The Power of Half

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Lessons learned from the Salwen family, who sold their home and donated half the proceeds to charity -things do go wrong – negative (mean) comments – you don’t have to be Mother Teresa – democracy in decision making – to volunteer or not to volunteer?

Boston Globe reporter Joseph Kahn had something to teach us:

Before we left for our trip, Joseph P. Kahn interviewed us for an article in the Boston Globe.  I was very impressed as he had done his homework and already knew many of the details of our plans.  An alarming number of people assume we are raising funds for our travel and volunteer work, but he knew we are paying all of those costs ourselves.  He also knew about most of the charities and the projects for which we were raising money.

One would think that the information transfer would be mainly from our family to Mr. Kahn, but it didn’t turn out that way.  Did you ever have someone ask you a few questions and later you realize they were teaching you something – but in the best way – the way in which you realize it yourself from their questions?

A democracy?

He asked several questions about whether we had made of our decisions as a family…how much the kids were involved in the planning, what the process had been up to that point.  Then he talked about the Salwen family, who wrote about their quest to sell their house and donate half the proceeds to charity in their book, “The Power of Half”.  He pulled out his own copy of the book and gave it to me.

A great read about an ordinary family trying to do some good

I read the entire book on the plane to Russia.  It was fascinating in so many ways.  Don’t get me wrong…I don’t put us in the same category as the Salwen family.  They sold their house and gave half of the proceeds to a charity.  But there are similarities, and reading the book was very enlightening.

First, the point I think Mr. Kahn was trying to get across:  they tried to do the planning as a family.

After reading the book, I think the reality is that the Salwen parents made most of the real decisions and the kids helped according to their interest level and their capacity to make the huge decision about where to donate $800,000.  Their son didn’t really want to sell the house and move, but how much choice do you have when the rest of the family is on board with that?  But regardless of how much their kids actually decided, they did make a pact to run things as a democracy and to have the kids vote on important decisions.  That, and the whole experience in general, brought them closer together as a family.

The kids had to get on board first

I thought back to the 15 months of planning we did for our trip.  Jennifer, my oldest, did help a lot with decision making.  But Alex and Bella didn’t even want to leave home for this year-long trip.  Alex was reluctant to raise money exclusively for others while we spent our savings on the travel and volunteer opportunities.  The situation at the time did not allow for a democracy.

I look at the trip as a huge learning experience, and I looked at the younger kids reluctance as similar to the reluctance of young children who do not want to go to kindergarten.  It’s different, scary, lots of work, and some kids think of it as worse/different than it really is.  But you know it is the right thing, so you make them go.  Now that they are traveling, the kids love it and are soaking up the new experiences.  (We will see how they do when we are in Africa, volunteering each day :-)  The idea is to start with travel and work up to volunteer work in developing countries.)

Working up to a democracy

I think now is the time where I can start shifting decision making power to the group, and I am more inspired to do so thanks to Mr. Kahn and the Salwen family.  I’ve already done that with Meagan and Jennifer and I think it is working out well.  Today they helped decide whether to wait for a town in Cambodia to be assigned to us for the school construction we want to fund, or to apply the funds we raise to a school that has already recently been constructed.  Their opinion was that we can best assure ourselves and our donors that the money is truly funding an additional school if we wait for one to be assigned – along process – so we can be sure we are not just supplementing the existing budget of the Ministry of Education in Cambodia.  (Of course, the funds we raise are controlled by a non-profit, so our Board has the final say.)

We will see how Alex and Bella step up when given more responsibility in decision-making.  I hope the process of planning and executing the non-profit aspects of this trip will bring us closer together as a family, and help develop new talents in the kids, the way teenager Hannah Salwen did.  There is also a ton of work to do related to the charitable projects, and Jennifer and Meagan have been taking some of that on before and during the trip.  Alex and Bella may not have as much time for that with their schoolwork, but we will try to involve them as much as possible.

