The Power of Half

A well-to-do American family downsizes and gives almost a million dollars to charity.

The Power of Half By Kevin and Hannah Salwen Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 256 pp., $24

For the Salwen family, living the American dream meant residing in a 6,000-square-foot historic mansion in Atlanta. It meant the best private schools, three Viking stoves in the kitchen, and a working elevator.

To balance this deluxe lifestyle, the Salwen family emphasized service and charity. Kevin Salwen swung hammers for Habitat for Humanity. His wife, Joan, delivered meals to the elderly and worked with United Way. Their children, Hannah and Joseph, volunteered at a food bank and were required to give a portion of their allowance to charity.

But the Salwens’ lives were forever changed one day as 14-year-old Hannah sat in the passenger seat of her family’s silver Scion, waiting at a red light with her father. On one side of her was a sleek, black Mercedes. And on the other side, the Salwens write in The Power of Half, “perched in front of a rusting chainlink fence, was a homeless man. We would never learn his name, and he would never know the enormous impact he would have on our family – or on the lives of thousands of others.”

Hannah turned to her father and said, “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.”

With that sentence, Hannah set the course for a major sea change in the Salwen family. Three days later, her mom, Joan, asked, “What do you want to do – sell our house? Move into a smaller one and give what’s left over to charity?” Right there, over Chinese takeout, the Salwen family decided to do something radical.
And so they came up with their plan: Sell their lavish home and downsize to a home worth half the value. Then donate half the proceeds and, hopefully, make a huge difference in many people’s lives.

Call it charity as extreme sport.

Half their home’s proceeds, it turned out, was nearly $800,000. After discussions that lasted the better part of a year, the Salwens ultimately decided to help combat poverty in Ghana and began working with a nonprofit called The Hunger Project. The Salwen donation would be used to build two central multipurpose community buildings that include a library, agricultural education programs, a community food bank, and countless other community resources. A monetary match from a New York-based foundation came in, ultimately allowing their gift to fund four epicenters and to reach over 40,000 people.

Interestingly, through their research and discussions with multiple aid agencies, the Salwens come to understand that the most effective help isn’t always hands-on. Often, real change comes from giving communities the education and resources they need to become self-reliant.

The Salwens learned a lot about the state of the world as well as their own priorities and passions. The project brought them closer together and taught them lessons about what they really needed to lead fulfilling lives. That said, most people don’t own mansions, and “downsizing” to a
$1 million house might not feel like a sacrifice to the majority of Americans.

Throughout the book there are too many moments where the language about other cultures is off-putting. At one point Joan says, “Yuck. I have no interest in going to India. I don’t think we can handle those slums in Calcutta.” Or when they prepare for their trip to Ghana, Kevin worries, “Would there be disgusting bugs and inedible food? Would our lodging be awful? Would we feel put off by the human conditions we encountered?”

All pretense of compassion fades away in those moments, leaving the reader to wonder about the Salwens’ motivation. Surely they wanted to help those in need, but did they also experience a bit too much satisfaction in the sport of the project or the NBC cameras that suddenly appeared? Kevin claims to understand how fortunate they are, yet each reference to their wealth seems to reveal how disconnected he actually is with middle- or working-class American families.

However, that fault alone doesn’t negate the value of the book. Families in all income brackets can be inspired by the Salwens’ experience to boldly do something for others, to reconsider their spending and their stuff, and to live in better alignment with their values.

Kim Schmidt is a freelance writer in Champaign, Ill.

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