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These sisters started a nonprofit that sells origami to raise money for wells around the world

Eight years ago, sisters Isabelle Adams, 15, and Katherine Adams, 13, started Paper for Water.
Credit: Jake Dean
Founders of Paper for Water

Eight years ago, sisters Isabelle Adams, 15, and Katherine Adams, 13, started Paper for Water — a non-profit organization that raises money for water wells around the world by selling origami — when they learned children were not going to school and dying due to unclean water.

When the girls, who are co-CEOs, started making origami to sell, the goal to raise about $500. But the first night they started selling, they sold out of ornaments and raised more than $800. In one month they raised more than $10,000. The girls worked to fund wells in Ethiopia, and as they kept funding them, the project kept getting extended by a few months, then a few more.

“Then we just got to the point where we didn’t even plan on stopping,” Isabelle said.

The girls said their typical workweek varies, depending on the time of year. Christmas, they said, is their busiest time — sometimes folding origami ornaments for up to ten hours a day.

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The organization also recently partnered with Neiman Marcus, making ornaments for the retail giant, which are being sold online. The sisters said their summers are busier because they need to make those ornaments so they’re ready for Christmastime.

Paper for Water also puts together installations, which have been featured at the Galleria, Neiman Marcus and the Crow Museum of Asian Art, among others. The Adams sisters said they charge about $60 per hour of work for installations because the work is labor intensive, and ornaments can go from $10 to $200.

The organization has about 50 regular volunteers that it can call if needed, the Adams’ said. But the organization has reached thousands of people through folding at schools, churches and other partnerships and does volunteer events and has a YouTube channel to promote the work it does.

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The non-profit has raised more than $1.6 million, funding more than 200 water projects in 20 countries, including the United States. Two years ago, the Adams family took eight months off of school and work and visited many of Paper for Water’s sites across the globe such as Peru, Zimbabwe and Ecuador, among others.

Isabelle and Katherine spoke with the Dallas Business Journal about Paper for Water and their plans for the future:

How do you balance school and sports and Paper for Water?

Katherine: It's kind of hard, because you'll have a soccer game, and then you'll have to come back and do a bunch of Paper for Water stuff. But I think if you have your priorities straight, and I feel like Paper for Water is really important, and as much as I love hanging out with my friends, Paper for Water is saving lives. So if you have what you think is most important straight, then it's a lot easier to balance everything else.

Isabelle: I've been doing this since second grade. So I don't remember school without Paper for Water. So it's something we've practically always been doing. And it's just part of our life.

Can you describe some of the work you two do for Paper for Water, outside of folding?

Isabelle: I do a lot of planning and coordinating a lot of our big events. And Katherine and I run all of our board meetings. So I also help negotiate a lot of big orders and talk to people about stuff that we do, what we're capable of doing, to describe what Paper for Water does. And if a company wants something major, then usually either Katherine or I is in charge of working with them to plan whatever they want to order.

Katherine: Anything that needs to be done.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Katherine: Definitely the people. I've gotten to meet so many cool people that I wouldn't otherwise have met. So it's just really cool interact with people.

Isabelle: I think one of my favorite parts is, is being able to be creative, and design things and build large-scale installations and collaborate with people and really make incredible artwork. I think that's so fun. And paper is such an amazing medium, there's just so many things you can do with it.

What’s the plan? Do you intend to continue as CEOs?

Katherine: Definitely during high school, for sure. We have a younger sister, who we're hoping is going to become involved. So when we go off to college, it'll be easier to keep going. But we're not quite sure, really.

Isabelle: We're just figuring it out. We've got a lot of volunteers who are younger than us who are really involved and are super amazing. And we're hoping that they can begin to really take on more responsibility and help out. So we don't have a whole lot of plans for the future. However, our goal, our end goal, of course, is to solve the world water crisis. But our short term goals right now are just to increase our youth volunteers, engage more kids and what we're doing, teach philanthropy and volunteerism and the idea that kids can give back and you don't have to be an adult to make a difference.

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