The Power of Half, by Kevin and Hannah Salwen (LentBooks 2010 #13)

For my last book of Lent this year, I chose this short book written by a father and daughter (actually, the book is mainly written by dad Kevin, with short chapters and reflections by his teenaged daughter Hannah) about one American family’s experiment to do more to help others. The Salwens were an upper-class, upwardly-mobile family with a lavish Atlanta home when Hannah’s social conscience spurred them to think about doing more than just writing cheques to charities and occasionally volunteering at the food bank.  They made the bold decision to sell their house, buy one that cost about half as much, and donate the difference to a project that would help feed the hungry in Africa.

This is such a “Wow!” idea it’s hard not to be captivated by it.  The book describes the messier reality behind that engaging soundbite. First of all, the Salwens chose to do this just as the American economy, particularly the real-estate market, was tanking. So while they were quickly able to buy and move into a smaller house, they had to wait almost two years to unload the bigger house, and realized much less from the sale than they had anticipated (though still, obviously, a healthy chunk of change, enough to buy my house a few times over).

Another change to the original vision came when the Salwens actually started investigating the project in which they wanted to invest.  They had envisioned themselves as hands-on givers, getting involved in an African community, building schools or digging wells.  But when they started to learn more about the trillions of dollars of foreign aid that have been poured into Africa over the last few decades without any apparent improvement in the lives on millions of Africans, they learned that short-term volunteerism by Westerners (including many church-driven mission trips) can actually have a negative impact on communities in developing countries.  That was thought-provoking and eye-opening for me. 

The Salwens ended up partnering with The Hunger Project, an organization committed to grassroots projects developed and managed by local people.  On their family trip to Ghana, the Salwens found themselves reduced to spectators on the sidelines, offering money for projects that Ghanaians were doing themselves.  This was frustrating for a family that had wanted to be hands-on doers rather than just cheque-writers, but they learned some valuable lessons along the way about what works and what doesn’t work in helping others.

Most interesting to the Salwens was the impact the project had on them as a family, drawing them closer together and helping build the leadership skills and social conscience of their two teenage children.  Their story is still unfolding (you can learn more about it at their website), but a big piece of it, for them, is challenging other families to find their own “power of half.” 

No, we don’t all own overlarge luxury homes with entire rooms we barely use, which we can sell and comfortably move into something half the size.  But we all have some areas in our lives where making sacrifices could help us move towards discovering our own “power of half” and our own power to help in the world.  The Power of Half is a simple book with nothing earth-shattering in either the writing or the story.  Its power is in how it might get you thinking, and what it might inspire you (or me) to do.

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Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- memoir

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