Phoenix Browne worked hard for his brand new lawnmower this summer.
Over about a month, the Chesapeake 12-year-old cut grass in yard after yard — 50 in all — around Hampton Roads, battling the heat and humidity.
And he did it all for free.
Browne had taken on what the national organization Raising Men Lawn Care Service calls the “50 Yard Challenge.”
It challenges young people to cut the lawns of 50 people who are veterans, single parents, elderly or have disabilities. When someone completes it, they get a new lawnmower from the organization.
“At first I was kind of nervous because it was such a big number,” said Browne, who previously attended Mt. Pleasant Christian School but is now being homeschooled in the seventh grade. “I didn’t think I’d get it done in time. … But it’s really worth it.”
Chesapeake city officials agree. At the city council meeting Tuesday, Browne will receive a certificate commending him for his community service.
Sheldon Browne, Phoenix’s father, said it all started when he saw the 50 Yard Challenge on Instagram. Phoenix had already been cutting grass — for a fee — around his Great Bridge neighborhood, and was interested in “building some clientele,” Sheldon said.
Once Phoenix agreed to the challenge in July, Raising Men Lawn Care Service sent him a T-shirt, earplugs and protective eyewear.
Then he had to figure out which lawns to cut.
That wasn’t difficult, Sheldon said. Once the family put out calls on social media and through friends, the requests came easily.
Joycelene Tetteh, Phoenix’s mother, said it was “amazing to see how just cutting the grass for someone, just really made their day change.”
She wanted the middle school student to be in charge of scheduling out his time and talking to his clients.
“It’s very important he works on the ability to interact with others,” Tetteh said. “It helps with his communication, his ability to problem solve.”
Phoenix said it was “so fun” to meet new people through the challenge. With his parents, he traveled to Portsmouth, Norfolk and Virginia Beach to cut lawns as well as in Chesapeake.
Sometimes there were surprises — a failing lawnmower here, a backyard full of furniture or garbage to clear there. But he said he always felt appreciated. He’s even been recognized around town as his good deeds spread on social media.
At the laundromat one time, “this lady said,‘Hey, are you Phoenix Browne? I’m really proud of you,’” he said. “I’m going to start cutting grass for her.”
Patty Taylor, 70, who lives in the Pembroke area of Virginia Beach, is now a repeat customer. After getting her yard cut by Phoenix for free several times, she now pays him to maintain it and has even had the family over for dinner.
“He’s just a stand-up young man. I’m very fortunate he came my way,” Taylor said. “The difference between the first time he came and now… he is the boss now. He’s very respectful of his father but he is the boss and it shows. I’m real proud of him.”
Phoenix completed his 50 lawns in August, before virtual school began.
Though he’d mowed the grass for free, some customers insisted on tipping him, so he decided to put that money to good use.
With about $100 in tips, Phoenix and his parents bought pizzas and water and set up in various locations including a bus station near St. Paul’s Boulevard in Norfolk to distribute it to people who are homeless or otherwise in need.
“He was eager to do something,” Sheldon said. “That’s basically what this challenge can lead to: being more conscious and aware of (our) communities.”
Phoenix said he’s excited to meet Mayor Rick West and get the recognition next week.
“As soon as I heard my mom and dad (talking about it), I jumped out of my chair screaming,” he said. “I was so happy.”
Next summer, he’s already planning to do a “neighborhood takeover” similarly cutting grass for free and using any tips to feed the homeless.
“That’s one thing I’m looking forward to,” he said. “And I hope I encourage a lot of people.”
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