Why The Best Way to Influence At-Risk Youth Is to Let Them Earn an Honest Paycheck

Posted on May 17, 2018

This nonprofit shows how mowing grass can not only trim lawns, but can also change lives.

Tim Arnold spent nine years incarcerated with 27 criminal indictments on his juvenile record before he turned 25 years old.

Today, he is the executive director of a Cincinnati-based nonprofit called Lawn Life, a landscaping and construction company that gives at-risk youth a chance to work for a prevailing wage while learning a strong work ethic. Instead of returning to activities that result in incarceration, young men and women are presented with the opportunity to develop as hardworking tradespeople in a nurturing environment.

Arnold is pioneering an award-winning methodology that doesn’t look like a typical nonprofit. A typical nonprofit faces the challenge of balancing between two common pitfalls. On one hand, it can pour resources into a great cause and find itself barely getting by, without the means to increase its impact. On the other hand, a nonprofit can focus too much on raising money and finds itself flush with cash but bloated with personnel and bills that detract from achieving its mission.

Lawn Life balances income and transformation by operating like a for-profit business. Through employment, the organization teaches underprivileged youth how to be upstanding and hardworking individuals.

Rather than handouts, the young men and women receive a paying job.

Since 2008, over 800 kids ages 16-24 have gone through the Lawn Life program and gone on to work elsewhere, while generating over $2.1 million in annual revenue for the organization.

“It’s our secret sauce,” said Arnold. “The one thing that really sets us apart and makes us successful is that none of the kids who work for us know that they’re applying for this program.”

This “secret sauce” is key to a person’s transformation: as opposed to an undignified and passive handout, a job presents someone with the opportunity to take ownership and develop a sense of self-worth and healthy independence.

“They think they’re just applying to a normal job,” said Arnold.

But it’s not just a normal job. On top of paying kids a well-earned paycheck, Lawn Life bolsters intrinsic self-worth (e.g., builds up confidence and character) and extrinsic value (e.g., opening a bank account, finding a home to rent, and training young adults for credentialed professional advancement). Participants start out cutting grass and have the opportunity to learn certified trades through Lawn Life’s renovation and construction division. 

“Our mission is simple,” said Arnold, “To give a kid a job and watch him flourish. But our vision is big: our vision is for the whole country to not hesitate to hire someone like our employees, because they are worth investing in. Our program proves it.”

While Lawn Life hasn’t spent a dime on paid marketing, its reputation continues to expand. In March 2018, Lawn Life was awarded the Community Impact Award for its work in Cleveland, Ohio. Arnold was recognized as an American Graduate Champion and a recipient of the Unsung Hero Project. Additionally, the nonprofit continues to win grants to increase its projects.

From the outside, the organization seems to be working, but what do the workers themselves think?

It turns out, they love it. On Indeed.com, a former employee wrote:

…I learned how to buff floors and sand wood floors; also how to do siding on houses. The management was excellent. My co workers [were] hard workers and fun.The hardest part is nothing. The most enjoyable part of job is using the tools.

Lawn Life analyzes its effectiveness through one metric. “Our number one measure of success life is whether or not a kid can secure a full-time job after graduation from Lawn Life,” said Arnold.

As a whole, the organization aims for a 70% employer placement percentage.

One placement story comes from the very first Lawn Life employee, Dewayne. Local publication Soapbox Cincinnati tells the story:

“When I was rehabbing my first house, I’d go to the corner store and see a guy there—a kid, 16 years old—you’ve seen them too, with a gas can. ‘Can I get a dollar man?’ Nah, come cut the grass of the house I’m fixing up. And you can get ten dollars instead of one. And if you’re good, you can help the plumber out, carry all his supplies,” Arnold says. “And that very first kid realized the value of hard work because he started making hundreds of dollars with me, and he stayed with me for a couple years and went on to work at [Procter & Gamble]—a homeless kid on the street corners that I picked up, ended up with P&G.”

Lawn Life hired another graduate whose brother had been killed the week before and all he thought about was revenge, said Arnold.

“He got his driver’s license with us; I taught him to parallel park; I took him to Washington D.C. and that made him feel like the biggest thing in the world (most of the kids we work with have never been outside of Cincinnati). Now he’s making $33 an hour with a union tile company and he’s in a much, much better position than he was a year ago.”

The key to Arnold’s success is his upbringing. “I grew up in a hard life,” he said. With his mother and two brothers, he was raised in Seven Hills, an impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood.

“I started stealing when I was four, got my first felony when I was eleven, and joined a gang when I was twelve,” he said. “The only thing I knew for most of my young life was the thug life.”

When he was released from prison, he struggled to get a job until a steel mill hired him. He worked 60 hours a week, soaking in the opportunity to do honest work. He saved up $50,000, went to real estate school, and bought his first house. “I’d hire a carpenter or plumber to come work on my house and just follow him around and ask how to do everything, like, how do you do that?”

When he saw Dewayne on the street corner, he recognized him immediately. “I knew this kid,” said Arnold. “I was this kid.”

What changed the life of Tim Arnold was a chance to work. That’s exactly what Arnold is providing for kids with Lawn Life.

“Kids are out on the streets suffering mostly not on their own merit because no one is out there on the streets giving them a job and teaching them things,” he said. Ever since the day he hired Dewayne to cut the grass at his first home, he realized he can create opportunities that he wished he had when he was an at-risk kid.

Arnold’s life and leadership are an example of how empathy—knowing what it’s like to be in the shoes of someone else—can fuel a fiery passion and an ambitious vision to make a difference in another person’s life. Arnold experienced the transformation of a hard-earned paycheck in his own life, now he’s giving that opportunity to others who need it, too.

“You can literally see the change in trajectory when those kids come in and get their first job and earn their first paycheck.”