Jaylin Clyburn is planted on the sofa in the living room of his mom’s small rented house, and initially, it’s difficult to tear him away from his “Madden NFL 19” video game.
With his Carolina Panthers up by six points and quarterback Cam Newton leading a drive that’s giving the New England Patriots’ defense fits, the PlayStation controller literally seems stuck to his hands.
But while this may seem like typical 12-year-old-boy behavior, there are two things worth noting: 1) This is actually the first time in awhile that Jaylin has gotten a chance to boot up the game, and 2) he is, in fact, far from being a typical 12-year-old boy.
Why hasn’t he been playing much lately, and what distinguishes him from his peers? A flourishing lawn-mowing business, which he started this summer to build savings for his college education (“so my mom wouldn’t have to spend her money,” Jaylin says) — and which unexpectedly has turned him into a bit of a celebrity.
Most recently, after seeing him featured on the local news, Lowe’s Home Improvement and his beloved Panthers last week invited the sixth-grader up to Charlotte to mow grassy areas right outside of Bank of America Stadium. While he was doing the work last Thursday, Coach Ron Rivera and a Lowe’s representative rolled up in a golf cart to surprise him with a laundry list of gifts, including a $500 electric lawn mower and a football signed by the team’s star quarterback. Rivera also anointed Jaylin “an official member of our grounds crew.”
To say it was a big deal to Jaylin would be a vast understatement.
“I tell you, he talked about that the whole time riding back home,” says his mother, Wendy Clyburn. “He was just so excited. He said, ‘God made my dream come true.’”
He was still buzzing about his experience 24 hours later, when the Panthers posted a 92-second video on their social media channels that highlighted their gift to him. Then came the backlash: The video went viral as it sparked a heated debate over both the size of the gift and how the presentation of that gift was packaged.
And in the end, it caused enough of a stir that Panthers owner David Tepper decided to intervene personally.
A surprisingly successful start-up
For as long as Jaylin can remember, he’s been a Carolina Panthers fan, and for as long as he can remember, he’s actually had a much grander dream than the one that came true for him last week: When he grows up, he wants to be the Panthers’ quarterback.
Of course, any path to the NFL, his mom has drilled into him, will require “perfect grades” and, eventually, college.
That’s a place Wendy Clyburn never went, in part because she got pregnant with Jaylin’s oldest sister at a young age — and it’s something she continues to dream of for her middle daughter, who is 16, and for Jaylin. But she’s a single mother between jobs (she just left a housekeeping position at a local hotel and has conditionally been hired at a nearby day care center, currently working just two days a week for a woman with a house-cleaning business) and gets no financial help from her children’s father.
So, shortly after turning 12 in June, Jaylin decided to try to help. Inspired largely by his mother’s cousin, who earlier this year started working for a landscaping business, he borrowed a lawnmower in July, posted on Facebook that he was for hire, then used the money he made from his first job to buy a used, basic lawnmower of his own.
His third customer saw Jaylin’s secondhand lawnmower, recognized that it probably wasn’t up to heavy use, and gifted Jaylin a still-used-but-newer-and-nicer lawnmower, Wendy Clyburn says. She says the man also helped Jaylin create flyers to promote his business.
Multiple Charlotte news stations got wind of the feel-good story in early August, and sent reporters down to visit Jaylin so they could put him on TV. Shortly afterward, they went back with their cameras to capture his surprise when South Carolina state treasurer Curtis Loftis showed up to make a personal donation of $250 to Jaylin’s college savings fund.
Before long, customers — as well as non-customers who just wanted to reward him for his work ethic — were clamoring to help the kid out: One person bought him a leaf blower. Another gave him a trimmer/edger. He got a $70 tip from one homeowner. A $100 donation from someone who saw his story on TV. He also recently was given a riding lawnmower, though he’s only been able to use it to cut his grandmother’s grass because his mom doesn’t have a trailer (or a trailer hitch) on her tan 2006 Honda Accord.
(Either Wendy Clyburn or her brother drives Jaylin to his various jobs and hangs out in the car while he works, since he’s so young.)
Then came the invitation last week, and the surprise gifts: a bucket, a bag, work gloves, protective eye wear, protective ear wear, a cooler, a hose, a rake, a lawn water slide, two footballs (including the one signed by Newton) and a spiffy Kobalt electric lawn mower done up in not-quite-but-almost Panthers blue.
