‘Everyone has the power to give’

The Power of Half, April 2011

Author to share message for Jewish community’s Mitzvah Week

By Masada Siegel
Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Life is about perspective. Do you see the glass as half empty or half full? More importantly, what can you do to impact the world in a positive way?

The book The Power of Half is one family’s journey of wrestling with their own realities.

Kevin Salwen

While living a life of privilege, the Salwens changed their priorities from improving their own lives to making a difference for others. Through downsizing, they became richer and more fulfilled than they ever dreamed.

Kevin Salwen, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and his daughter, Hannah, wrote the book. On April 13, he’ll be in Dayton for the Jewish community’s Mitzvah Week.

“People strive to get more stuff,” he explains. “We live in a culture (in which) people judge you on what you have.”

He says it all changed for his family in the fall of 2006 when Hannah, then 14, was in the car with him and they were stopped at a red light.

“There was a homeless person on one side and a black Mercedes on the other,” Salwen says.

The scene didn’t sit well with Hannah, who wanted to see more justice in the world, to level inequities.

While Salwen and his wife tried to explain to Hannah that as a family, they did give back to the community — that their donations of time and money were meaningful — she remained unsatisfied.

After many conversations with Hannah, Salwen says his wife was fed up. “She said to our daughter, ‘What do you want us to do? To sell the house and give up your room?’”

Hannah grinned. This began the journey that changed them from the inside out.

They decided to downsize and dedicate half the price of their old, 6,500-square-foot house — about $800,000 — to help alleviate hunger in Ghana.

“The real story is what it did for our family’s relationships,” Salwen says. “The process turned us into a family.  We became more connected, and now have a deeper set of relationships which are much healthier than before. We spent a year trying to invest our money and how to do it correctly.  We wanted to get it right.”

The family not only viewed themselves in a different light, they learned about cultures worldwide.

“Some of the people I have the most respect for are people in villages in Africa. They are creative, innovative, thoughtful. They are my heroes.”

He observes that there is a specific way to make meaningful, positive change; it’s not about handouts, but a hand up.

“It is all about people lifting themselves out of poverty. People have the ability to build their own futures. It is a long-term strategy. It is about shared responsibility.”

When the Salwens first embarked on their giving, their money was used in Africa. They’ve now expanded their programs closer to home, in metro Atlanta. The Salwens coordinate their work through www.hungerproject.org.

Salwen continues to write and is a public speaker motivating people of all walks of life, including at the Air Force Academy.

Though he says his family of “accidental philanthropists” made a good amount of money, their income was not  “what people typically associate with being a philanthropist.”

He believes everyone has the power and ability to give.

“People can be more generous and philanthropic than they ever thought they could be. It’s so easy for all of us to lose sight (of) why we are on this planet with the way we live our lives. You would think having stuff is the most important thing on earth.

“Our belief is we can be the support for people who build their own future. Commitment has to be all theirs.”

Before Salwen’s talk, he’ll have dinner with teenagers from across the Jewish community. At the dinner, each teenager will receive $5 to help those in need.

They’ll talk with Salwen about projects they could consider. The students who touch the most lives will receive prizes.

“We all have hunger, the same kinds of needs to be connected,” he says. “There are two types of hunger: the hunger to eat and survive, and the hunger where people need to be connected and to give.”

The DJCC will present Kevin Salwen discussing The Power of Half on Wednesday, April 13 at 7 p.m. at Temple Beth Or in conjunction with Mitzvah Week. The program is free.

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