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Crafting with a Purpose: How Paper for Water Came to Be

Paper for Water is a philanthropic company that was started by two young sisters, Katherine and Isabelle Adams. Their goal was to raise $500 to partially fund a well in Ethiopia, exchanging handcrafted origami Christmas ornaments for donations. As of December 1, 2014, these two girls (who are now 8 and 11) and hundreds of volunteers have raised over $500,000 to fund more than 60 wells in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, India, Uganda, Peru, and Zimbabwe. Their father, Ken Adams, tells us how it all started and shares some inspiring words that just might motivate you to help someone in need this New Year.

With stencils, Katherine paints like a pro!

My wife and I both grew up under circumstances that were very different from what our lives are today. My wife lived in a trailer home with four other family members, and my first home had dirt floors with an outdoor wood-burning oven. We believe that our upbringing helped form who we are today. And while we are not willing to go back to those circumstances, we always try to duplicate some of those learning opportunities with our children.


Hard work, accountability, and helping others were values that were instilled in us. As children, we had ample opportunities to work. So my wife and I spoke often about how we could provide avenues for “work” for our girls, even when they were very young.


When my two oldest girls were 3 and 5, I had the opportunity to take care of them for a whole Saturday. The weather was gorgeous, and I wanted to do something that would take all day. I first had the girls go online with me to pick out pictures of cartoon dogs that they thought were cute. I then freehand copied them onto some large pieces of plywood. Using a bandsaw, I cut them out. I was slightly surprised that the girls stuck with me through the whole process. I did have them help me “draw” the pictures, and then I let them take turns holding the wood as we cut it together. I’m sure their mom wouldn't have been very happy if she saw them with goggles on and a bandsaw in hand, but they wanted to hang around and I just went with it.


We spent the next couple of hours painting the cutouts. We put on a base white coat, dried it with a hair dryer, applied their handprints in different colors, and finally splatter-painted all over everything. After they dried completely, I took a Sharpie and put faces on the wooden dogs. The girls were so proud of their work when they were finished! They loved showing them to their mom when she got home that night.


The next week, the girls let me know that they wanted to do it again. We wound up making dogs for the next three or four weekends in a row. They started stacking up around the house until finally I suggested that they do something with them. We loaded three dogs up in the car and drove to the local Starbucks.  The manager there knew the girls from the numerous times they had been in after bike rides with me. I had the girls go up and ask him, “Can we sell these here? You’ve got lots of other artists who display their work here. Can we?” The manager, unable to say “No” to these two cute little girls, pulled out the calendar and blocked them in as artists of the week. 


The girls and I designed an invitation and printed it out. They gave one to all their friends’ parents, and we sent them out to our friends. On the Saturday of the girls’ first “art show,” we went to Starbucks early and hung the dogs up. We called the whole show, “Dogs looking for a handout.” We preprinted labels for each of the pieces and hung out as people began to show up. The girls got to talk about their work with everyone who came in, and at that “dog show” they raised enough money to keep 10 percent each in their piggy banks, give 10 percent to the church, and donate $887 to Parkland’s Pediatric Burn Camp.

Isabelle had a blast creating her horses.

The girls had so much fun doing the “dog show” that they then decided they wanted to do a “horse show.” We got more elaborate, and they stenciled and decoupaged and glued foreign stamps and coins onto their “horses.” Again, they convinced the manager at Starbucks to let them do a show. After their cut, they only raised $500 and the church’s tithe, probably because we had already tapped out their friends’ parents and our friends. However, the work created the second time around was so much more professional.

Starbucks Horse Show 2008

Over the last three years, a lot of people have asked us how we have gotten two kids and hundreds of volunteers to raise $500,000 trading origami ornaments for donations to build water wells, and this is the first story that we tell. Paper for Water did not suddenly develop. Our kids did not wake up one morning thinking about turning our house into a warehouse with assembly lines. It all started with an intention about teaching our kids simple values, and that led to a small starter project. This was our incubator, and things started small.


We truly believe that kids inherently want to give. They love making things. “Crafting” is not a noun for kids; it is a state of being. So to combine giving and crafting comes naturally. All you parents know firsthand from all the handmade Mother’s and Father’s Day presents. Taking it to the next step and creating crafting with a purpose is not particularly hard, but it does take planning and a bit of energy to get all the pieces in place. But the result has been such a rich experience for our children, on so many different levels.