‘Power of Half’ is full of inspiration

By Bill Williams
February 15, 2010

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Three years ago Kevin Salwen and his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, were driving in their Atlanta neighborhood when Hannah noticed a homeless man and, nearby, a man in a Mercedes. She wondered aloud about the inequity, which prompted a spirited family discussion.

The Salwens - mom, dad, and two children - lived in a $2 million mansion. They had given generously to charities and volunteered in soup kitchens and for Habitat for Humanity, but precocious Hannah wished they could do more. When mom half-jokingly suggested that one option might be to sell the house, move into a much smaller one, and give away the difference, the family embraced the idea.

“The Power of Half’’ is a spirited chronicle of the family’s search for ways to make a meaningful contribution to help the less fortunate. The Salwens spend a year studying homelessness, hunger, illiteracy, and other issues, eventually deciding to focus on world poverty.

One of the best parts of the book is the Salwens’ conscientious effort to determine what type of aid programs actually work. Kevin Salwen, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, discovers that Western nations have poured $2.3 trillion into Third World countries since the late 1950s, with little to show for it. He learns that aid works best if local people decide for themselves how the money will be spent and if they stay fully involved from beginning to end.

After completing their research, the Salwens take the unusual step of interviewing executives at four aid groups before finally settling on the Hunger Project. That organization sets up “epicenters’’ that serve groups of nearby villages. Epicenters typically include a meeting hall, a microloan bank, a food storage facility, and a health center, and run programs aimed at helping villagers become more economically self-reliant.

The Salwens agree to fund the construction and operation of two epicenters for five years at a total cost of $800,000 in Ghana, a West African nation where four out of five people live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations. Much more than a story about a family’s generosity, “The Power of Half’’ celebrates the way the Salwens come together to complete the project. From the start, they agree that every aspect will be a group decision.

Beyond tracing the story of the Salwens, the book also tries in a nonthreatening way to encourage readers to get involved. Notably, the Salwens never urge others to sell their homes. Instead, they push the idea that most people can give more, even if it means simply cutting their latte consumption in half. A particularly endearing feature of the book is a series of short essays titled Hannah’s Take that offers suggestions for parents and teens, such as going on a 30-hour family fast to directly experience hunger.

Although the book has the trappings of a feel-good family odyssey, it unfortunately ends a bit abruptly. All we know is that the Salwens have committed $800,000 to a five-year project that is just beginning, which raises the question of whether it will become just another example of a Band-Aid.

“What happens if this doesn’t work?’’ Hannah wonders. “I mean, what happens if we go back five years from now and nothing is different for the people we’re trying to help.’’

Good questions. The answers may require a sequel.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

THE POWER OF HALF: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back
By Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp., $24