Monday, August 23, 2010

In Bed with a Mosquito

The Bill Gates foundation has spent $456 million to empower African farmers, $355 million to eradicate polio, and $1.5 billion to vaccinate children worldwide.

Compared to this, what can I, an average American, do? Is there something I'm holding on to that I need to let go in order to transform the life of someone else--across town or across the globe? This is a question that was asked and answered by the Salwen family, who has chronicled their experience in the new book "The Power of Half--One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back."

I have not read the book, but I know enough about the premise and this family's journey to ask myself some interesting questions about my role in making the world a better place for everyone.

The Salwen family was living the super-duper American Dream in Atlanta, Georgia. The mom, dad, and teenage son and daughter had tons of dough and all the things money can buy--including a beautiful and enormous home.

One day Hannah, then 14 years old, looked around and noticed the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and wanted her family to do something. They were already volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and working at the food bank, as well as writing checks to charities at Christmastime. But Hannah wanted them to do more. When her parent's asked her if she would be willing to give up her home, she called their bluff and answered, "Yes!"

Thus began a series of family conversations that culminated in them selling their home, moving into a home one-half the size, and donating the difference to charity. The family of four spent months educating themselves about the plight of the poor and what their money could do to make a difference. They didn't just talk about issues--they watched videos, participated in the 30-hour famine (a program run by World Vision), interviewed heads of charities, and volunteered at homeless shelters.

Finally, the Salwen's selected the Hunger Project, a non-profit that helps some of the most poverty stricken areas of the world . Their goal is not just to put a band-aid on current problems, but to help create permanent and sustainable solutions. The funds were used in two areas of eastern Ghana--both epicenters received a meeting place, a bank for micro loans, a food storage facility, and a health clinic. They even travelled as a family to Ghana to meet the people who were benefiting from the funds they donated, bringing their project full circle.

The Salwen family bonded over this project. They spent a lot of time together discussing options, asking questions, encouraging each other, challenging long-held opinions about poverty, and becoming more empathetic. Through their journey, they all grasped a vision of a world bigger than themselves.

The Salwen's will be the first to admit that they had more than enough house and moving into a smaller one really wasn't a huge sacrifice. So the moral of their story is not that everyone needs to sell their house and move into one half the size--that is not reasonable or practical for most people.

But their experiment encourages me to ask: could I give up half my TV viewing (sorry, Oprah, 48 Hours Mystery, Fox News, and American Idol) to volunteer to help others in need? Could I give away half the clothes in my closet? What about half the food in my pantry? Half my Starbucks money?

What small, intentional, reductions can my family make in order to improve the lives of others? In the scheme of things, do my small efforts even matter? Maybe the answer is best found in a quote by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop: "if you think you're too small to make a difference, you've never been in bed with a mosquito!"

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