WASHINGTON - With all the rain the Washington area had been getting, it seemed to Tania Castro as if the weeds were growing three inches a day.
She had bought a house on half an acre in Lusby, Maryland last year, but now the lot felt impossibly large. A single mom of three kids, the youngest of whom has autism, Castro works 60 hours a week and hadn't stayed on top of the mowing.
By late spring, the lawn had sprouted vegetation so tall and thick that she couldn't get a mower through, and professional services were quoting her astronomical fees. Castro, 44, was stressed - and unsure what to do.
Then a man with a mower came along, and took care of the whole thing. For free.
Rodney Smith, Jr., 28, is driving across the United States in search of people like Castro - single moms, veterans, disabled people and older people who need help with their lawns.
"A lot of them are on fixed incomes and they really can't afford to pay someone," said Smith, who lives in Hunstville, Alabama. Traveling around the country, he said, "I realized that it's a bigger need than I thought."
He has mowed pocket-size yards and vast expanses, with a goal of doing a lawn in all 50 states. And he is hoping to inspire a new generation to follow his example.
Three years ago, Smith, who is from Bermuda, came across an older man mowing his lawn and stopped to help him. Smith had been looking for a cause or a calling, he said, and the experience clicked: He set a goal of mowing 40 lawns for people in need of help. Then he upped it to 100.
The following year he started an organization, Raising Men Lawn Care Service, that gets kids between 7 and 17 to do the same. So far 130 kids - mostly in the United States but also in Canada, Bermuda, Australia and the United Kingdom - have signed on to his 50-yard challenge of mowing 50 lawns for those in need.
Smith himself is far past that goal; he has mowed around 2,000. Last summer, he mowed 50 lawns across 50 states at a rate of two or three states a day. This summer, he is taking it more slowly, stopping in each state to spread the word about community service and lawn-mower safety, and signing up more young people for the challenge. So far he has checked off more than 30 states.
His funding comes from Briggs & Stratton, a Milwaukee company that makes lawn mowers, and from private donations.
Smith loads his car with a gas-powered push mower and an electric weed-eater and blower, and uses social media to find lawns. He announces where he is heading next and asks if anyone knows someone in that state who needs a mow.
That's how he got connected with retired Staff Sgt. Joseph Gruzinski, 85, a Korean War veteran in Lithicum Heights, Maryland. Smith mowed his lawn last year and returned this year for a repeat visit.
"It made me feel great," Gruzinski said. "He really looks out for the veterans and seniors where others don't give a hoot."
Smith did a good job, he added. "He trimmed some of the flowers and everything else up in front."
When Castro, the single mom, heard about Smith, she messaged him, figuring she wouldn't hear back. "Well, he responded to me in 10 minutes, saying, 'I can be there tomorrow or Tuesday.' "
Her lawn, which is on a hill, was so overgrown that she felt guilty when he showed up. But he took it in stride.
"I felt humbled and grateful, thankful and just blessed," Castro said. "I couldn't believe that just a stranger would do that. My ex wouldn't do that."
With the lawn cut back, Castro said she is now able to get a mower through it and stay on top of it.
Ironically, Smith, who recently completed a masters in social work, never liked mowing lawns when he was younger.
"G od took something I disliked and turned it into something I now love to do," he said. "It's relaxing. And then to see the smile on the faces of people whose lawn I do. A lot of people take pride in their yard, and it feels good to see that I made a difference in their life."