Alabama man traveling to all 50 states comes to Raleigh, brings Christmas cheer to the homeless

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If someone who is homeless could have one gift for Christmas, what would they ask for?

Rodney Smith Jr. is dressing up as Santa and finding out that answer in his Hope for the Holidays Tour.

It's a tour that's taking him on a 50-state road trip and in each state, he gets to know at least two people who are homeless and blesses them with some holiday cheer.

Rodney Smith travels all over the country to bring Christmas cheer to those in need.

"Sometimes it's a hot shower, so I put them in a hotel for three nights," Smith told ABC11. "Some people, there were two guys in Idaho who wanted to get back home to Florida, they've been homeless in Idaho for months so I bought them bus tickets to get back home. So whatever they want for Christmas, I go and get it for them."

The tour started in Alabama where Smith calls home. He's documenting the journey on his social media pages.

Smith has already driven more than 13,000 miles, and on day 21 of his tour he ended up in Raleigh, making North Carolina his 44th state.

"I'm hoping to encourage and inspire people to make a difference in their community with the homeless population," he said.

Smith pulled into downtown Raleigh in his SUV early in the morning on Sunday, ready to spread Christmas joy.

His vehicle packed with wrapped presents ready to find some new friends who just happen to be homeless.

"I'm hearing their stories and getting to know them and giving them gifts, tents, blankets, sleeping bags, backpacks, hygiene gifts all wrapped up," he said.

Smith said this journey is not just about giving the homeless gifts.

"They feel like they are invisible to the rest of the community because people just walk right by them like they are nothing and I just want them to know that we see them, we love them and we care," he said.

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In the Oak City, it didn't take long for Smith to find a man holding a sign in one hand, and his dog's leash in the other.

The man, who didn't want to be identified told Smith he's been hitchhiking across the country and just made it to Raleigh Saturday.

Smith chatted with him for a good while, getting to know his story and what led him to live on the streets.

Smith asked him what he needed and he said he couldn't carry much more, but a tent and sleeping bag would be great, as he sleeps on a tarp in the woods.

Rodney headed to his car, pulled out the wrapped gifts and gave the man exactly what he asked for a tent and sleeping bag along with some fresh socks. The man's face lit up.

"This helps a lot as I'll stay dry," he said.

As Rodney walked away from the man he said, "It's not just about the gifts, it's the interaction as a lot of them miss the interaction with people."

Smith then went to a very popular place for the homeless community in downtown Raleigh around Moore Square.

He talked to several homeless people, two men in particular. When Smith told them about his Hope for the Holidays Tour and how he'd like to bless them with some gifts, both said, thanks but they were OK and they'd hope Smith could find someone else who needs it more than they do.

When I asked Smith if that was something common he found on his tour these last several weeks he said, "It shows you they only take what they need. If they need something they take it, if they don't need it, they will say someone else needs it. A lot of homeless people are not selfish, I mean there are a few that are selfish but most are not."

Smith walked a little more and then found John and Arron sitting at a picnic table outside of the Oak City Outreach Center in downtown Raleigh. Both men just got a warm meal from the center and Smith sat down to get to know them. Aaron said he was born in Bermuda, the same place Smith was born and raised.

Both men told Smith about their hardships and what led them to be homeless for the last four years. Aaron said he makes money by working temp construction jobs when he's offered. John talked about where they live in the woods and how they stay warm.

When Smith asked what the men would want for Christmas, John said a pair a steel toe boots so he could start working the temp construction jobs he's been offered and Aaron said a new pair of jeans.

Smith went to his car and gave both men a tent, sleeping bag and a backpack filled with hygiene products, and then Smith asked if they could stick around for about 20 minutes and he'd be right back. Both Aaron and John said sure.

Smith jumped back In his SUV and headed to the nearest Walmart. He bought Aaron two pair of jeans, and he bought John the steel toe boots he wanted along with some new socks. Before checking out, Smith also bought both men gift cards to three different eateries close to where then men live in the woods. He spent $200 on the gifts, and as we were walking out of Walmart he stopped at the ATM and withdrew $200 to give to Aaron and John.

Smith said the entire tour is funded by donations from the community who believe in his mission.

"I do it because I believe God wants me to and I just graduated with my Masters in social work, and I'm doing what social work is doing, that's helping the community, trying to bridge the gap," he said.

Done shopping for Aaron and John, we drove back to downtown Raleigh and found Aaron and John waiting for us with no idea how generous Smith was about to be. He pulled up to both men armed with the goodies.

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Both men said this would make their Christmas a good one, and thanked Smith for his generosity. Smith snapped with pictures with both men, wished them a Merry Christmas and was on his way to the next state in his tour, South Carolina.

This cross-country tour is not Smith's first. It's his fourth, but it is his first time playing Santa hitting all 50states.

Before Santa, he was known as the lawnmower man and founder of Raising Men Lawn Care Service. It's a nonprofit designed to promote awareness and inspire youth to serve in the community by providing free lawn care to the elderly, disabled, single moms and veterans.

During the summers of 2017 and 2018, Smith traveled to all 50 states mowing lawns free for the groups mentioned and also encouraged kids to join our 50-yard challenge. One trip brought Smith to Parkton to mow the grass for veteran Randy Brink.

No matter if it's cutting grass for those in need or dressing up as Santa and bringing the homeless some holiday cheer, Smith says he enjoys every moment of it and is going to continue trying to make a difference and he hopes others will follow his lead.

"Just get out there in the community and help my homeless friends and their community," he said.

As for what's next for Smith? He hit 48 states on his Hope for the Holidays Tour and on Tuesday he says he'll fly out to Alaska to find some people in the homeless community there to help and then fly to Hawaii the next day and complete his journey of helping the homeless in all 50 states. When I asked if we would just relax on Christmas Day after his cross-country journey, he said, "Nope, I'll hand out more gifts in my community."

Find out how you can donate to Smith's cause here.
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