Back-of-the-book blurb: It all started when 14-year old Hannah Salwen, idealistic but troubled by a growing sense of injustice in the world, had a eureka moment when a homeless man in her neighborhood was juxtaposed against a glistening Mercedes coupe. “You know, Dad,” she said, pointing, “If that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal.”
This glaring disparity led the Salwen family of four, caught up like so many other Americans in this age of consumption and waste, to follow Hannah’s urge to do something, to finally just do something. And so they embarked on an incredible journey together from which there would be no turning back. They decided to sell their Atlanta mansion, downsize to a house half its size, and give half of their profits to a worthy charity.
At first it was an outlandish scheme. “What, are you crazy? No way!” Then it was a challenge. “We are TOTALLY doing this.” Each week they met over dinner to discuss their plan. It would transport them across the globe and well out of their comfort zone. Along the way they would inspire so many others wrestling with the same questions: Do I give enough? How much is enough? How can I make an impact in the world? In the end the Salwens’ journey would bring them closer as a family, as they discovered, together, that half could be so much more.
She is Too Fond of Books’ review: I knew from the moment I first read the synopsis for The Power of Half that it would be an emotional read. Who could not be moved by this family’s generosity, inspired by their teenage daughter’s desire put into action her need to make a difference in this world?! I expected perhaps tears of joy for a happy story which was inspired by Hannah’s empathy; perhaps tears of sadness for the situations of those the Salwens were trying to help.
My admiration for the Salwen family goes beyond the obvious, huge donation they’ve made to The Hunger Project; it’s an admiration (maybe a little envy?) for the amazing family dynamic that gave Hannah the confidence to first say “we should do something.” That confidence, leadership, and sense of justice was clearly instilled in Hannah, and her brother, Joseph, as part of the value system modelled by their parents, Kevin and Joan Salwen.
Kevin and Joan were wise to see that Hannah and Joseph would be vested in the family project only if they were full partners in the decision-making process, not lackeys carrying out their parents wishes to make a philanthropic mark in the world. This was a democratic process from the begining – equal weight given to parents’ and children’s input at family meetings, respectful sharing of ideas, a structure that was created on-the-fly, yet made each family member know that he or she fully owned the project and its results.
The Power of Half is written in parts by Kevin (Dad) Salwen, and Hannah (daughter, now a high school junior) Salwen. Kevin writes the memoir in rough chronological order, giving information about how the family lived “before,” the process of their year-long research project which preceded their donation (identifying what issue/problem they wanted to address, whether they wanted to help “a lot of people a little, or fewer people a lot,” where they wanted to give the aid, and what agency might be able to help them get their money where it was most needed), and the long-term effects and benefits, both to the recipients and to the Salwen family. Reading about the family’s incredible journey, and the ups and downs along the way, is certainly inspiring.
Kevin tells not only the step-by-step research and action plan, but shares the impact the entire project had on the family. Again, my greatest admiration to the Salwen family for the balance they’ve created; each member of the family played a vital role. Early on, Kevin says:
… two months after [we] had launched our project, we were already falling into the roles that would define our family. Hannah was, of coures, the spiritual muse and catalyst. Joan was the process manager, making sure we always had a logical next step. I was the financial coordinator. And Joseph was the skeptic. These were the roles we fell into naturally.
Each of Kevin’s chapters is followed by “Hannah’s Take,” a two- to three-page essay that relates to what we’ve just read from Kevin, with Hannah’s personal spin and an activity for the reader. In an essay entitled “Helping Small Kids Start Volunteering,” Hannah shares how at about age seven she was allowed to shop and prepare meals for those in her community who were working on Habit for Humanity projects. She was too young to build, but feeding the workers was an important job, too. Hannah suggests that children take on volunteer responsibilities where there are “quick, clear results,” such as seeing the joy on a hungry laborer’s face when a hot meal is delivered to the workplace.
As expected, I did shed a few tears when reading the Salwens’ story – joy for what they accomplished (really, bawling like I would at a Hallmark commercial when I was pregnant) and sorrow for the pain and suffering in the world. What I didn’t expect was my anger; no, not anger at the homelessness, hunger, and lack of healthcare (to name 3 Hs) that run rampant, I wasn’t surprised to feel that anger roiled up in me. What knocked me over was the way I identified with how the Salwens lived before they embarked on their life-changing project.
Kevin talks about the ‘treadmill’ – always trading up, better cars, bigger homes, fancy camps, big vacations. He mentioned the way the kids would divide their allowances into thirds – 1/3 for charity, 1/3 for long-term savings (college), and 1/3 to spend how they wished (this is exactly the method we followed during our allowance experiment); Kevin and Joan had an agreement, if they got a letter or phone call from a friend asking for support of a favorite charity (the walkathons, distance biking, and road races run as fundraisers), they’d automatically cut a check for $50, no questions asked (exactly our method of support). So why did I get angry? I like my big house; I like our vacations; I’m glad we can give our children the tangible things and intangible experiences that we can. As I read of Kevin’s desire to step off the treadmill I thought, “well, I’m not selling my house. That’s just not for me! We already give to [x, y, and z], and I don’t have $800,000 to spare!”
And you know what? The Salwens don’t expect other people to sell their homes and donate half the profit. Their story is about the power of half; rather than say “I should do something” or “we should give more,” they’re suggesting that you quantify that “more” with “half.” For example, one could take half the money he spends on coffee in a year, and donate it to an addiction center; or halve the time spent playing computer games and use that time to teach basic software skills at a senior center; or count the number of books you buy in a year and spend half that number of hours reading to home-bound people.
The Salwens’ story is inspiring, not just in a “feel-good” way, but in a “do-better” way. We’ve talked about the Power of Half (the book) and the power of half (the theory) in our family. Check in tomorrow for more about that, an author event I attended with our 12-year-old son, and a guest post from Hannah Salwen. In the meantime, you can read more about the Salwen family and The Power of Half at their website.
FTC disclosure: review copy provided by FSB Media.