July 09, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

They had 28 applicants, and Paul Campbell and Tyler Smies knew what they were looking for: kids who could make eye contact; kids who could make conversation; kids who could show up on time. “They were kind of handpicked for their ability to get along with each other,” said Campbell of the 12 guys they chose. Previous experience pushing a lawnmower wasn’t high on the list of skills needed. By the end of the summer, the crew would know all about that.

Campbell, a Calvin senior, and Smies, a May 2010 graduate, are spending the summer in Grand Rapids’ Westown neighborhood, an area adjacent to John Ball Park. The two are interns for The Other Way ministries, overseeing a youth program which provides lawn service to that neighborhood. “We’re up to about 80 lawns right now,” said Smies.

The program charges Westown residents $12 to have their lawns mown—$8 for seniors. The duo trains their young crew in general lawn care and patrols their territory regularly to keep the kids clipping along. "They probably see us three times a day when we’re walking around,” said Smies. He and Campbell are used to calls from kids saying: "My mower doesn’t work” and “My weed wacker doesn’t work” and "This address doesn’t exist.”

A good crew

The crew uses all kinds of models of donated push mowers, but the maintenance needs aren’t too demanding, said Smies, who owned his own lawn care service as a student. “We don’t have any big equipment, which is good for these yards,” he said. “I don’t want to see any of these kids on a riding mower.”

The workers aren’t too demanding either, said Campbell, who has previous experience working for the YMCA and AmeriCorps youth programs. “There’s always the smart kids who think they run stuff and have a good idea of what you ought to do.” Mostly, he said, the crew just gets it done: “They always ask for more work.”

The young mowers are paid minimum wage, and they work from 9:30 a.m. through 1 p.m.: roughly 15 hours a week. Campbell and Smies put in 40 hours running the program, which also includes speakers and activities. The speakers—typically local business people and leaders—give the kids tips about dressing and comporting themselves as professionals. The activities range from beach days to movie nights. The group also does service projects like neighborhood trash pick-up.

"It doesn’t feel like work most of the time,” said Smies. “Most of the time when you’re out there teaching the kids, talking to the kids, it’s fun.”  He applied for The Other Way internship to work with a younger demographic. “I interned with Mel Trotter, and you see a lot of adults who are broken and trying to change at a late stage in life when it’s difficult,” Smies said. “This is a chance to help these kids at an earlier stage.”

Training to lead

Campbell, who majors in rhetoric communications and minors in youth ministry, and Smies, who graduated with a business major and an urban studies minor, say they have complementary styles:

"I’ve learned a lot from Paul in interacting with the kids,” said Smies, who played for four years on the Calvin golf team.

"I’ve learned a lot from Tyler from the business end,” said Campbell, who played forward for three years with the Knights.

They like working for an established program. The Other Way, which also offers counseling, job search, computer and a host of other Christian services, is firmly established in Westown. The lawn care program, which has been operating for 25 years, is so successful that Campbell and Smies didn’t have to advertise for applicants. And by midsummer, many of their crew were looking to re-up. The supervisors know what they’re looking for: “If we were going to hire kids back, we wanted them to lead,” said Campbell, “and if they work hard, they’re usually the ones who want to stick around.”

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