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Harding professor sends out encouragement nationwide

By Jeanni Brosius

Sunday, January 9, 2011

— It all began with a little encouragement.

For more than 50 years, the American Studies Institute at Harding University in Searcy has been hosting the National Leadership Forum for high school juniors and seniors from across the country. In 2007, Andrew Baker was an assistant director for the program, and one of the speakers was a no show, so Baker was told to “do something with [the students], and don’t let them run wild.”

Baker is currently executive director of the Mitchell Center for Leadership in Ministry at Harding and is creator of the Encouragement Foundation.

He gathered the students and asked them what problems they saw in their high schools. He broke them into groups, and he told them not to bother telling him the problems if they couldn’t suggest a solution.

“Talking heads serve no purpose at the end of the day,” Baker said about those who come forth with problems but offer no solutions. “One group [at the forum] came to the root of it all.”

The students said the root of all the problems with the youth was the lack of encouragement, Baker said. That day, the National Day of Encouragement was created. However, the word “National” could not be used in the title unless the Day of Encouragement was endorsed by the White House.

“I laid it out on the table and said I’d give $500 to whoever in the room could get this to the White House,” Baker said. “A girl in the room said, ‘I think I can help you.’”

A Harding student from El Dorado said her dad was friends with George Bush’s cousin and that upon her personal invitation, President Bush had spoken at El Dorado High School.

Through a series of e-mails and phone calls, Baker said something was done that never happens: Washington moved quickly.

“Three days later, I was in the Harding bookstore with my wife when my phone rang,” Baker said as he grinned. “A woman said, ‘This is Jennifer from the White House, and we are trying to reach Andrew Baker.’ I thought it was a student playing a joke on me, but it wasn’t.”

The Senate resolution for National Encouragement Day was passed by U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., making National Encouragement Day Sept. 12 of each year.

“Encouragement is in everyone’s DNA,” Baker said. “We all have the need to encourage and the need to be encouraged.”

The day is nothing more than to encourage people to go beyond a random act of kindness. Many of the schools across the nation are coming on board to promote the day. DaySpring greeting cards partnered with the Encouragement Foundation to produce cards with an explanation of the National Day of Encouragement printed on the back.

“He is an amazing individual,” Dan Newsom said about Baker. “He truly cares about providing a positive and nurturing environment for young people and providing a means to equip them for success. He is really striving to make a difference in the lives of young people. I really salute him for his vision and dedication.”

While sitting on an airplane, Baker said, he found himself sitting next to a man who was not only a dad, but he happened to be from Cabot.

“We were talking about teens,” Baker said. “He asked, ‘Where is the positive in the teenage world? Every time we see a teen on TV, they’ve shot somebody.’”

Southwest Airlines became a sponsor of a project highlighting exceptional teenagers, and because Jeff Foxworthy had done some public-service announcements for the National Day of Encouragement, he agreed to narrate a documentary for the project.

Baker and a crew from Harding, along with Harding graduate Patrick Cone of CL Entertainment and a few others, hopped aboard a Southwest Airlines plane and flew from the West Coast to the East Coast, making 14 stops in seven days. The Encouragement Foundation partnered with Southwest Airlines, CNL Lifestyle Properties and Common Sense Success to produce the film.

A one-hour documentary, 7 Days Across America: What’s Right With the American Teenager, focuses on teens across the country who are doing great things.

During his visits with the teenagers, Baker said he and his crew noticed three common threads: They all had a definable family structure, not necessarily two-parent homes; a mentor outside the family; and they didn’t watch TV because they didn’t have time.

The Encouragement Foundation does not use any student money, Baker said, and all the marketing products are designed by Harding students or graduates.

During the 7 Days Across America program tour, Baker visited with a group that holds an event for 8- to- 12-year-old girls in New York and Los Angeles. Baker said he realized there are no programs for 8- to 12-year-old boys. So he began thinking about what could be done, and Shockwave came to mind.

The Shockwave project provides a positive atmosphere and shares character concepts with boys in that age group. The first Shockwave event will be Saturday at Harding University. A second Shockwave event will be held in Atlanta, Ga., soon after.

“I have never been involved with Andrew on a day-to-day, elbow-to-elbow basis, but I have watched him over the years as he has accepted more and more responsibility and then converts that responsibility to one successful program after another,” said Tim Bruner, who is an agent with Community Insurance of First Community Bank in Batesville, a former Harding administrator and a Harding graduate. “He epitomizes the old saying that ‘if you want something done and done right, ask a busy person.’ Andrew has always been a busy person who does a lot and does it right.”

A social experiment called the NEED also spun out of the National Day of Encouragement.

Baker said he asked some members of one of his classes at Harding to participate in something “that could be really cool if it works,” so he said about 40 of them followed him down to Benson Auditorium. He said he asked each of them to lay on the table a need: not a want, but a need.

“We met the needs of every person there,” Baker said.

One student didn’t have money to eat for the final 12 days of the semester, so another student gave her his cafeteria card because he didn’t use it. Baker said that transaction would never have been made between those two students in any other situation.

He said he has tried this with other groups, and it always seems to work.

The documentary 7 Days Across America: What’s Right With the American Teenager is available free to schools, either on DVD or to download. Baker’s goal is to get the film in every middle school in the country so it is available as a choice over other movies.

To learn more about Baker and the Encouragement Foundation’s projects, visit etsencourage.com. To order the film or for more information, visit 7daysacrossamerica.com.

Baker said he would like to urge everyone to encourage someone in some way because he believes it makes all the difference in the world.