When the first letter arrived, Eliana Pauls reacted in wide-eyed wonder — the note was from a fairy.
It was April, and “the sickness,” as Eliana calls it, had upended life. The 4-year-old girl was missing friends and neighbors. As a distraction, she and her parents created a fairy garden near their Los Angeles home — and this note was the first sign of a fairy.
“My name is Sapphire. I am one of the fairies who lives in this tree. I need your help!” the note began.
Sapphire wanted to give a gift, but first she needed to know the recipient was worthy.
“Say 5 nice things to people you love; Do 3 helpful things for someone in need; Promise to always be kind and brave,” the note prompted. Also: Draw a picture of an animal.
Eliana’s mother, Emily Pauls, recalled the excitement and joy that followed that first note. Eliana was in an extended state of wonderment, Pauls told USA TODAY.
Soon, the good deeds were done, the animal was drawn and a return letter was penned and left in the garden. True to her word, Sapphire left a present: Handcrafted dice.
One day, Eliana will learn that Kelly Kenney, who works as a photographer, made those dice and penned the first Sapphire letter — and the many more that followed.
Kenney had spotted the garden as she wrestled with her own troubles on a walk at night. She saw a sign above the garden saying it was a 4-year-old girl’s attempt “to brighten your day; please add to the magic.”
Kenney had studied creative writing and early childhood development in college, so what happened next was just instinct, she told USA TODAY.
She “imagined how (Eliana) was processing what was going on,” how traumatizing a pandemic must be for a young girl. At that age, many children struggle with trust, and the fairy garden creator was clearly craving companionship.
Kenney was battling personal struggles of her own. When she introduced herself to Eliana’s mother in a note following the first exchange, she saw herself as a “lonely lady that lives down the street” who was “going through a little bit of a rough patch.”
She may have struggled to get out of bed every day, but writing letters as Sapphire and brightening a young girl’s day became her favorite part of the months that followed.
Handwritten letters, small gifts, photoshopped polaroids of herself shrunken down to fairy size — it was a creative outlet for someone who had dreamed about writing a children’s book.
For Eliana, Sapphire also helped filled a void left by the pandemic — she didn’t have a preschool teacher in 2020, but Sapphire taught her lessons about life.
One of the most memorable: Coping with change.
Eliana’s family was about to move, and Sapphire’s words help calm Eliana’s fears.
“Sometimes we outgrow homes because we have too much love and need a place that can hold it all,” one letter said.
The December move also provided a chance for the two to meet in person.
Kenney crafted a story as cover: Sapphire was moving too and fairies temporarily grew when they moved their belongings. She worked with Eliana’s parents to choreograph the meeting and got tested for COVID-19 to make sure it was safe.
“Just the way she looked at me when she first saw me will stay with me forever,” said Kenney, who shared the story of a fairy and a little girl on Twitter in December to brighten others’ lives.
The meeting was not a goodbye. The two still exchange letters.
For now, Sapphire is still real to Eliana, but that won’t always be the case. Maybe in the future Sapphire the fairy will become Kelly the babysitter, Kenney mused.
And just like a letter from Sapphire, there’s a lesson hidden here in plain sight.
To some on the outside, Kenney’s meticulously crafted months-long fantasy might seem a chore. To Kenney, it was a redemptive, healing act that built an unlikely friendship.
“I just want people to realize it doesn’t take that much,” Kenny said. An act of kindness may seem “natural and easy,” but it has the potential to be life-changing for someone else.”
And, she added, “She did as much for me as I did for her.”
Contributing: Kim Strong, York (Pa.) Daily Record