Atlanta teen Hannah Salwen knew that many other people were struggling, while her own family had more than they needed - so she convinced them to trade in their luxurious mansion for a small home and donate $800,000 to charity.
Four years ago, while driving his 14-year-old daughter Hannah home from a sleepover, Kevin Salwen pulled up at a red light. On one side of his car was a shiny black Mercedes in the next lane. On the sidewalk was a homeless man, holding up a sign asking for money to buy a meal.
The disparity between the two images shocked his daughter—and she made a perfectly reasonable proposition, or so it seemed to her. “I said to my dad, ‘If that guy didn’t have such a nice car, then that guy could have a nice meal,’ ” Hannah told CNN in 2008.
The light changed before Hannah could knock on the Mercedes driver’s window to tell him the same thing, but the Salwen family still wasn’t off the hook. Hannah wanted to do something to help the less fortunate, and believed that her family needed to get on board.
“What do you want to do?” asked Hannah’s mother, half joking. “Sell our house?”
In fact, that sounded like a fantastic idea to Hannah. The family’s luxurious 6,500-square foot home was worth around $1.6 million—so why didn’t they trade it in for a smaller house at half the cost, and donate the other $800,000 to charity?
Not everyone in the family was wild about the idea initially. Hannah’s mother, Joan, considered it her dream home, and her younger brother loved having a large room with space for all his toys. But nonetheless, when Hannah told her family that was what she wanted to do, the rest of them jumped on board.
“It was a challenge,” said Joan. “It was a test, almost, to see: How committed are we? I mean, how serious are these kids about what we should do? And they all nodded and there we were.”
The family put the house on the market in 2007, and launched a website sharing details about their project, called Hannah’s Lunchbox. They picked out a smaller, far more modest home to move into.
The other $800,000 would be given to a non-profit group called The Hunger Project, and would be distributed to more than 40 villages in Ghana. The money would go towards building infrastructure and support systems to help villagers become self-sufficient and independent. The Hunger Project’s vice-president, John Coonrod, believes the money could help as many as 20,000 people.
Now, Hannah and her father have teamed up to write a book about the project, The Power of Half, about how a teenage girl’s idealism helped her family to look beyond themselves and make a true difference in the lives of others.
If you’re inspired by the Salwens’ example, but aren’t ready to pack up and move just yet, don’t worry—there are plenty of other things you can do.
“No one expects anyone to sell a house,” Hannah told the New York Times. “That’s kind of a ridiculous thing to do. For us, the house was just something we could live without. It was too big for us. Everyone has too much of something, whether it’s time, talent or treasure. Everyone does have their own half, you just have to find it.”