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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A few questions with Kevin and Hannah Salwen

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At fourteen years old, Hannah Salwen had the sort of insight that some people never achieve in their entire lives. She glanced at a homeless man sitting near a Mercedes Benz and thought, "You know, Dad, if that man over there didn't have such a nice car, that man there could have a meal."

Her simple insight changed the direction of life for her entire family. Her father Kevin, a former writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal, and mother Joan, a retired Accenture partner and current school teacher, encouraged Hannah to find a way to make a difference. Together, they decided to sell their large Ansley Park home and move into one half the size, donating half the profits to charity. Now Kevin and Hannah have written The Power of Half, a book that chronicles the transformation of their family.

Hannah experienced a "eureka" type moment that changed the direction of your family's life. Where were you in when this happened?

We were at the intersection of the Buford Hwy Connector and Spring St in Midtown, coming home from Hannah's sleepover when when she saw the homeless man and the Mercedes juxtaposed. It was clear almost immediately by her phrase ("You know, Dad, if that man over there didn't have such a nice car, that man there could have a meal.") that this was an awakening of sorts. She was clearly recognizing the haves and have-nots and the injustice made her angry. Hannah says, "I was angry at myself, mainly, because I knew there so was more that I could do."

Did the rest of the family immediately respond to Hannah's idea? Was everyone already interested in living with less?

It was actually Joan who brought up the house idea. She had decided that if Hannah wanted so badly to fix the ills of the world, what was she willing to sacrifice to do that. So, when Joan said, "what do you want to do, sell this house? Give up your room?" Hannah jumped on the idea. I was willing to listen to what the ladies were hatching. Joseph thought it was a phase that might blow over. He wasn't exactly keen on the idea.

How did you settle on donating the profits to the Hunger Project?

We spent almost a year researching, debating, and voting on how to invest our funds harvested from the house sale. We started with the biggest questions: If we had a lot of money, would we want to help a few people a lot (say, help 2 or 3 homeless people completely turn around their lives) or a lot of people a little (say, buy thousands of vaccines for poor people). We decided to invest our funds from this project overseas because we already invest a lot of our time and money in Atlanta (with Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Cafe 458 and other places). In fact, we have increased both the time and money spent in Atlanta causes during this time. The other main reason for working in Africa is that there is a complete lack of safety net for the chronically poor there (people living on less than $1 a day).

We decided on The Hunger Project because we love their methodology of helping villagers move from poverty to self-reliance over a 5 year period. In other words, it uses a patient capital approach. Two other things: THP focuses on women as the agents of change during this process (women must make up at least 50% of the governing board). Also, all the work and is done by villagers, not by Westerners, helping people recognize that they are building their own future, not having it handed to them.

After you decided on this plan, was it easy to execute?

The biggest issue we had is that we decided to move forward at just about the same time that the real estate market began to tank. We lowered our sales price multiple times, and in the end sold our house more than 2 years after we first put it on the market. We had made the mistake of buying the smaller house first, so we ended up owning 2 homes for MUCH longer than we hoped.

When did you decide to write about this?

We decided to write about this when it became clear that this project was transforming our family -- bringing a level of connectedness and trust among us. In other words, we were making a small difference in the world and had completely changed ourselves. When we realized that there wasn't a roadmap for other families or groups, we decided that we could help people do their own "half" project and in turn help themselves and the world.

Hannah, you devote a lot of your time to volunteering. Do your friends get it?

My friends totally get it. They know that I love being part of the community -- and most of them do too. I'm certainly not alone! Some of my friends have actually started to create their own "half" project, giving away babysitting money and things like that. I've been really excited about how supportive my friends have been.

Kevin and Hannah Salwen will host a launch party for The Power of Half at Barnes and Noble in Buckhead tonight, Wed., Feb. 3 at 7 pm. On Mon., Feb. 8 at 7 :15 pm, Kevin and Hannah will read at the Decatur Library Auditorium.

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

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