The Salwen family of Atlanta, GA has taken an interesting path to help other people. Inspired by 14-year old Hannah Salwen’s compassion for a homeless man in her neighborhood, the Salwens decided to sell their home and give half the money from the sale to charity. Two of the Salwens – husband and father Kevin, and daughter Hannah – have written about their experience in a new book called “The Power of Half”. Marco Werman talks with Kevin and Hannah Salwen.
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MARCO WERMAN: Greed clearly a big factor in that British Parliamentary scandal. Our next story is about the reverse impulse, altruism. A few years ago the Salwen family in Atlanta decided they wanted less. It all started when Kevin Salwen and his then 14-year-old daughter Hannah were in their car stopped at a traffic light. Hannah looked out the window.
HANNAH SALWEN: And I saw a homeless man sitting there holding up a sign that said homeless, please help. Pretty typical scene. Then to my right, I saw a man in a Mercedes. I looked at my dad and I said, you know, if that man in the Mercedes didn’t have such a nice car, then that man, the homeless man, could have a meal. My dad thought about it for a second and then he turned back to me and he said yeah, but you know if we didn’t have such a nice car then that man could have a meal. And that was kind of the beginning of the project.
WERMAN: That project was the Salwen’s attempt to figure out how, as a family, they could give up some of what they had in order to help others. What they decided to give up was their house. No, they didn’t become homeless, but the Salwen’s did put their 6,000 square foot home on the market. Then they moved into a smaller house and committed $800,000.00 to a good cause. They chose the hunger project, a charity that’s using the money to support community programs in dozens of villages in Ghana. The family documents their experience in a book called The Power of Half. Kevin Salwen says the decision to sell their house was a big one, but it made sense to them.
KEVIN SALWEN: We’re not suggesting that anybody cut their complete lives in half, we don’t do that. We chose one item in which we felt we had more than enough and we felt we could live with less. And we cut that in half, in part because it’s kind of simple to say some for us, some for the community, and then live to that standard.
WERMAN: Hannah how did you get from the idea of wanting to help, to actually selling the house, or convincing your parents to do so?
HANNAH SALWEN: Well, when I got home that night I talked to my brother and my mom about what I had seen and how I had felt and I felt really angry that I wasn’t doing all that I could do and that I knew that there was so much, and so many ways that I could be helping and I wasn’t doing that. I said to my mom I don’t want to be a family that just talks about doing something. I really want to get out there and make a difference. My mom kind of in a fit of frustration said what do you want to do? You want to sell the house? And I said yeah. Yeah I do. That was kind of how it started. We finally all got on the same page and moved forward with the project.
WERMAN: So, Kevin, you decided to give half the value of your house to help others and you decided to give that money to the Hunger Project to help villages in Ghana. Tell me about that decision and what the Hunger Project is.
KEVIN SALWEN: We spent about a year as a family getting together on Sundays because what we were trying to do was actually figure out, how do you invest $800,000.00 smartly? And so one of the interesting things that my wife insisted on was giving our kids a perfectly equal say in our family decisions. One person, one vote. In other words, the hormonal, sometimes irrational teenagers would actually have the same say as the rational parents in this. The thinking behind that was that we recognized that our kids were giving up their house. They were giving up their rooms. And they should have as much power in this process as we did. And so, we started with the big questions, if we had a bunch of money would we want to help a few people a lot, in other words, say that homeless man that Hannah had seen on the street? Or did we want to help a lot of people a little? In other words, maybe provide thousands and thousands of vaccines for people across the world. And each week we would research, discuss, and vote. And it moved us down the path of making a decision.
WERMAN: And getting, specifically, to the Hunger Project.
KEVIN SALWEN: Yeah, and once we had whittled it down to several organizations, we recognized that the Hunger Project really was a cut above.
WERMAN: Why is that?
KEVIN SALWEN: Well, what we love about the Hunger Project is the fact that it’s complete empowerment of the people who are building their own futures. The Hunger Project is a five year program that helps villagers move from poverty to self-reliance. All the work is done by the people in the villages and it’s a recognition that people are the authors of their own futures.
WERMAN: It’s interesting, your decision making process that got you to the Hunger Project as the vehicle for your money and helping Ghana. But on the other hand I think of Haiti and it’s shown how Americans getting involved overseas can often have disastrous consequences. Were you conscious of that as you had these meetings?
KEVIN SALWEN: We were absolutely conscious of that. As we researched this, we started to recognize that there is really two camps. One is kind of the, we’re from the west, we’re here to show you what to do, or worse, we’re from the west, we’re here to do it for you. I think that’s been a disaster for economic aid. When Americans go into places and say let us do this for you because you need a well, or you need a school, often times those things are just a flop. And so what we started to search for in our process was which organizations are actually making change that is long-lasting, that is empowering of the people who are the recipients of it, because they’re not really recipients, they’re full partners in it. We found that the Hunger Project’s methodology was just flat out different.
WERMAN: And Hannah, what do you think is the connection between that man, that homeless man that you saw in the streets of Atlanta, and the people you met in the rural villages you visited in Ghana?
HANNAH SALWEN: Yeah, you know, it’s crazy. When we were in Ghana, I probably met some of the nicest people I’d ever met in my life and it was just so crazy to see how much they live without. I mean, thinking about how we live, and it was just so unbelievable to see those differences and see those cultural differences and be able to talk to people personally. We went to the opening of a corn mill and it was unbelievable to see people so excited about something we take for granted every day and just the symbolism of this corn mill was that these girls, mainly, didn’t have to walk six miles round trip to get their corn milled an instead could do it right here and then could go to school. So this corn mill actually meant education for their community.
WERMAN: Why even help people, I know this is going to sound very cruel coming from me, but why help people overseas when you were very conscious of the homeless people right in your backyard in Atlanta?
KEVIN SALWEN: We do a ton of work here in Atlanta. It sounds boastful, and I don’t mean it to be, but you’ll see us a lot at the Atlanta Community Food Bank or the Central Night Shelter. We do a lot of work in our community. But we felt that there is no safety net overseas and we felt we could help build one. And, in addition, it really goes down to the question of how do you find community? Is it your street? Is it your neighborhood? Is it your city, your state, your country, the world? We happen to feel that we could do work very close to home, right here in our own community, but that also that our community meant going out into the world to build opportunity for others.
WERMAN: Kevin Salwen and his daughter Hannah Salwen’s new book is called The Power of Half, one family’s decision to stop taking and start giving back. Thank you both very much.
HANNAH SALWEN: Thank you so much.
KEVIN SALWEN: It’s great to be here, thank you.
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