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The Other Half

Hannah Salwen looked left. She saw a man who was homeless, sitting on a fence. She looked right, at the Mercedes beside them at the intersection. "Dad," she said, "if that man"—she pointed to the Mercedes—"had a less nice car, that man there" —she pointed to the man who was homeless—"could have a meal." Hannah's father, Kevin answered, "Um, yeah. But you know, if we had a less nice car, he could have a meal."

So began the saga of the Salwen family and how they learned you can give away millions, and still receive something greater in return.

The Salwen family was sitting pretty. Kevin and Joan had successful jobs, with nice incomes and benefits. In 1994, they moved with baby Hannah to Atlanta and bought a historic home on Peachtree Circle. Joseph was born soon after. They went to church and believed in helping others. Joan chaired the United Way campaign at her workplace to collect money for charity. Kevin and Joseph built homes for Habitat for Humanity. Hannah spent many more hours at the soup kitchen than she needed to fill a community service requirement at school. They were, by most standards, good people. Yet, after the stop light epiphany, Hannah began to wonder if it was enough. She challenged the rest of the family to think bigger. The stakes were raised when Joan asked if they really needed their two million dollar mansion. This question led to a series of family meetings. Opinions flew fast and furious. "What is it you want to accomplish?" "Am I supposed to give up everything I own?" "How much do we really need?" After many discussions—some ending in anger, some in tears—the decision was made: They would sell their house, give half of it away to people in need, and move into a smaller home.

One million dollars is a lot of money. More family meetings were called for to decide how and where to spend it. In the process, the Salwens made a discovery: They had drifted apart. Sports, time with friends, working late, electronic entertainment, and other distractions occupied so much of their time that quality time spent together was virtually nonexistent. Now that they were meeting to discuss how to spend "the half," they remembered how much fun they had together. They discussed topics that were meaningful. Brother and sister became closer.

The family listened to presentations from several organizations eager to put their gift to good use. They picked The Hunger Project. There were complications. They committed to donating money, but their house was hard to sell. They had to repeatedly reduce the price. Now, the sale of the house would not amount to the money they pledged to donate. Family meeting. The decision? They would find ways to make up the deficit and stick to their original promise.

In the end, the Salwens donated enough money to build a community center in Ghana. The Salwens traveled to Ghana to meet the people in the villages. They listened to the villagers decide what they could use the most. The new center included a mill that villagers use to grind their grain so they could sell it for more to other villages. There was space for a schoolroom for girls, and a clinic. This relationship has grown over the last few years to include another village and the Salwens have donated more than the original million, as they have discovered other sources to generate income for projects, including writing a book, The Power of Half. One dollar from each book sale goes to Rebuilding Together, which provides money for critical home repairs to low income homeowners.

The Salwens keep giving. But they also want everyone to know that what they receive—the liberation from materialism, the joy of seeing other families pull themselves out of poverty—is more precious than gold.

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Last updated on Thursday, March 15, 2012.

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