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Little Business Owners, Very Big Hearts

The Exchange

Two young sisters from Texas are leading a movement to change the world -- and not in the figurative sense.

If you put them together, Isabelle and Katherine Adams wouldn't be old enough to drive a car. Yet these girls have managed, in the last 13 months, to reach across the oceans and make life immeasurably better for villagers they've never met, in lands far, far away from their own home in Dallas.

Isabelle and Katherine Adams With Origami

That's because the first- and third-grade siblings have taken up the cause of getting clean water to impoverished hamlets in Ethiopia and India, where water free from pathogens and pollution can be something only for the imagination. They're spreading their message using origami, the paper-folding process dating back centuries in Japan, and what they've achieved in just over a year is nothing short of remarkable.

It's not every day you'll meet children who can say that before fourth grade they've touched more people than most of us will if we live to be 100. But Isabelle, age 9, and Katherine, 6, have done just that. Thanks to the sisters and their project, Paper for Water, they've raised an extraordinary sum and sent every bit of it to install water wells in third-world nations.

Born Into It

The Adams sisters got their start in charitable giving by raising funds for the Parkland Hospital burn camp, painting wooden cutouts of dogs that their father Ken Adams had carved, and then selling them. Ken, a doctor, was born to a missionary father and a Japanese mother, and those two influences are clearly being expressed through his daughters. As a youngster himself, he had learned both origami and of the importance of helping others.

Katherine was the first of the children to take up the art, when she was 4. "For me, it took a month to make one [piece], and now it takes me an hour," she says. Then Isabelle got into the act. The girls practiced, improved and started making origami that could be used as Christmas decorations. In the early days, they simply gave them to teachers and church staff, but they started to accumulate excess inventory, their mother Deborah Adams explains. "So Ken said, 'Let's just get some space at Starbucks, and we'll do an origami show and sell them for charity.' "

A fundraiser at the coffee shop, where the girls had previously raised money for Parkland, was arranged for November 2011. But before they could open the display, they needed to figure out where exactly they were going to give the money.

"We'd been talking about how people didn't have water, or didn't have clean water in the world, and how kids had to spend their day hauling water and not going to school," Mrs. Adams says. "And so the girls wanted to do something about water. We just didn't know who we were going to do it with. Because you just never know how much money actually gets spent on the real project and how much on administration."

They had rented an apartment they owned to a woman who had been on mission trips with Living Water International, a Christian organization based near Houston that's completed clean water projects in more than 20 nations. A member of their church also had experience with the nonprofit's work. So ahead of the Starbucks display, they spread the word among family and friends to drop by, and they contacted Living Water to alert them to the fundraiser.

Origami by Isabelle and Katherine Adams

On Nov. 3, the exhibit opened with 35 ornaments, and the Adams family was hoping to collect $500 to $1,000 to donate to the charity. "We thought some would get sold opening night and the rest would get sold over the month," Mrs. Adams says.

Instead, they ran out of stock before the night was over. The family knew then and there that they could considerably exceed the initial fundraising goal. "I don't think we realized that we were at the beginning of this," Mrs. Adams continues. "We just realized that we could probably raise at least enough for half a well."

Told by their parents they could choose to help pay for a well in one of around two dozen countries where Living Water did work, the girls turned to a globe to figure it out. "We didn't agree on any of them, and so we just picked Ethiopia," Katherine says. In Ethiopia, a well could be constructed for a total cost of $9,200. It ended up being a good decision.

Helping Hands

Now they just needed a couple of things: More ornaments for Starbucks, since they were supposed to have a month-long display, and the money itself for half a well. After their opening night success, they went home to make more origami decorations, and the next day saw the same result -- all gone.

They were also getting a lesson in supply and demand. At $20 each, the origami ornaments were vanishing from the display as fast as Katherine and Isabelle could make them. So the Adams family raised prices. Then again, and then again, finally reaching $40. Buyers still weren't deterred.

Word had started to spread about this kid-led origami charity, and that's when the big break came -- publicity in the NeighborsGo section of their hometown paper, The Dallas Morning News. That, in turn, helped lead into the next critical event. Now up to $3,400 in sales, they were closing in on covering the cost of half a well.

They didn't have long to wait for the rest. Curtis Eggemeyer, the CEO of Envirocon Technologies, a Midland, TX, cleaning-products company behind Lemi Shine, had been offering up to $50,000 of matching funds for a clean water well project. He wanted his donation to go to Ethiopia and specifically to Living Water International, the same country and organization for which the Adams girls were raising money. He heard their story and promptly sent them a match for the $3,400 they had already raised, thus doubling their total.

With that encouraging push, the girls increased their production. "We were actually also folding in the car on the way to school," Isabelle says. "Folding like crazy." It paid off. Through decoration sales and Eggemeyer's matching funds, the sisters had collected enough to pay for an entire well.

India and Beyond

After that year-end flurry, the family was ready for a rest, but it didn't last long. They'd soon set their sights on a well project in India, something that would require $5,000 to build. Being old pros by now, they got there, and then some. "That means you've already started on the next," Mrs. Adams says, "so you can't quit."

They haven't come close to that. Here's a rundown of how the past few months have gone for Katherine and Isabelle. They've:

Most importantly, they charted a 10-well goal. Selling their ornaments generally at three prices, $20, $40 and $55, the family figured they would need about 37,000 sheets of paper folded to make it. That meant community involvement would be key.

Fortunately, they've not had any trouble getting it. Neighbors and church members have donated time on the folding, as have friends from school and their parents. They even got students at the DaVinci Academy of Arts and Science in Minnesota to take part through a connection Mrs. Adams has. That's enabled the girls to reach an extraordinary number to fund the wells: Combining sales and matching funds, Paper for Water has raised more than $100,000 for Living Water International and its well projects.

Next up, Katherine and Isabelle are hoping to create a workshop-in-a-box that will teach other children how to make origami that they can then sell themselves for charitable purposes.

"In the future, we're thinking about possibly making this kit, with an instructional DVD, paper [and] tassels," Isabelle says.  "And we're going to send it to schools and churches ... maybe Girl Scouts and clubs, stuff like that, then maybe making a smaller kit for families."

"What we're thinking is if we can create it in this first or second quarter of next year and then get it out that second half of the year, then the kids would have enough time to create the ornaments and then to sell them for Christmas," Mrs. Adams adds.

So can they get the kit up and running? They're not experts with those things, but they've relied on their faith to this point for the undertaking, and that's worked out fine.

"This entire project has been orchestrated, I think, divinely," Mrs. Adams says. "The most incredible things have happened. Every day when they're leaving the house, I'm like 'something amazing is going to happen today,' and it does. I just feel like every day the whole universe is conspiring to help us -- that God's hand is just in all of this."

To see more, check out our slideshow on the project and the Adams sisters. If you would like to contact Paper for Water through the mail, the address is: P.O. Box 720999, Dallas, TX 75372-0999.