Life & Style | General

They half it in them

For the Salwens, altruism is not an heroic act but a way of life. In an email interview with Bina Abraham, they explain how their idea to sell their dream house, move into a more modest one and donate half the profit to an NGO working in Ghana, has made them whole as a family.

  • By Bina Abraham, freelancer writer, Friday
  • Published: 00:00 October 1, 2010
  • Friday

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • The Salwens... (Kevin, Hannah, Joseph and Joan) "Before we downsized, we were a little worried. Would we feel squeezed? Two years later, I can tell you: It's the best move we ever made,'says Kevin in his book The Power of Half
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Three years ago in the United States, on a bright summer's day, Kevin Salwen, was returning home with his daughter Hannah who had gone to her friend's place for a sleepover when they stopped at a traffic light in Atlanta, Georgia.

While waiting for the lights to turn green, Hannah looked out of the window to her left and spotted a homeless man on the pavement clutching a sign that read ‘Hungry Homeless, please help'.

Of course, it was not the first time she had seen a homeless man on the streets of Georgia, but for some reason, the man and his placard touched a chord in her. She looked to her right and saw a shiny black sports car that had drawn up next to their car and was also waiting for the lights to turn green.

Hannah looked at the homeless man once again. For a few minutes she was lost in thought. Then she turned to her father and said, "Dad, if that man - she pointed to the right - didn't have such a nice car, that man there - she pointed to her left - could have a meal, couldn't he?"

"Yes," Kevin replied and always on the lookout for an instance to teach his children the value of altruism, continued, "If we didn't have such a nice car, he could have a nice meal." Little did he realise at the time that his words would pave the way for a major change in not only their life but also in the lives of hundreds of people across the globe.

Back home, and at the dinner table with other members of the family, Hannah was still wondering how she could help get a meal for the homeless man she saw standing by the road. "How about becoming a family that does more than just talk about making a difference in the world. How about making a difference, even if it's a small one?" she asked to no one in particular.

"But we do, don't we?'' said Joan, her mother.

"We volunteer at the local food bank, we write out cheques to charities...''

Hannah did not appear convinced.

"Then what do you want us to do?'' asked Joan, "Sell our house?"

"Yes!" responded an enthusiastic Hannah, much to her parents' disbelief. Let's do that, she said. We'll use half the money that we get from selling our home to buy a smaller house and give away the rest of the money to charity.

***

Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, the Salwens are an affluent family living the American dream.

Kevin, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and his wife, Joan, a former banking consultant at Accenture, had saved up enough money to buy their ‘dream' house - a five-bedroom, 6,500 square foot mansion with white Corinthian columns, wrap-around porches and four balconies.

It also boasted an elevator which went from the ground floor directly to Hannah's room.

"Joan and I grew up as children of schoolteachers; we hadn't grown up wealthy, but had earned a pretty good amount of money through hard work and a bit of luck."

Both took pains to inculcate an altruistic spirit into their children, Hannah and Joseph. As a family, they used to dedicate generous amounts of money and time to local charities. However, Hannah was not happy with what they were doing. "We can do a lot more and actually make a difference in the lives of people,'' she used to say often.

Now she was willing to give up her spacious home and a gorgeous venue to throw parties for her other teenage friends and use the money to make a difference in the lives of at least a few people who were less privileged.

A dream project

"I didn't expect Joan to put out the idea to sell her ‘dream house', the place we worked so hard to achieve." recollects Kevin.

But Hannah's idea - to do something more than just writing cheques and volunteering at food camps - set the family thinking.

Joan began conducting family meetings during the subsequent days on how to go about selling the house and donating half the proceeds to a worthy cause. She was keen to include the children in the discussions.

Hannah and Joseph too were giving up their house, their bedrooms and their backyards just as they were, so their views too deserved to be respected, she felt. Being a teacher and accustomed to dealing with children on a daily basis, Joan felt that empowering them early on was important. She was also sure that if the kids actively participated in the project, they would stick with it despite the traditionally-held belief that children have very short attention spans.

Kevin, although initially unsure about giving the children such a huge role in the decision-making process, now admits, "Joan proved correct on this one - our kids have become more responsible decision-makers in all facets of their lives".

 Making the change

Once the Salwens had made up their mind, it did not take long to find a buyer for their luxury house and two years ago they moved into their new house which was much smaller, less impressive and just a few blocks down the road from their stately mansion.

After settling in, and after careful deliberation, they decided to donate approximately $850,000 - half of the money they received from the sale of the house - to The Hunger Project. This non-profit organisation incorporated in California is making a huge difference in the lives of 25,000 villagers in Ghana, Africa.

"When choosing a charity to work with, the first step is to find one that is very much in line with your own values. The Hunger Project is entrepreneurial like us." Kevin says. "We love [the Hunger Project's] methodology of helping people in poverty improve their lives through their own vision, commitment and action. Beyond that, of course, people need to look for the basics - financial responsibility and good stewardship."

