.
Smith says he doesn’t mind the travel. The country doesn’t feel so big anymore. Every state has its own personality, but people everywhere are pretty much the same. The road now seems like home, in some ways. When he returns to Huntsville, he’s almost ready to leave again. Characteristically, he downplays the physical toll of mowing all day. “It’s just walking,” he says. But in one year he put 100,000 miles on his Ford, and the long rides are enough to make anybody stiff.
Sometimes people will put Smith up in a hotel. He eats Subway, mostly. He likes the occasional burger. He cops to watching TV every now and then but won’t fess up to much of a personal life. (He’s not opposed to finding a girlfriend, but his mission comes first.) Raising Men Lawn Care is what he does, and it’s what he wakes up wanting to do. He does it because he’s supposed to do it. The fact that he enjoys doing it is just a bonus.