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The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back Paperback – January 7, 2011
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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. Warm, funny, deeply moving and wholly uplifting, The Power of Half is the story of how one family slammed the door on the status quo and threw away the key.
Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Author Kevin SalwenDear Amazon Readers, What does "living well" mean? By traditional standards, our family was there--nice cars, expensive vacations, dream house, fancy stuff in it. It took a fourteen-year-old to make us take a second look. That teenager, as you probably know from glancing at the book description above, is Hannah (now seventeen). As she and I waited at a stoplight just a few blocks from our home, Hannah's head swiveled between a homeless man and a pricey new car. As she wrote in her journal later: "Driving past the homeless man that one time changed my life. I felt sad, like I wanted to help him, but angry, really angry. At myself mainly. Thinking there was so much I could do for this man and for a lot of the poor people in this world considering I had so much." Now, Hannah is not one to keep emotions to herself. She brought that anger back to our family's dinner table, challenging us to "be a family that makes a difference in the world, even if it's a small difference." My wife, Joan, and I defended ourselves: We volunteer for Habitat and work at the food bank. Hannah stared, unimpressed. Joan and I described the checks we wrote to charities each December. Hannah rolled her eyes. Finally, Joan decided to challenge back: "What do you want to do, sell our house? Move into one half the size? Give up your room?" That opening series of questions launched our family on an audacious project that we chronicle in The Power of Half. How we decided to sell our house. How we chose to invest the proceeds. Our travels to the places where we decided to work. Along the way, we tried to figure out how much was the right amount to give to charity, both in time and money (the average American gives 2.1 percent of income). We learned about extreme giving (50 percent, anyone?) by average people and about new programs popping up to teach kids about sharing and spending. But if that were the whole story, I doubt we would have written this book. Joan and I began to realize that our "Half" project was transforming our family--heightening our trust in one another, empowering our kids, building a deeper connection. Because we, as the parents, shared influence and listened in a new way to our kids, our project to make the world a little better was making the chemistry between us a lot better. In other words, we had traded some stuff for togetherness--and I bet a lot of folks would take that deal. So Hannah and I are hoping that our book can inspire you to create your own "Half" project. We don't expect you to sell your house, of course (that's nuts!), just to look at your life to determine what you have more than enough of. It could be time; it could be belongings. Depending on what issue you care about, you can brainstorm creatively what you can live with half of. (One example: If fighting drug addiction is your passion, you could give up half of the cups of caffeine-laced coffee and cola you drink.) By following the road map in the book, you can build your own project, and in turn create deeper bonds among your family, community, any group you choose. Oh, and of course make the world a little better at the same time. That's our definition of living well now. Kevin Salwen
(Photo © Allison Shirrefs)
A Q&A with Kevin and Hannah Salwen, Authors of The Power of Half
• we view the world as a single community, a place where the luck of where you're born shouldn't be the biggest determining factor in whether you receive help
• there is no safety net in rural Africa--no Head Start, no food stamps--to fill critical gaps
• we wanted our project to completely solve a problem with a group of people, and since our money goes further in Africa, we learned that we could help entire villages build their futures
• we wanted something exotic, something that would take us out of our comfort zone. It was so helpful for our kids (and for us as parents too) to be "the other" for a little while, to recognize what it feels like to be someone born without the privileges we enjoy. Q: Any other reasons The Power of Half is particularly relevant now? KS: These times are extraordinary for so many reasons, particularly the competing moods of fear, change, hope, stress. Parents are feeling those emotions even more strongly (and it's even more acute with divorced or single parents). With our senses heightened, so many of us are rethinking our lives. The Power of Half offers readers inspiration and new tools to bring their lives a healthier focus, all wrapped up in an entertaining family tale.
(Photo © Allison Shirrefs)
Photographs from the Authors of The Power of Half
(Click on images to enlarge)
|The Salwen family in front of their old house||Moving day at the Salwen house||Hannah Salwen cuts the ribbon for the Hunger Project||Where "the power of half" brought the Salwen family|
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
Many Americans, including myself, love America because of the freedom with which we can live our lives here. We are not taxed to nearly the levels of most European countries and have higher home-ownership and a greater degree of meritocratic upward mobility. Everyone is free to buy what they can afford (sometimes more, but that's a different story), love who they want to love, work where they want to work, and live where they want to live.
