HUNTSVILLE, AL (AL.com) Last fall, Rodney Smith Jr. saw an elderly man mowing grass in front of his home.
"It looked like he was struggling," said Smith, a senior at Alabama A&M University. "I was watching him and it just hit me.
"I could do something about it."
Smith posted on Facebook, asking if any of his friends knew anyone who was elderly or disabled and needed their grass cut. He didn't have his own lawnmower, but he was willing to mow yards for free in his spare time between classes.
People gave him names of friends and folks they knew. He challenged himself to cut 40 lawns by winter. He searched Craigslist for a used lawnmower so he'd be able to cut grass for people who didn't own mowers. He found one, and when he told the owner what he was doing, the man gave him the mower for free.
By October, Smith had reached his 40-lawn goal. A month later, he'd cut 100 lawns. After WHNT News 19 gave him $319 as part of a "pay it forward" segment, Smith launched the "Raising Men Lawn Care Service."
Part lawncare company and part youth program, the service now has about 20 young men, ages 7-17, who cut lawns at no charge for the elderly, disabled, and for single mothers who don't have the time or resources to keep their yards freshly manicured.
Two days ago, Smith posted a photo on Facebook of himself, his partner Terrence Stroy and a woman whose lawn they had just cut.
In less than a week it had been liked by more than a million people and been shared more than 200,000 times.
"It just exploded," he said. "I have so many messages I can't even get back to everybody."
'Everybody helps everybody'
Smith is from Bermuda, where "everybody helps everybody if they can." He's soft-spoken and unassuming. He sounds both excited about and wary of his overnight fame.
His father built houses for a living, and Smith thinks his father's love of helping others rubbed off on him.
He came to the United States in 2009 and earned an associate's degree from Drake State Technical College.
He graduates in May from Alabama A&M with a degree in computer science.
"I want to go back and get my master's in social work," he said. "All of this has made me want to do social work. I love helping people."
Seven days a week, Smith is out cutting grass between classes. "I'll finish class, cut some grass, then go back to class. When I get out I cut some more grass."
His service receives recommendations through Facebook of people in the Huntsville area who need their lawn mowed. He and Stroy often post photos on the organization's Facebook page of boys in their program, smiling with the person whose lawn they just mowed.
"A lot of people, they can't afford it," he said. "They're on social security, barely making it, and they're happy we can do this every two weeks for them."
That's another thing. The lawn-mowing isn't just a one-time thing. The lawncare service visits its clients every two weeks to make sure their lawns stay tidy.
Smith said he's seen clients cry tears of joy when they see their lawns. "One lady had bone cancer and couldn't afford to pay someone to cut her grass. So many people have fallen on hard times and it feels good to be able to help them."
About 20 boys, ages 7 to 17 participate in the program. Their parents or friends contact the service through Facebook, and Smith sends them the sign-up forms.
"We get to know them and have a good time," said Smith. He and Stroy take them on outings and work with them on developing self-esteem, a strong work ethic and high moral standards. The boys cut grass, rake and bag leaves, and use weed eaters and trimmers.
They start out with white shirts, almost like a karate belt system. Once they've cut 10 lawns they get an orange shirt. Then a green shirt, blue and finally a black shirt once they've cut 50 lawns.
Sometime around the fifth lawn, he said, they start to understand the importance of what they're doing. They'll often ask when they get to go out to mow lawns again.
Smith's goal is to show them the importance of team work and camaraderie, and building leadership and listening skills.