Other lessons learned from “The Power of Half”

Nothing is perfect -

The Salwen family decided to sell their large, expensive house and donate half to charity.  But they bought their new house before selling their current one.  They ended up paying for two houses for well over a year while they watched the housing market crash, and they eventually sold their home for much less than they anticipated.  I am sure things will go wrong on our trip as well. I try to remember that the important thing is how you face with less-than-ideal situations.

If you want to do some good in the developing world, volunteering isn’t the whole answer -

in fact, the Salwen family decided not to volunteer in Ghana.  The charity they donated to wanted to emphasize that the local community could make their own improvements with funds provided by the Salwen family.  They visited projects in Ghana and offered their moral support to the community members.

We take a less extreme view so where it is appropriate, we are volunteering.  I believe that one can work alongside members of the local community and not take away from the goal of empowering them to improve their own lives, and I think the interaction itself can be very beneficial to both parties.  Where the charity we are working with thinks visiting is more appropriate, that is what we are doing.

Though at many sites we will be doing things like caring for orphans, preparing food, teaching English, planting trees, and helping with vocational training, much of the value we are trying to bring is through connecting people, raising awareness and raising funds.  That is just the reality of what is most needed by most charities.

Negative feedback –

This was a real eye-opener for me!  When we were in the Boston Globe, the on-line article received tons of negative comments – most of them were completely off base as people thought we were raising money for our travel.  But when I read The Power of Half, I found that the same thing happened to the Salwen family.  Even worse are the comments that followed the press surrounding their book release.  I don’t mean mildly negative comments.  I mean extremely negative, comments by people who seem outraged that they didn’t give ALL the proceeds of their home, or they dared to donate the funds to people in a poorer country than the USA, or that they had worked hard and been successful enough to have afforded their expensive house in the first place.  It made me realize that even if people hadn’t misinterpreted what we are doing, there would have been a lot of negative comments – it just seems to be the nature of on-line comments when someone is doing something a little out of the ordinary.

As a side note, we have received many positive e-mails, and have some wonderful people spreading the word and helping in other ways.  A shout out to Paul McDonald who is using our blog to help residents of 25 assisted living facilities in Eastern Massachusetts experience travel and discuss global issues from the comfort of their homes.  We hope to feature some blogs from them on our site.

You don’t have to be Mother Teresa –

The book also taught me that it’s okay to try to do something without giving up everything.  The Salwen family still lives a comfortable lifestyle and yet they have made all the difference for a community in Ghana.  We gave up our home, car and many of our things, but we did that not just to try to do something good, but to have a great trip and great experiences in the process.

Some people have said that we should not travel for the sake of the experience, but donate all that we would have spent on travel, or volunteer the entire time, of stick to one country.  I am sensitive to criticism, so I really struggled with whether we are being selfish by spending our own money to travel.  The book helped me see that it is okay to spend our own money to travel and volunteer.  We are putting in a great deal of effort over this year (and last) to try to make some small difference.

Giving is NOT an all or nothing prospect. Just as the Edmund Burke quote says on our website, “No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”  If we all had to live like Mother Teresa to make a difference, few people would.  Fortunately, we don’t.

Thank you, Mr. Kahn for covering our story as it has gotten more people involved, and for helping me learn some important lessons in the process!

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Posted on: August 28, 2010 | Categories: Poverty, Why We Are Doing This



  • linda says:

    hi teresa,
    the good thing is you get to decide what is best for you family. there will always be criticisms from others for what you do. just read and listen and then make your decisions about what you think best.. would love to hear more about the food you are having and other cultural experiences. i am trying to live my dream through your travels right now.
    linda smith

  • Mary says:

    Hi Teresa,
    We’ve never met, but I’ve been following your adventure since the Globe story. You are very right to NOT pay much attention to negative comments – though sometimes they allow a valid perspective. From my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 70s, to working in Haiti during vacations, I’ve encountered the same “why didn’t you just…” from folks who have no intention of looking beyond their driveway.
    I applaud you & your family’s willingness to make this year long journey. I know it will be a very worthwhile experience for you and those you encounter while traveling and volunteering. Best wishes!

