It’s a bright, sunny morning on June 26, 1999. The green grass at the Indiana State Capitol building is looking a little shabby. A trailer pulls up, and as 14-year-old Ryan Tripp unloads a lawn mower, it becomes obvious this is no ordinary lawn job.
There are green balloons on the lawn in the shape of a big ribbon—the symbol for organ donation—and Ryan is thronged by Indiana state officials and a large crowd. Flashing a smile, he talks from the podium about the importance of people becoming organ donors.
The idea for what turned out to be a two-year mission began on a spring day in 1997 when Ryan and his dad, Todd, were returning home after mowing church lawns around Parowan, Utah, his hometown. When their truck broke down, Ryan suggested they ride a lawn mower back to town. During the ride Ryan said, “Dad, why don’t we ride this lawn mower all the way to Salt Lake and mow the state capitol lawn?”
His dad replied, “Why don’t you ride it all the way to Washington, D.C., and mow the White House lawn!” Ryan began dreaming about his name appearing in the Guiness Book of World Records for the longest lawn mower ride in history.
But something was missing. Ryan and his family felt they needed a greater purpose for such an undertaking.
Shortly after, while Ryan’s father was getting his truck repaired, his mechanic, a neighbor, confided that their three-month-old daughter, Whitnie, had a rare disease requiring a liver transplant. The cost would be enormous, and the Penders had limited insurance and funds.
Ryan’s heart went out to the Penders. He wanted to help, but what could he do? Perhaps his goal to mow the White House lawn could work together with a fundraising project for Whitnie! Why not hand out cards to the people he met along the way asking for donations to be sent to a special fund? People could pledge money for each mile he drove.
The Tripp family members all wanted to help, and wheels were set in motion. They charted a course from Parowan to Washington, D.C.; they obtained local police permission for Ryan to drive the lawn mower along state and city roadways, and a large lawn mower manufacturer generously donated a machine. Ryan’s mom, Diane, his two sisters, Tiffany and Chantel, and his brother, Robbie, agreed to temporarily take over the lawn-mowing business.
The trip begins
On August 15, 1997, Ryan began his 3,116-mile cross-country lawn mower drive, with Grandpa and Grandma Meidlinger leading the procession by car and his dad following Ryan in their truck.
Sound like fun? Picture yourself driving a lawn mower at 10 mph, 10 to 12 hours a day, for 42 days through blistering heat, rain, and wind. For the first few weeks, Ryan had lots of fun. He signaled his dad on their walkie-talkies, waved to passing cars, listened to music on his CD player, looked at the scenery, and made all kinds of noises as he drove along.
Then he ran into a problem. One day he was particularly tired from their early morning starts and dozed off listening to his music. He awoke to the blasting horn of his father’s truck behind him, just as his lawn mower was careening off the side of the road. His CD days were over.
After that, the hours became long, and it seemed the cornfield-lined roads would never end. “Sometimes I got a little antsy and wanted to get off my lawn mower and go do things a normal boy would, especially when it rained. It got kind of hard to just sit there and drive along the road,” he recalls. The trek became a challenge to Ryan.
However, each challenge brings its own reward, and Ryan’s was time for serious thinking. He thought about his plans for the future; he thought about the importance of never giving up, of keeping promises and commitments; and he thought about how nice it was to have his dad so close. Reaching his father on his walkie-talkie at any time reminded him of talking to another Father: “It was kind of a lesson to me about how close my Heavenly Father is and how I can reach Him through prayer whenever I need something,” Ryan says.
Thinking about his own supportive family, Ryan’s thoughts often turned to little Whitnie. He understood her family’s love for her and knew he must do whatever was needed to help.
Ryan began to see a much greater purpose in this trip. Breaking records took a distant second to helping Whitnie. And as he thought about her, and others he learned about along the way, Ryan’s prayers took on new meaning. “My dad and I would pray every morning before we started and again when we got back to the hotel,” he says. They prayed for safety, for Whitnie, and for all the people needing transplants.
Finally, Ryan’s quest ended at the U.S. Capitol. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, other government officials, press members, and TV viewers watched as he mowed the Capitol Hill lawn. The trip was successful—Ryan broke the record and, more importantly, raised $15,000 for little Whitnie, who received her transplant that same year.
But Ryan didn’t see this as the end of his goal. Throughout his trip he had become increasingly concerned about the 63,500 people in America waiting for organ donors. So, even before he and his dad left Washington, D.C., they formulated a plan to further raise awareness for organ and tissue donation: they would mow every state capitol building lawn in the country, including those in Juneau, Alaska, and Honolulu, Hawaii.
A new road
Two summers later, on June 1, 1999, Ryan set out on his second mission. This time he had a lot more company—his mother, his sisters, his brother, his Grandpa and Grandma Tripp, and his Grandpa Meidlinger.
The next 72 days were a whirlwind of state capitol buildings, governors, news reporters, talk-show hosts, and families involved in organ donation. The stories they heard from the many recipients, donors, and donor-hopefuls, buoyed them up at each stop.
“One of the coolest stories was about a family in Kansas,” Ryan says. “I had been on local TV speaking about the importance of organ and tissue donation a few days before their daughter died. They told us because they were so touched by what I was doing, they decided to donate their daughter’s organs.”
Ryan encourages everyone he sees to set their goals high and work hard. “With Heavenly Father’s help, you can do anything,” he says, especially if it includes serving others. “It makes you feel so good inside, and you never know how many people you helped.”
Although Ryan met many good people and celebrities along the way, when asked who his hero is, Ryan replies, “There are a lot of role models out there, but my hero is my dad because he’s a good example to me, and he believes in my dreams. I’d like to be just like him when I grow up.”