Kids Build Nonprofit Empire Out of Folded Paper
Dallas sisters’ origami ornaments— as seen at Neiman Marcus—have raised $1.2 million for safe drinking water around the world.
Editor’s Note: At the Neiman Marcus in downtown Dallas Tuesday night, the Adams girls learned that a Texan who wished to remain anonymous has purchased the $50,000 bundle of Paper For Water origami ornaments from the store’s Christmas catalog; the generous donor then gave the ornaments back to the nonprofit for them to sell again. The money will be used to build clean water wells in communities in need.
If you relish the ritual of gawking at the wildly indulgent Fantasy Gifts in Neiman Marcus’ annual “Christmas Book” catalog, this year you may find something even more unexpected among the unexpected. Paper For Water’s origami ornaments stand out for their relatively humble materials, charitable mission, and very young founders.
Dallas sisters Isabelle and Katherine Adams, now ages 14 and 11, respectively, launched Paper For Water when they were just 8 and 5 after a lesson in global poverty. “We learned that girls our age didn’t get to go to school because they have to haul water,” says Katherine on a recent day after school, surrounded at home by boxes of supplies and ornaments in various stages of completion. “School was my favorite thing in the world! And we learned that a child died every 15 seconds from unclean water. That motivated us to get going.” (Official estimates of the statistic Katherine cites vary, but none dispute that the scale of the problem is staggering and tragic.)
The young girls put their skills in the Japanese art of paper folding—acquired from their half-Japanese father—to work, selling their colorful origami ornaments and picking a charity to help. In their first month, they raised enough money to partially fund a well in Ethiopia via Living Water International, a nonprofit based in Stafford that helps people to build and maintain water projects in their own communities. To date Paper For Water has raised $1.2 million for Living Water and DigDeep, which does similar work domestically, mainly on Native American reservations.
Their parents, Ken and Deb Adams, were initially skeptical of the girls’ ambitious targets, but once they began raising awareness at their school and church, volunteers started coming forward. Publicity, awards, and speaking engagements followed, begetting countless more acts of volunteerism. Richardson-based watchmaker Fossil Group offered up employees’ time from as far as Hong Kong to help to fulfill an order of 500 ornaments that would have overwhelmed the girls and their helpers. Regulars gather for weekly folding sessions at the Adams home and monthly at their church. Satellite folding-clubs have formed elsewhere, and ornaments sometimes unexpectedly show up in the mail, their mom says.
With their 8-year-old sister, Trinity, also helping, the girls devote hours per day on top of school and extracurriculars. Each ornament takes 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the design and who’s folding. “I find it fun and relaxing, and I can do it while listening to music or talking,” says Isabelle. “Over Thanksgiving week we did 91 ornaments that took an hour each. We had a lot of family helping.”
By the time the year is over, they will have made about 6,000 ornaments, Deb Adams says. Since they operate the 501(c)3 organization out of their home and the labor is entirely volunteer-based, nearly 100 percent of funds go to the cause. Materials are the only expense, and those are often donated, she adds.
In its six years, Paper for Water has funded over 145 wells in 14 countries, several of which the girls have visited.
At Neiman Marcus, a limited run of blue tasseled ornaments is priced $50, with all revenue going to Paper For Water. In the spirit of the Fantasy Gifts, a bundle of 250 one-of-a-kind ornaments is also on offer for $50,000.
Until someone places that order, the full set adorns the main Christmas tree in the Downtown Dallas flagship. They’re not for individual sale, but an exception was made for legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who was enchanted during a public appearance at the store last month, and thus was allowed to select three.
“If Annie Leibovitz wanted to buy a tassel, we’d rip it off and give it to her,” Ken Adams jokes.
After impressing world-class retailers and celebrities, what’s the next stage of growth?
“We’re tying to form a youth program model, where a church group or Girl Scout troop could go to our website and find resources on how to fold, how to talk about the need for clean water, how to sell ornaments locally, and then send the money,” says Katherine. “That way we can [grow this] without us having to travel any more. We’ve already missed a lot of school this year.”