If there were a wealthy family which you knew nothing about, and through some real estate deal they came into an extra $800,000, you wouldn't criticize them for purchasing a new yacht instead of a new jet... it's their money, so its their choice. SO WHY IS IT that so many people in favor of all the CHOICES that come with living in a democratic free-market nation like this one feel the need to criticize the choice of the Salwen family to mobilize their huge donation in Ghana, rather than in the US?
As a patriotic American, I care that people in my country are suffering from hunger, health problems they can't afford to treat, and foreclosures on their homes. As a doctor who enjoys living in the US and has no plans to move abroad, I make it a priority to do my part to help who I can, which for me sometimes involves seeking out and treaking vulnerable Americans in my community with low or no charge. HOWEVER, as a rational being, I know that any donations I make to charity (which so far, have been a pittance compared to what this family has done), will go much further if executed correctly in many other parts of the world. $800,000 used productively (ie - not just "giving out food and money" but instead creating self-sustaining programs which help folks get educated, grow food in an optimal way, and set up small businesses), can go way further in Ghana than it can in the US, where things are more expensive and the average person is way better off in absolute terms.
For the person who recommended that the Salwens donate money towards reducing the subprime burden in their own Atlanta community instead of picking out some 'random' Ghanian village, I say: (1) I would be delighted if instead of buying a yacht or a plane or keeping their mansion, they helped about 10 needy American families get back on their feet financially with $80,000 of debt forgiveness each; but (2) I am MORE delighted that they chose to make an impact that will help about 10 THOUSAND people get on their feet. People are people - no matter what patriotic way you slice it, helping a thousand Ghanians is more impactful than helping out one American. When you have little prior information about the person you're directing your philanthropy towards, why not donate where your money goes the furthest and can in fact be transformative?
Not that I have the authority to praise or criticize their decision in the first place... it's THEIR MONEY after all.
PS. The book is decently written and readable, not a masterpiece of literature... But I gave it five stars for the IDEA behind it and the hope that it will inspire many. Has definitely inspired me.
With the exception of matching the stereotype of an American family of four (father, mother, son, and daughter), the Salwens are not a typical American family. The parents are highly educated and have achieved sufficient financial success early in their careers to now pursue their dream jobs as a teacher and owner of a magazine start-up. The children attend an elite private school, play sports, take lessons, and go to camp. Admittedly having bought into achieving an ever-escalating standard of living, the Salwens still included community service into their lives by participating in Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, and the United Way, involving their children when possible.
One day, Hannah has an epiphany, and challenges why we cannot create equilibrium between the have and have-nots of the world. This eventually leads to a family decision to sell their large house, buy something half in size, and donate the difference to charity. Once they make this decision, the Salwen family moves quickly, buying a smaller house just a few blocks away, and they start a massive house cleaning, donating or throwing out things that will not fit in their new home. They immediately encounter some drawbacks to their plans, including concerned reactions from their friends, and that their larger house lingered on the market unsold.
In parallel to the moving activities, the Salwen family began to work on selecting a charity, beginning with defining their guiding principles, research, interviews of charities, and planning. They eventually agree to fund the building of two epicenters in Ghana. The epicenters support up to a dozen villages, each represent a $400,000, five-year commitment and aim to help the villagers become healthier and more self-reliant. For me, the most enjoyable parts of The Power of Half is the process of selecting the charities, the research done by Kevin Salwen on the reasons why the Western world has failed to "rescue" Africa, and the family's trip to Ghana.
Over time, the Salwen family begins to find great personal rewards and satisfaction from their plan. The two teen-age children become more confident, articulate, and mature. The family spends more time together, developing a deeper understanding of each other and closer bonds.
The commitment of the Salwen family is admirable, and funding their $800,000 donation through a dramatic change to their own lifestyle is something that very few people could or would actually do. Kevin Salwen's writing is professional, introspective, and respectful of his family and friends. The Power of Half is a powerful and enlightening book for anyone interested in charitable giving, reducing consumption, and developing family relationships. However (and I will probably get a lot of unhelpful votes for this!), at times the story is sanctimonious and the tone patronizing. Although I have a great deal of respect for what the Salwen family did, and think The Power of Half is well-written, the story is out of touch with the reality that exists for most American families.