Rodney laying on grass

The Man Who’s Mowing the World

Can one person teach us all to be better neighbors, one overgrown patch of grass at a time? Rodney Smith Jr. is sure of it.

It’s early February, not exactly prime grass-cutting season, but the lawn, speckled by faded leaves and maybe a blade or two overgrown, could use a trim. Rodney Smith Jr. has come about 700 miles to give it one.

Smith unloads his car on the street in front of the house, in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood. He’s traveling light. Usually, he brings a trimmer and a leaf blower. Today it’s just the lawnmower. The rest of the Ford SUV is filled with boxes of toy mowers and leaf bags as well as luggage and a smattering of fast food litter, the detritus of a long road trip, or several of them.

On the hood of the car, visible through the layers of   accumulated dust and highway grime, there’s a makeshift map of America fashioned from gas station magnets. All 50 states are accounted for, with the exception of Texas, which fell off somewhere on the road. Smith says he’s been meaning to replace it.

It’s unseasonably warm, even for Dallas. Wearing a baseball cap and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Raising Men Lawn Care Service,” Smith leaves the mower on the lawn and walks up the porch steps to the front door. He knocks.

A woman calls out from inside, through a window. “Who is it?”

Smith, straightforward, in a voice accented by his native Bermuda: “It’s Rodney.”

Faintly, another “Who?” comes through the window. Smith has never been to this house, never met the person inside. He did, however, receive a text the night before from one of the tens of thousands of people who follow him on social media, asking him to be here.

He tries again. This time he really gets to the point. “It’s the lawnmower man.”

That does it. Nellisia Session, a high school guidance counselor, soon comes out of the house. She had messaged the “lawnmower man” but seems a little surprised he showed up, lawnmower in tow. Session asks him to teach her 12-year-old son, Caysen, how to cut the grass. She’ll need the help once summer arrives, and, she says, “It’s time to give him more responsibilities.”

Within minutes, Smith gets to work, gathering leaves and showing Caysen how to start the mower like he’s already done this a thousand times before. Because he has—the traveling, the lawn care, the mentoring. Per his own estimate, more like 2,000 times before, actually. In all 50 states. And eventually, if things go according to plan, he’ll do it on every continent.

For the last few years, Smith, 30, has devoted himself to providing free lawn care for elderly and disabled people, single mothers, and veterans. Many of them can’t do it on their own and can’t afford to pay a service. He started in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2015, as a student at Alabama A&M University. Smith calls Huntsville home and continues to be one of the city’s most visible good Samaritans.

If he’s not doing yard work for his regulars around town, he’s distributing supplies to homeless people or speaking to students about his work. The nonprofit he founded in 2016, Raising Men Lawn Care Service, is still based there. Its reach, though, has grown, in large part because Smith instituted what he calls the 50 Yard Challenge, which asks boys and girls (despite its name, Smith’s service is also raising women) to mow 50 lawns of their own. Across the country and in a handful of others, hundreds of kids have taken part, he says.

There’s help from a friend in Huntsville, and Smith is supported by private donations and sponsorships. In 2017, Smith began taking his lawnmower on the road, traveling to all 50 states and providing free lawn care, a feat he has now repeated a few times, most recently in May for a tour he dedicated to veterans. In the winter, he shovels snow. In the fall, he rakes leaves. He hasn’t run out of lawns yet.

Smith’s trips across America have received plenty of media attention in the cities he visits, raising his profile outside of Alabama. But the operation remains, essentially, one guy with a mower, a car, and a heart that can’t be measured in acres. If he posts that he’s in your town, and you text the number he gives out on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, he’s likely to show up at your house the next day. His frequent updates are cheerful and earnest, a continuous feed of smiling roadside selfies, kids inspired to give back to their respective communities, and stories of small acts of kindness having a big effect.

Smith is putting on a show for his followers, sure, but this is also who he is. In person, if he keeps returning to the same kind of broad, heartwarming sentiments he uses online (“small acts of kindness having a big effect,” for example), it’s not because they provide easy answers or look good in a tweet. It’s because he believes in them.

“Anything can make a difference,” Smith says. “Bringing in groceries or just being there and talking to people. [You can go] house to house talking to people that you know don’t have company. There are many ways to make a difference. I have simply chosen a lawnmower.”

Smith aims to inspire, which makes social media almost as big a tool as his mower. Raising Men Lawn Care’s slogan, which Smith is quick to repeat, is “Making a difference one lawn at a time.” If he cuts the grass for someone in California, a girl in Texas might see it on Instagram and be motivated to do some good of her own in her hometown. That one lawn can have an outsize effect, something he tries to get across when he is invited to speak to kids. He gives young people a way to take responsibility and to take action.

“[I’m teaching] the importance of giving back to the community and of hard work,” he says. “Giving and helping others in need. That’s the main goal.”

He leads by example, down to his insistence on using a push mower, even under arduous circumstances. He once took on a 1.5-acre lawn at a veteran’s house in North Carolina. “What would it be like if I’m going around on a riding mower trying to encourage kids to take part in the 50 Yard Challenge with push mowers?” he says.