Half can be fulfilling

The process of donating a large sum of money for a social change was no mean feat, and the Salwens searched around for a "road map" on how to do it. Finding few, Joan suggested that they should log their own journey to share with others what they had learned. That led to the creation of their memoir, The Power of Half. The significance of ‘half' refers to the act of giving away to others half of whatever a person has in excess, says Kevin. The book was an instant best-seller and elicited rave reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Salwens' book, soaring in idealism and yet grounded in realism, can show Americans of any means how best to give back."

"Half is measurable." Kevin explains. "I think it's possible for most people to look at their own lives and see where they have more than enough time, talent or treasure [and decide on a portion to give away]. It may be as easy as how much television they watch each week or how long they spend on the internet. If they took half those hours and used them to visit children in a hospital or orphanage, they can change lives.

"We race through so many days of our lives, chasing more money or chasing the next event. We plan meeting after meeting. But what we began to realise is that living to accumulate material goods isn't a particularly fulfilling way to live. Giving to others is the most self-interested thing you can do - you'll feel more whole and fulfilled afterwards."

‘Before we downsized, we were a little worried. Would we feel squeezed? Two years later, I can tell you: It's the best move we ever made,' he says in his book The Power of Half.

Helping build the future

The Salwens did not just donate the money and forget about it. They were keen to find out how the money was being used in the various projects in Ghana. To that end they made frequent trips to Africa where they could witness The Hunger Project in action.

Says Kevin: "We used to gather together with the chiefs and community leaders and listen to them excitedly describe what they had accomplished with projects funds - better food security for famine times, creation of small businesses; building of new schools; advocating and funding electric power poles...

"Our trips to Africa are critical for us; we go there to support the people, not to work. The work is their job. We like the fact that the Hunger Project helps people build their own future. We also like that women are the centrepiece and are empowered to be change-agents in these communities."

A bold step

Contributing towards the betterment of the community is not something new for the Salwens. While Hannah started volunteering while in the fifth grade, working at a restaurant that serves homeless people, and at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Joseph now a 15 year old with a passion for baseball and music, began working at the food bank when he was eight years old.

Kevin and Joan too regularly helped raised funds for several charities in the US. But it was their move to sell their house and give away half the proceeds of the sale of the house to charity that truly caused a stir in the community.

"We sold our house so that we could be out there in the world for others. That's a more powerful way to live," says Kevin.

But not surprisingly, quite a few of their friends were surprised about their move and along with praise came a lot of criticism as well.

While some of their friends made it clear that it was simply not possible to follow their example of selling their houses and moving to smaller homes, others felt that the Salwens should be doing more for people from their own country from the money that they earned selling the house.

"We try to explain to people that we don't expect anyone else to sell their house.''

They can instead opt for other ways to give something back to society, he says, like offering their time or effort.

"Several of Hannah's friends are donating half their babysitting money to charities,'' says Kevin. "We know of a woman who bought a house which was half the size she originally had planned to buy when she moved to another city. We know of a group of schoolchildren who cleared out half their closets [and gave away the clothes to charity]."

However, what pains him "is when they attack us for not giving more to our own country's people. We believe that we are a global community that must work together and help others to promote opportunity and peace."

Half way there

The Salwens have initiated a lot of other ‘half' projects in their home. "We turned off our air conditioning this spring and early summer in an effort to cut our utility bills in half. We then gave that money (about $250) to an Atlanta organisation that helps people who cannot afford to pay their electricity bills.

Also, we often clear out half the food in out pantry and give it to the food bank." They have collated a number of suggestions of ‘half projects' for others to ensue in a series called 52 weeks of half-projects, which is due for release.

"Half projects are simple and effective. They have more impact when you do them together with a team that matters to you. For us, that was our family and we've never been closer." Kevin says.

"These days, we love to encourage people to enjoy the moment, especially the small moments, in which life unfolds. The journey matters more than the result."

To keep their well-wishers and friends up-to-date about their trips and projects, Kevin started maintaining a blog on their website (www.thepowerofhalf.com).

He regularly writes about their trips to Africa and India describing the various social projects they actively support.

Lavish praise

The Salwens have garnered praise for their efforts not only from their close friends, but also from celebrities. Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates, in an interview, once mentioned about the Salwens and their philanthropic efforts and urged people to take a lesson from their efforts. "I did not even know that she knew us." says Kevin. "But we were thrilled that anyone - celebrities included - wants to listen to our message [about how rewarding it is to be generous]."

Their favourite commend is from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. He lavished praised on Hannah, says Kevin. He said: "We often say that young people must not let themselves be infected by the cynicism of their elders. Hannah inoculated her family with the vision to dream a different world and the courage to help create it."

Hannah is now a 17 year old and a member of the university volleyball and swimming teams. The indomitable catalyst that transformed a family, aspires to be a nurse.

- Do you know of an individual, a group of people, a company or an organisation that is striving to make this world a better place? Every responsible, selfless act, however small or big, makes a difference. Write to Friday and tell us who these people are and what they do. We will bring you their stories in our weekly series, Making A Difference. You can email us at friday@gulfnews.com or to the pages editor at araj@gulfnews.com

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