rodney smith high five cnnheroes
CNN Heroes Salutes: Inspiring kids 'one lawn at a time'
02:18 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Anyone who has had a tough time convincing their kid to mow the lawn may want to enlist the help of Rodney Smith Jr.

Over the last five years, he has inspired thousands of young people to mow dozens of yards in their communities for free, often for people they just met.

How does Smith do it? He leads by example.

Smith, 33, is the founder of Raising Men & Women Lawn Care Service in Huntsville, Alabama. He and the organization’s volunteers help anyone who may need it, including seniors, the disabled, single parents, and veterans.

“My mission in life is to give back,” he said. “Especially to those who need it the most.”

In 2017, Smith decided to take this idea nationwide – and he personally mowed at least one lawn for free in all 50 states.

Since then, he has completed 10 US tours where he raised awareness about causes including breast cancer and veterans’ issues. On these tours, Smith cut grass with custom-painted mowers that he ultimately auctioned off, raising money for related charities.

Smith’s “mow with a cop” tour invited community members to mow lawns with local officers. He used mowers decorated to look like police cars and then donated them to local police departments so they could continue building these relationships after Smith’s tour.

“When I first started the organization, I really didn’t have a clear vision,” he said. “But as it started to go on, I realized the vision was to encourage kids.”

Smith decided to turn his tours into a movement he named the 50 Yard Challenge. He called on young people across the country to mow 50 lawns in their communities. Smith sends participants a T-shirt along with ear and eye protection. The kids then post photos of the lawns they mowed, and for every 10, Smith sends them a different color T-shirt.

“And once they mow 50 lawns, I drive to wherever they are, I present them a brand-new mower, weed eater and blower,” he said.

To date, Smith said more than 2,000 kids have registered across the US and in eight other countries. He believes the pandemic helped inspire more young people to sign up. The response was so strong this year that Smith said he had to cut off new registrations at 600.

For Smith, it’s all about getting kids out there to “make a difference one lawn at a time.”

“A lot of the people that we mow for … are on fixed incomes. So, when we can come mow for free, that allows them to use their actual funds for food and medication and things they really need.”

One requirement of the 50 Yard Challenge is for participants to find their own lawns to mow. This is important to Smith who wants to inspire them to go out and meet people they likely would not have otherwise met.

Smith shared the story of 16-year-old Wesley from Michigan, who has taken part in the 50 Yard Challenge three times.

Wesley’s mother told Smith that he was a shy kid who kept to himself when he started the challenge. Yet as Wesley began meeting the veterans he mowed for, he learned about their stories and formed new friendships.

Encouraging kids to open up is part of Smith’s vision for the challenge.

“This program affected his life in a positive way,” he said. “So, you got kids like that, like Wesley, all over the country.”

With the success of Smith’s efforts, it may be hard to believe that mowing lawns was a chore he disliked growing up. That changed during his senior year in college when Smith spotted an elderly man struggling to mow his lawn and pulled over to help him. That night Smith decided to start mowing lawns for others in need for free.

“God took something I disliked and turned it into something now I love to do,” he said.

Smith has no plans to stop any time soon. He wants to expand his 50 state tours to all seven continents. He also hopes to get even more young people involved with the 50 Yard Challenge by growing his organization to include chapters across the country.