The response they got was far from what the Panthers and Lowe’s expected.
A good deed goes punished
Most of it was on Twitter over the weekend, as a hard line was drawn between two camps: One that felt Lowe’s and the Panthers should have done much more just than patting him on the back and sending him back to work — e.g., a college scholarship — and one that responded by arguing that giving him a free ride would send the wrong message about initiative and earning your own way.
And the debate built on its head of steam going into the workweek, moving beyond the trolls and into the mainstream media.
“Not only is Lowe’s trying to use Jaylin and his hard work for their own gain, (without paying him what they should) but the corporation is also perpetuating the cycle of poverty that Jaylin is working so hard to break free from,” wrote Hemal Jhaveri of USA Today’s FTW on Monday.
Jeff Beer of Fast Company also chimed in.
“This is his story, but instead the focus is on what the Panthers and Lowe’s are doing for him” he wrote. “Maybe let the young man tell his story, why he’s mowing lawns, what he likes about it, what his dreams are, and then acknowledge and celebrate his work ethic and ambition. So much of this comes down to simple editing and tone. ...
“No one is saying Clyburn should give up his summer job entirely, but along with the new mower, even a small contribution of, say, $5,000 on a golf-style giant check to kickstart his education savings would have balanced a lot of the criticism being aimed at the brands. The South Carolina state treasury donated $250 to Clyburn’s college fund. The NFL and Lowe’s — two giant corporations — couldn’t rub enough pennies together to at least match that?”
In an interview at Wendy Clyburn’s home on Tuesday afternoon, she said she hadn’t read any of the comments on social media nor any of the mainstream media coverage beyond watching the video the Panthers shared.
“We are just so appreciative to them,” she told the Observer. “What they’ve done, Lowe’s and the Panthers, that really meant a lot.”
As Jaylin was showing off all of the gifts the Panthers and Lowe’s gave him last week, he also produced a Panthers ballcap that he said he received from David Tepper, the Panthers’ owner. He made mention of it so quickly that it didn’t register as out of the ordinary.
However, on Wednesday — during a follow-up call with Wendy Clyburn — it all became clear.
‘A huge blessing’ from the top
Though Jaylin and his mother had not hinted at this at all during their initial conversation with the Observer, Clyburn revealed that Tepper had personally met with Jaylin earlier in the week, following the controversy over the video.
“We didn’t really tell no one, ’cause it was like a private meeting,” Wendy Clyburn says. “That’s why I hadn’t even really spoke about it. ... All I want to say is that Mr. Tepper’s been kind enough to assist in Jaylin’s education future — there was a huge blessing towards his college fund.”
Steven Drummond, the Panthers vice president of communications and external affairs, provided this statement:
“Jaylin is a wonderful young man with a great spirit, and we admire his work ethic so much. We are invested in his future and look forward to watching him grow and celebrating his success in the years to come.”
(Multiple attempts to reach a spokesperson at Lowe’s were unsuccessful.)
Wendy Clyburn says they “were so thankful” just for the lawnmower, and that despite the generous gift from Tepper, Jaylin will continue to mow lawns; he also plans to use the rake the team gave him — as well as the leaf blower that was donated to him — to make leaves the focus of his yardwork business this fall.
Jaylin’s work ethic, by the way, has become contagious. He says friends have asked if they can help him mow lawns, and his mother says a classmate was inspired by Jaylin and recently started offering to pick up trash on people’s property in exchange for cash, via ads on Facebook and flyers.
That’s the one thing, in fact, that everyone online could agree about: Jaylin is, undeniably, a role model.
And to date, he’s earned nearly a thousand dollars cutting grass — while parting with virtually none of it. “He might take two dollars out of it, or something like that. And he will take some money out of there to give to the church on Sundays. But other than that, he’s tight,” Wendy Clyburn says, laughing.
The only temptation he’s fighting with?
“I have ‘Madden 19,’ but I’m trying to get up some money for ‘Madden 20,’” he says, gesturing toward his PlayStation and the television set he’s used only sparingly this summer.
His mother laughs again.
“I told him he already got the money,” she says. “But he keeps saying, ‘I’m trying to save for college!’”