One day in 2006, 14-year-old Hannah Salwen and her father, Kevin, were stopped at a traffic light between a guy in a Mercedes convertible and a homeless man sitting by the side of the road.
“‘Dad,’ she began, ‘if that man’ -- she pointed to the Mercedes -- ‘had a less nice car, that man there’ -- she pointed to the homeless man -- ‘could have a meal,’” Kevin Salwen writes in “The Power of Half,” his memoir (with sections written by Hannah) about the way that moment changed his family’s life.
Kevin and Joan Salwen lived in Atlanta with Hannah and her brother, Joseph, in a $2 million mansion. Kevin, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, was running his own magazine start-up, while Joan had left a partnership at Accenture to become an English teacher. The family had dinner together but their daily lives seemed to be drifting apart, each busy with his or her own activities.
Until the day Hannah spoke up.
She wanted to make a difference. When her mother asked, semi-rhetorically, if she wanted them to sell their house and donate half the profits to charity, she surprised everyone by saying yes. The family decided to take up the challenge.
In “The Power of Half,” Kevin and Hannah chronicle the Salwens’ journey from being “a family that just talks about things” to “a family that actually does them.”
They take it as a good sign when a much smaller house just a few blocks away comes on the market, and they buy it before they’ve sold their mansion. They start thinking about how to use the “extra” $800,000.
It’s a family project and for the first time parents and kids make decisions by consensus. They educate themselves about the world’s big issues and choose to work in one place, with one cause, rather than spreading the money around.
They fly to New York, meet with different nonprofit organizations and eventually choose the Hunger Project. They will be helping two sets of Ghanaian villages move from poverty to self-reliance through the construction of “epicenters” featuring meeting halls, banks for micro loans, food storerooms and health centers with lodging for a nurse.
The Salwens’ adventure is not trouble-free. There are no buyers for their house, Kevin’s company is shutting down and friends don’t always seem to understand what’s going on. The family fears their project might fail.
But Kevin “wouldn’t give up their situation for anything.” The sacrifice doesn’t feel grand and no one is missing the space of the “dream house.” The new one makes them aware, every time they get home, of what they’re doing together, as a family.
Trip to Ghana
The peak of the project, for both charitable activity and family reunification, is a trip to Ghana. When the Salwens return to Atlanta, they send as promised the first $80,000, taken from their savings, and small signs of lasting change appear in their daily lives.
And this is how they realize the whole “house-selling project” isn’t about the house but about the family.
The Salwens were looking for something significant to stand for together, that wasn’t about themselves, spending, cars or holidays. “The Power of Half” is an inspiring book about the decision to trade objects for togetherness and the chance to help others.
“The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (242 pages, $24). To buy this book in North America, click here.