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A broken year led photographer Kelly Kenney and a 4-year-old neighbor to create some real magic.

Kenney, who works for Pandora Music and SiriusXM, was going through an ugly breakup when stay-at-home orders first went into effect. She had taken to late-night walks in her Culver City, Calif., neighborhood.

One night, at the start of the pandemic, a bed of color and sparkle caught her eye. Miniature ceramic doors sat at the base of a tree, which was wrapped in twinkle lights. Small plants, man-made flowers and butterflies came together in a tiny engineered garden.

“Someone had set up a few little objects in a tree planter and upon closer inspection I realized it was a fairy garden with a little note about the 4-year-old girl who felt lonely in quarantine and wanted to spread some cheer,” Kenney tweeted on Friday.

Amid the turquoise rocks, painted stones and garden gnomes was a laminated note from the child’s parents, written in verse. “Our 4-year-old girl made this to brighten your day. Please add to the magic, but don’t take away. These days can be hard, but we’re in this together. So enjoy our fairy garden and some nicer weather.”

This moved Kenney, who lost one of her best friends to suicide when she was a teenager.

“The thought of someone I loved feeling that lost, that broken, is something that still stays with me. I’ve made it a personal goal of mine to make sure to be someone for the rest of my life that others feel they can reach out to,” she wrote in an email to The Lily. “As someone who has also experienced a lot of depression and dark feelings myself, I know the best way to pull myself out is to help bring happiness to others. That thought is behind a lot of the things I do.”

Eliana meets “Sapphire,” a.k.a. Kelley Kenney, for the first time at the fairy garden in Los Angeles on Dec. 11. (Emily Pauls)
Eliana meets “Sapphire,” a.k.a. Kelley Kenney, for the first time at the fairy garden in Los Angeles on Dec. 11. (Emily Pauls)

Like so many others during the pandemic, Kenney was working on her craft skills and had just made some glittery dice. She promised some to the young girl, Eliana, if she completed a few tasks: Say five nice things to people she loved, do three helpful things for people in need, promise to be kind, brave and to help people, and draw a picture of her favorite animal.

She tucked the introductory note and instructions into a glitter-filled glass bottle and left it at the base of the tree.

The note and gift, however, didn’t come from Kenney. It came from a Norwegian fairy named Sapphire who admired how nicely Eliana had set up the garden and had decided to live in the tree.

She didn’t expect anything to come from it. But the next night, Kenney found a note tucked into the same glass jar.

It was from Eliana, telling the fairy that she had completed all of the tasks.

“I was hoping to just encourage her or whoever found the note to do something nice for others while still staying safe,” Kenney said.

It was just the beginning: Sapphire and Eliana left messages and small gifts for each other throughout the spring, summer and fall.

“Doing this every night gave me purpose in a horribly painful and lonely time. I looked forward to my days again and I started ordering art supplies and little trinkets to leave her,” Kenney wrote on Twitter.

After the first few exchanges, Kenney left a note for Eliana’s parents, explaining who she was and making sure it was okay that she continued the correspondence. They went back and forth to figure out when messages should be left and so Kenney could personalize what Sapphire would leave. Eliana dictated her notes to her mother, Emily Pauls, before she signed them.

As Eliana’s parents kept her home from preschool this year, her friendship with Sapphire became pivotal.

“The hardest part about this pandemic for us has been seeing how it affects her. She’s really such a trooper,” Pauls said. Eliana is “old enough to understand, but young enough to not necessarily have the same ability to cope or maybe not get things fully. But she knows what she’s missing.”

As self-quarantine life continued, Eliana and Sapphire’s friendship had a profound effect on both of them.

“It’s been just such a gleaming, bright spot — encouraging her creativity and her imagination and giving her something to look forward to and enjoy. It provided her with this magic in this season that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Pauls said.

Kenney said she could see Eliana growing up through their correspondence.

“Watching even just her letters and handwriting improve over these months has meant a lot to me,” Kenney said.

Eventually, Eliana grew curious and wanted to meet Sapphire. That desire became more intense as her parents started looking for a new house.

Pauls told Kenney that Eliana was having a tough time with the idea of an upcoming move. So Sapphire wrote and told her that she also moving. Eliana wasn’t alone — Sapphire was also going through a big change.

On Wednesday, Eliana’s family moved to a house in another Los Angeles neighborhood. But her parents arranged to go back to their apartment for a final walk-through on Friday, coordinating with Kenney. As it worked out, Eliana asked to go to the tree to see if she could “catch” Sapphire in the garden.

Eliana and her family meet “Sapphire.”
Eliana and her family meet “Sapphire.”

In one last note, Kenny wrote that when fairies move, “they grow to the size of a human just for one day to move all of their belongings.”

Eliana’s parents and Kenney tested negative for the coronavirus two days before they met in person wearing masks. Dressed as a fairy (with a cape she said covered her wings), Kenney and Eliana met and talked for about an hour, mostly about life as a fairy and other pressing issues.

“I was definitely shaking and stumbling over my words at first, but once we chatted for a bit, it was like we were the best of friends, I mean, we are,” Kenney said.

Pauls herself didn’t know if Eliana would be shy or rush to Sapphire, but the two hit it off in person immediately. On the ride home, she said, Eliana “was gushing.”

The two plan to keep in touch via old-fashioned mail. Kenney hopes that Eliana holds onto the hope and magic of this relationship for as long as she can.

“We are all in this time together, living through a pandemic in the year 2020, trying to take everything one day at a time. It’s easy to be pessimistic and get lost in the painful and chaotic stories we see every day, there’s a lot of pain in the world right now, but if you have the ability to brighten even one person’s day, you never know what that might turn into,” Kenney said.

Kenney tweeted a thread about their story on Friday night. Fewer than 10 people had liked it when she went to bed Friday night. When Pauls woke up in the middle of the night, she saw a note from her boss, who had seen the story and sent a message to her entire team. By Monday morning, it had been liked by 397,000 accounts, and retweeted 140,900 times.

“We are all struggling in some way right now, and we could all use a little magic. If she grows up with a sense of wonder and creativity and feels surrounded by love and magic, she is going to want to give that back to the world,” Kenney said. “Since the beginning I’ve been thinking about the children, how hard it must be to be a parent right now, how this is going to affect the way they see the world for the rest of their lives. They could use a little magic.”

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