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    Linda – thanks for the kind words and we will start posting more pictures and details about our experiences. We are in Munich for a few days, so we have time to catch up on posting. all the best to you!

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    Mary, Thank you – that means a lot to us, especially coming from someone who has faced the similar criticism. We really admire you for serving in the Peace Corps – something I would have loved to do, but just didn’t think of it until I was already settled with a family. We would love to hear about your experiences in Haiti. I am sure our readers would love it if you did a guest post about it. Just send me an e-mail if you are interested. Thanks again!

  • Kevin Salwen says:

    Teresa, Thanks so much for taking the time to read The Power of Half and to comment so thoughtfully about it. I KNOW this amazing journey of yours will take you to conclusions (independently and collectively) that you’ve never dreamed. I know our actions of selling the house and sharing what we have has completely changed our perspective on the world.

    In short, it’s a life of experiences and the fact that your family-team is open to seeing and understanding the world (in other words, letting it in) will lead to amazing realizations. I still don’t think I understand all of them 3 1/2 years after Hannah’s initial demand that “we become a family that makes a real difference in the world”.

    My only counsel: Listen carefully to your partners on the ground, whether they are orphans or the homeless or beggars or businessmen or clergy or whoever. They have so much to teach, especially when we are humble enough to really hear.

    Safe journeys and please let me know if I can ever be of service.
    Kevin Salwen

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    Thank you Mr. Salwen for your positive thoughts – it is a great honor to hear from you! I greatly admire what you and your family have done. I understand and agree with what you are saying about being humble enough to listen. I actually think we have more to learn from people we might “help” than they could ever learn from us. Things like what is really important in life and staying connected to family and community. My daughter volunteered in India last year and was amazed at just how kind and generous the orphans were with each other in sharing their few possessions…and they were happy! What an inspiring lesson. Thanks again and good luck to you and your family in continuing your own journey!

  • kathleen keller says:

    Hello Teresa,
    It won’t be long until you start your first project in Bulgaria. Homework for Alex and Bella,you certainly have a full day. Hope you make time for yourself. A day without planning would probably be nice. Enjoy Italy.

  • Kevin Salwen says:

    Teresa, your comments about happiness among the orphans perfectly mirrors the outlook of the villagers we spend time with in rural Ghana. They share, they care, they live in community. So many lessons there for all of us.
    I’ll be following your travels. Enjoy the journey!

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    I can’t wait to get to the volunteer part of our trip. Touring Europe is awesome, but I long for the closer interactions we will have when we visit and volunteer at villages, orphanages and schools. I hope we can convey enough about our experiences to give others an idea of the lessons we can learn from other cultures as you have with your book. Thanks for your encouragement and for the inspiration. -Teresa

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    We are in Salzburg now. We drove through Bavaria today and it was AMAZING. I don’t know if I have ever seen a more beautiful landscape or more enchanting little towns. We visited Neuschwanstein Castle, but the journey was even more wonderful than the destination. Looking forward to staying in the Alps for a few days, Italy and then -whoo-hoo, we are on to Bulgaria where the computers should be ready for the children at the orphanage to begin working with them. love to all – Teresa

  • AJ Wolff says:

    Enjoyed reading all your insights. Wishing you the best adventures. AJ

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    Hi AJ! I just discovered Global Village School. We are using K-12 for math and science and doing history and language arts ourselves, but they look very interesting. Perhaps they can help with a custom history and language arts program. I will contact them. How much do you know about them?

  • jean wentlender says:

    you are a great lady with a very strong drive. I know u and your family will grow for the rest of your lives due to your decision to start out on this adventure. hope our paths may cross some where along the way. love u and enjoy each day and new adventure. Jeanie

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