How mowing lawns is changing lives

Generation Green - Generation Green

An after-school program in Detroit is using landscaping to prepare students for their future.

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June 4, 2020

Lawn Academy students gear up for the first snow day.
Photos courtesy of Eric Miller

Mowing lawns might not be their end-goal, but for the students at Lawn Academy, it’s what is giving them a jump start into their futures.

Founded by Eric Miller, Lawn Academy aims to provide Detroit’s youth with purposeful work and a strong connection to the community, all while providing a free service to the community’s elderly, disabled and veterans.

“It lets us provide an avenue for youth to gain self-reliance and positively contribute to their communities,” Miller says.

Last year, the program opened new computer labs for the students who also assisted in the design.

A safe bet.

He moved to the Detroit area at the height of the city’s bankruptcy and saw countless homes and neighborhoods being left behind. Even after being relocated for his job eight times prior to his move to Detroit, Miller realized one thing never changed.

“No matter where you go, the urban landscape looks about the same. A lot of youth just need direction, so no matter where you go, it's the same story,” he says. “I was kind of pressed about 10 years ago to do something that would give back to the community. I thought to myself, ‘what did I do when I was younger?’ I mowed lawns.”

So, 10 years ago on the corner of 7 Mile Road and Evergreen, Lawn Academy started with three mowers, Miller, his son and a volunteer. Now, the program has seen well over 200 students pass through.

Miller works with an age group (students ages 11-14) that often gets taken advantage of in the city. The children and teens are easy targets for criminals and gangs. “In Detroit, the youth are not hurting, they’re dying,” he says.

Working in the neighborhoods drew attention to Miller and his small team. Soon enough, neighborhood kids would join Miller. Parents would send their children down the street to help out, and word of Miller’s efforts spread from there. Once more neighborhood kids started helping out, Miller realized he could do more for them. Several years ago, he decided to offer a stipend to the students for spending their summer days working on the lawns alongside him.

“I want them to understand the relationship between doing something that's good for someone else and receiving a positive reward,” he says. “I wanted them to know how the exchange happens and that it doesn't come by robbing people and things like that. You go out there, you work hard, you do something good for someone else and you're going to get taken care of in some way.”

Lawn care gives Detroit-area students a productive outlet after school and on weekends.
Photos courtesy of Eric Miller

Making it official.

Three years ago, Miller once again felt he could be doing more. And, frankly, with all the funds for equipment and stipends coming out of the pockets of him and his wife, he was maxed out. At a town hall meeting with the mayor of Detroit, Miller shared what he had been doing for the community. The mayor was impressed with the service and added Lawn Academy to Detroit’s summer jobs initiative which pays children who work during the summer.

Life lessons.

As Miller got to know the students working through Lawn Academy, he heard a statistic that stopped him in his tracks.

“In Detroit, 36% of African American male’s graduate…(that’s saying) one out of every three have even graduated from high school,” he says. “So that conversation of college probably isn’t even happening.”

He focused the Lawn Academy around the 6 C’s of child development after he realized those were the areas that the Detroit youth was really lacking: Competency, confidence, connection, character, compassion and contribution.

“I look at it as not being just a lawn that you look at, I look at it as a canvas to teach a lesson. When I look at that lawn, it's an opportunity for us to increase their character or develop their character,” Miller says. “To say, you know what, the person that I'm taking care of does not have the capacity to even come out to do anything to this lawn…they are 100% dependent upon me to do this.”

Miller teaches the Lawn Academy students that even though these homeowners might not even be able to come outside to check on their work, it’s imperative they complete everything need to do.

“It’s not about how the yard looks from the street, it’s about how the yard looks behind the bushes,” he says.

The students also offer snow services, which Miller says they really enjoy doing. The group recently ‘adopted’ a senior citizen home called Friendship Meadows. The students, their families, and 18 master gardeners teamed up to plant 203 rose bushes – one for every citizen at the home – along with gardens for other plants and vegetables.

Interest in the program is growing, Miller says. And, he anticipates about 140 students coming through the program just this summer which will help keep up with the demand for work. “There’s more and more people calling me that are 80 years or older,” he says. “So we need about four more mobile units to get more teams in action to keep up.”

Giving back to the community is a key pillar of Lawn Academy's mission.

Beyond the lawn.

Lawn Academy also partners with Wayne County Community College to get students into a college setting as early as 11 years old. “It gives a positive experience being on a college campus, taking the class so that they can say ‘you know what? I can do this.’ Then it encourages a conversation at home,” Miller says.

At WCCC, Lawn Academy students sit through courses designed to prepare them as professionals rather than catering to particular career field.

Two new computer labs were opened and designed by students at the Lawn Academy headquarters as well.

Miller also helped initiate an after-school program partnering with AmeriCorps for tutoring and homework help. Lawn Academy students have also joined with the University of Iowa for a mentorship program. The students read the same books throughout the year and will meet for the first time this month for a museum field trip.

Miller says a quote from his mother inscribed on the walls of the computer lab perfectly sums up Lawn Academy’s mission: “Every youth has the capacity to learn. We all learn via different methods.”