116 Peachtree Circle in Atlanta, Georgia, is the kind of home you would expect to be passed down the generations. Built at the beginning of the last century by the Rich family, the founders of one of Atlanta’s most successful department stores, the three-storey Greek-revival house stands confidently behind dramatic Corinthian columns. Mature trees spread dappled light on the front lawn and the drive sweeps round to a large garden.
It is a house designed to impress, which is precisely why Joan and Kevin Salwen bought it. It was 1994 and the couple’s careers were at their zenith. Kevin was a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal; Joan was a partner at the global management consultancy Accenture. They had two healthy young children, Hannah and Joseph. They were looking for what Kevin, now 51, describes as ‘a destination house, the house every kid at school wanted to play at; a house to host lavish parties. We weren’t trying to be obnoxious, consuming yuppies. We just were. This was the American Dream, wasn’t it?’
Twelve years later, on an autumn day in 2006, Kevin was driving the then 14-year-old Hannah back from a sleepover when they came to a stop at a busy junction less than a mile from their home. This dingy windblown spot beneath the roaring interstate had become popular with homeless people because the unusually long red light provides plenty of time to ask for handouts. The Salwens’ glove compartment was usually full of $5 McDonald’s vouchers to give away, but that day it was empty. Just outside Kevin’s car window a homeless man was sitting in front of a rusting wire fence holding a cardboard sign. On Hannah’s side a man was sitting in a black Mercedes convertible. Kevin noticed his daughter’s head turning from left to right. Finally she spoke: ‘If that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal.’ Sensing he could use the occasion to teach his daughter something, Kevin replied, ‘Yes. But you know if we had a less nice car, he could have a meal.’
As the family ate supper that night, Hannah described the episode to her mother and her brother, and said how wrong it felt. ‘Dude, it sucks,’ she said. ‘We should fix this.’ Although her reaction was fairly typical for an idealistic teenager, and particularly typical for Hannah, her parents were taken aback by the anger in her voice. Indignantly they started detailing their contribution to society. They talked about the cheques they wrote at the end of every year that amounted to about three per cent of their annual income, Joan’s work with United Way Women’s Initiative, Kevin’s position on the board of Habitat for Humanity, a charity that builds affordable housing. They reminded her of all the volunteering they did as a family: bingo with the elderly, delivering meals on wheels. Hadn’t they always insisted that Hannah and Joseph set aside a third of their pocket money to buy groceries for the homeless? Hannah listened, unimpressed.
‘As we were talking, I could hear what it sounded like through Hannah’s ears and it sounded lame,’ Kevin says. ‘The truth was we weren’t giving generously. With the resources we had, we could have been doing much, much more.’
Hannah wouldn’t let it lie. Three days later, she raised the subject again. ‘I really don’t want to be the kind of family that just talks about doing things,’ she announced. ‘I want to be a family that actually does them.’ This time Joan was prepared. She had hinted to Kevin that she might test Hannah. ‘What would happen if we challenged her to give up the things she owns, the items she really values?’ she had said. So when it came up, Kevin was expecting Joan to suggest that Hannah give away some clothes. Instead Joan said, ‘What do you want to do? Sell our house? Move into a smaller one and give what’s left over to charity?’ Without batting an eyelid, Hannah said yes. ‘I’ll give up my bedroom. Dude, we should definitely do this. We should sell the house and give away the money. Definitely.’
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