Smith is not too starry-eyed about his mission, or without a sense of humor—in videos he’s posted online, he’s donned a wig and Groucho Marx glasses to play a wacky TV news reporter commenting on Smith’s toy lawnmower races with children. And he has a knack for endearingly silly turns of phrase, smiling when he stumbles onto something like, “Mowing keeps you going.”

As a kid, he once entertained the idea of being a police officer because he thought the SWAT teams looked cool. Ask him today what he’d be doing if he weren’t mowing lawns, and he doesn’t know. Smith doesn’t overthink it. He mows lawns because he knows it’s what he was put on this earth to do. Recently, he’s taken to doing what he calls “mow-bys,” where he spots an especially untidy lawn and, unprompted, cuts the grass. If no one’s home, he leaves a short note. He does this wherever he goes.

“There’s grass everywhere,” he says. “Even in Alaska.”

He’s equally assured about his plan to mow lawns on every continent, although Smith admits it will require more resources than anything he’s done before. Regardless, he’s still hopeful he’ll be able to pull off the world tour this year. His ambitions depend partly on raising enough money, probably by bringing on more sponsors, but he’s already picking out places he wants to visit, and he says he will ask international followers to submit suggestions for people in need. The world’s a small place, Smith says.

“I’ll just hop on a plane and go.” He pauses for a beat. “It’s not that simple, but as long as I get the lawns.”

What about Antarctica?

He shrugs. “I’ll shovel snow.”

“There are many ways to make a difference. I have simply chosen a lawnmower.”

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.

He does it because he’s supposed to do it. The fact that he enjoys doing it is just a bonus.

Senecia, who moved from Bermuda to study accounting at Alabama A&M in 2016, was Smith’s roommate as well as his sister. (She graduated in May and has since returned to Bermuda.) She attests to his single-minded focus. “He’s up every morning before me and getting ready to go out the door to cut grass,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out what he does for fun, and he’s like, ‘This is my fun.’ I think he just makes up new ideas on how he can develop the program. And if he’s not doing that, then he’s mowing grass. Or driving to mow grass.”

Many kids participating in the 50 Yard Challenge, lacking a motivation equivalent to Smith’s cheerful embrace of duty, are prodded into it by their parents. Hundreds, including some as far as the United Kingdom and Australia, have taken part, and about 40 have so far succeeded in mowing 50 lawns. One element of the challenge is modeled after the karate belt system, with kids receiving a color-coded T-shirt for every 10 lawns they mow, culminating with a black T-shirt after lawn No. 50.  The shirts are one incentive. More often, there are better rewards.

“Some parents say that when their kids first start, it’s difficult. They don’t want to mow lawns,” Smith says. “But then they get out there and meet people.”

They meet people like Mary Gibbs, in Huntsville, who has her lawn mowed by Raising Men every two or three weeks and has come to call Smith her “grandson.” And people like Session, in Dallas, who wanted her son to learn something from Smith’s selflessness.

Erika Channel’s 12-year-old son, Michael, has mowed dozens of lawns in their neighborhood near Orlando. When he heard about the 50 Yard Challenge, he was eager to take it on. He’d always been a helpful youngster, but since Smith visited the family on a trip through Florida, Michael has become even more enthusiastic about giving back. “He’s been talking to his friends about signing up,” Channel says. “It puts a good head on his shoulders, that’s for sure.”

Kids who follow in Smith’s footsteps realize that they can make a difference, and that the phrase isn’t just a cliché on a T-shirt. Building connections with people in need is what gives Smith’s mission its purpose. That’s what will last. Otherwise they’re just cutting grass that keeps on growing back.

From Session’s house in Oak Cliff, it’s a 20-minute drive to the next address on Smith’s list. This will be his third stop—before visiting Session, he had mowed the lawn of an elderly woman in the southern suburb of Cedar Hill. She had been resting inside, and Smith didn’t want to bother her, so he was alone for his customary post-mow selfie: big smile, phone in his right hand, peace sign with his left. He later shared the photo with his “family,” as he calls his social media followers.

It’s just past noon on Super Bowl Sunday. Smith isn’t too interested in football, but he has another reason to keep an eye on the clock. He’s got more houses on his list today and hopes to get to them all before nightfall. He’s heading back to Alabama tomorrow, but in the morning he’ll drive to Fort Worth to give his lawnmower, donated by Toro, to a 9-year-old girl undertaking the 50 Yard Challenge. He’s been in touch with her parents and plans to surprise her with the gift. He’s going to get a few more mows out of it first, though.

When he arrives at the next house in East Dallas, the front lawn appears well-tended, and a locked gate blocks off the backyard. Smith gets out of the car and drops a few Skittles into his mouth from a bag he’s been nursing all day. He walks across the lawn and peers through the fence. The house is dark, and no one comes to the door when he knocks. This looks like a bust. Smith isn’t bothered. He uses one phone to make a call and takes out another to pull up a map.

The next lawn is in Denton, about 40 miles north of here. If he leaves now, he figures he can make it in under an hour. Maybe he’ll see a chance to help someone else out on the way. There’s grass everywhere.

Alex Macon is an editor of this magazine. Email him at [email protected].

Photography by Cary Norton

Originally Published August 2019