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The Power of Half

Sometimes a big idea starts with noticing small things. One day 14-year-old Hannah Salwen was in the car with her father, stopped at a stoplight under a bridge. Hannah noticed that just off the road on her right was a homeless person carrying a cardboard sign asking for help, and to the left of their car was a very expensive Mercedes. Why, she wondered aloud to her father, couldn't the person to the left of them have a cheaper car so the person to the right of them could have enough to eat? Kevin, Hannah's father, agreed that she had a good point, but, he said, even the car they were driving in was certainly beyond what many people could afford.

For many people, the conversation would have ended there, but Hannah has a fire inside, a passion for justice that doesn't quit. And so she brought the question to her family. Why did they have so much when others had so little? Her parents responded by mentioning some things the family had done. They had volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, and Hannah's mom had left a very highly paid business job to become a teacher. Together the family delivered food through Meals on Wheels. The kids were required to set aside a third of their allowance to buy groceries for the homeless. Weren't they doing enough? And then Joan, Hannah's mom, threw out an idea that was only half-way a joke: Should they sell the beautiful historic mansion they lived in, get a smaller, cheaper house, and give away the money from the sale?

Hannah fell in love with idea immediately. Yes! That's exactly what they should do. Sell the house, use half the money to get another home half the size, and give away the other half of the money. At first Hannah's brother Joe thought she was nuts. Why would they want to move out of a house that was the envy of all their friends? And Kevin and Joan had to think long and hard about a decision that would have such a big effect on their family's finances.

But Hannah kept pushing. It was something they could do, and something they should do.

Through a whole series of family meetings, in which each person had an equal vote, the Salwens not only decided to sell their lovely home, they also figured out what to do with the money. They researched the kinds of needs that existed in the world and decided together that their money could make the biggest difference in Africa. Then they researched organizations working to make life better for people in different parts of Africa. The Salwens wanted to work with an organization that supported people in making their own lives better, not one that just went in and helped poor people without ideas and effort from the folks they were helping. The family traveled to meet with officials from four different organizations, and ended up choosing The Hunger Project, which helped villagers in Ghana to build community service centers.

In the meantime, the project got harder than anyone had expected. The housing market took a sudden drop, the economy tanked, and no one wanted to buy the Salwens' house for anything close to the 1.6 million dollars they had been expecting to get for it. But they had already committed $800,000 to the Hunger Project, and they didn't want to go back on their word. When their house eventually sold, there was a gap of $300,000 between what they had promised and the money they had available. The day was saved when a publisher agreed to pay $380,000 for the rights to a book that Joe and Hannah would write about their experiences. That book, The Power of Half, talks about the journey the family went through as they figured out their life-changing gift. It talks about the literal journey to Ghana they took, to see their project once it was underway. But more than, that it talks about how their family changed for the better when they all caught Hannah's fire to make a difference.

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Last updated on Tuesday, August 21, 2012.

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