When then-14-year-old Hannah Salwen saw a homeless man on the roadside next to an idling luxury car, she had an epiphany: By having a little less, her family could give others a lot. In 2006, her family sold its home, bought one half its size and donated the proceeds to The Hunger Project, which helps villagers—in this case, 30,000 in Ghana—move from poverty to self-reliance. Their book, The Power of Half, chronicles the Salwens' experiences.
Photography By Brad Kaye
How have your classmates responded to " The Power of Half "?
For the most part, everyone at Atlanta Girls’ School has been very supportive. I definitely get my share of friendly teasing at school—like for being on TV or for being Miss Goody Two Shoes—but it’s good-natured. My classmates are a very generous group in their own right, so they see how what our family has done is just another expression of their own generosity. Beyond that, a number of my friends at AGS have started their own Half projects, including a couple who are donating half of their babysitting money to environmental causes. That’s pretty flattering.
Tell us about your generation.
I think my generation is a group of can-do optimists. Around our family, we always say, “If you’re not optimistic about the younger generation, you’re not paying attention.” That’s because teens are growing up with great technology that allows us to learn quickly, become engaged more easily and solve problems. I think that will help us be real change-agents as we get older, being very innovative about world problems. Of course, there are a ton of social problems here at home and out there in the world. We’ve got a lot of work to do!
Who inspires you?
If you had asked me that a few years back, I would have said Mother Teresa for her amazing generosity. But in recent years, I’ve become equally amazed by ordinary people doing extraordinary things. For instance, Rosa Parks did a simple thing that had remarkable impact. And I think about the nurses we met in the remote villages of Ghana. They are the entire health-care system in those communities and save lives every single day. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m inspired all the time by everyday heroes.
How do you stay inspired?
I guess I just get out there in the world and see the need. Then when I do something or give something, I realize how good it makes me feel. My dad was telling me the other day about all this new brain research that shows that giving triggers endorphins similar to a runner’s high; some people are starting to call this the “giver’s high.” When I give, it’s almost impossible for me NOT to feel good.
What did you learn from this experience?
I think the biggest lesson is that giving is the most self-interested thing you can do. We’re making a small difference in the world but in doing so we grew much more connected to each other and raised our level of trust in one another. I know more about my parents and my brother Joe than I ever did before. We have a way to communicate that is based on a level of togetherness that is far greater than what we had before. That’s our most important message, really: The Power of Half is a relationships book not really a giving book. You can connect to the most important people in your world much more deeply if you do a simple charitable project together. (OK, maybe ours wasn’t so simple. Hahaha). But seriously, it’s okay to be out there in the world for others for selfish reasons like wanting to be closer to your family or your neighbors.
What lesson do you hope to share with others?
We think everyone has more than enough of something in their lives, whether it’s time or talent or treasure. For example, maybe you spend 6 hours a week online surfing or doing Facebook. If you cut that down to 3 and got together with your family or your community, you would have an amazing new resource available to share with the world. Like you could use those hours to visit kids in a cancer clinic or to clean up a neighborhood park. Or you could take half your vacation, do a “staycation” with the other half and donate half the funds to the Ronald McDonald House so that others could visit their sick relatives. There are thousands of options. I’m sure others can come up with much better ideas but the lesson is the same: We can all do a Half project and make the world a little better while improving our relationships.
Can one person make a difference?
Of course. In fact, that’s the only way to start. Get involved, be passionate. Try to make a difference in one other person’s life. I think people then find it’s contagious.
What is your proudest moment?
That’s a tough one. It might be when Archbishop Desmond Tutu praised me and my family for our project. (He said, “We often say that young people must not let themselves be infected by the cynicism of their elders. Hannah inoculated her family with the vision to dream a different world and the courage to help create it.”) I mean, here’s one of the true heroes of our lifetime for his work in South Africa paying attention to our little project. It was awesome.
Do you miss your former house?
In some ways I miss the nice backyard and the beautiful kitchen. And how could I not miss the elevator that went into my room? But when I walk past that house now and I realize that we’re helping 30,000 villagers wake up with a little more opportunity in their lives, I wouldn’t take that big house back in a million years.
What do you love most about where you live now?
We live more closely space-wise and as a result we live more connected. One easy example is our ping-pong table. At our old house, our ping-pong table had it’s own floor; it lived down in the basement and we almost never played. We just didn’t think about it. In our new house, we decided to keep the ping-pong table even though we don’t have a basement to put it in. But now we play 5 or 6 times a week. At one of our talks, someone said to us, “It took half a house to make you feel whole.” It was such a great line and I wish I had come up with it, but it really expresses how we feel.
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