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Big Ideas: Help a brother get further 

A micro-model for affecting social change.

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Last year, Andrew Baker gathered 29 people together in Searcy to play what he describes as a sort of "game." But where "game" suggests winners and losers, Baker's decidedly has neither. Rather, it's more of an exercise in idealism, a sort of utopian experiment in the power of people helping people. He calls it The Need, and the gist is simple: The members of the group try to find ways to respond to each other's specific needs.

Baker, 35, drew this particular group from students and faculty at Harding University, where he teaches, as well as from the broader Searcy community, with an eye towards diversity, he said. Within the group, needs — ranging from "something as simple as a guy who needed a red tie, to something as big as a couple who needed a place to live"— were met within a matter of an hour. To illustrate the power of a motivated community, Baker then presented the gathering with the needs of a family outside the group: a White County family of four, struggling as the father succumbed to cancer, needed a range of things, from help with insurance and payment for funeral costs to a haircut. Within about 48 hours, he said the group rallied to provide everything on the list.

That Baker teaches at Church of Christ-backed Harding, where he also runs the Encouragement Foundation, the organization behind The Need, might suggest that the key ingredient here is evangelical do-gooding, a variation on the congregation answering an altar call. Baker agrees with that assessment, but only to a point.

"I believe at the heart of this is what church is supposed to be. Not what it is. But what it's supposed to be."

Beyond that, he argues that helping others is "part of our DNA," and that The Need doesn't need a religious component or setting to work.

Last year, he took the "game" to a drug court in Angelina County, Texas. Nationally, drug courts came into being in the late '80s in response to prison overcrowding and a clog in the criminal court system related to illicit drug use. The idea is to divert non-violent offenders, who've demonstrated signs of substance abuse, into treatment programs. Because steady employment is a condition to remaining in drug court, Baker said The Need in Angelina County revolved, primarily, around job-related issues, like childcare problems, met by two women who agreed to pool their efforts, and repair needs, met by handymen in need of jobs.

After a successful showing in Texas, Baker took The Need to the national drug court convention in Boston, playing it with 39 judges, probation officers and lawyers in attendance. Most of their needs centered on funding related concerns, Baker said.

Before the group even finished, Baker said a judge from Long Island stood up, flabbergasted, and said, "What the shit just happened?"

Now, Baker is building on that momentum by working with major leaguer Josh Hamilton, the reigning American League MVP and a recovering drug addict, to further customize The Need for drug courts, with plans to present again next summer. In the meantime, he says he's playing the "game" wherever he's invited — office groups, churches, universities — in exchange for reimbursement for travel costs.

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