After record-breaking wildfires tore through northern California last year, this art therapist and counselor began collecting the keys to homes and buildings that had been lost in the blaze so she could transform them into a symbol of hope.

34-year-old Jessie Mercer is just one of the longtime Paradise residents who was left heartbroken by last year’s Camp Fire. In addition to her father losing his home, they also lost their shared art studio.

After Mercer watched her father pull out the keys to his destroyed home, she decided to build something meaningful out of other people’s keys.

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Over the course of the last year, Mercer has been collecting keys to destroyed churches, schools, classrooms, homes, businesses, and even diaries. Though her unique mission involved listening to the stories of people’s heartbreak and loss, she says that the experience helped her come to terms with her own grief.

“I needed to make something to put us back together, and the keys were the only thing we still had in common since we lost everything else,” Mercer told CNN. “I just told people, you don’t have to carry around this totem of sorrow that makes you sad every time you look at it. Let me transform it into something comforting.”

Mercer learned to weld and began crafting a phoenix made entirely out of the donated keys. She did not have any sketches or plans for the sculpture—she says that she simply followed her heart for the final design.

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Last week—exactly one year after the wildfires destroyed the town—Mercer unveiled the results of her labor to thousands of awestruck Californians: an 800-pound metal phoenix made from 14,000 keys donated by wildfire victims.

Mercer gifted the Phoenix Key Project to Paradise’s Butte Resiliency Center—a new facility that will help to rebuild the community and help its residents to heal.

As a thank you for her gift, Mercer was presented with a key to the city—and she was incredibly moved by the gesture.



“It’s the first ever time they’ve ever given the key to anyone,” Mercer told CNN. “It’s so cool. I don’t care about anything else. I have the key to Paradise.”

If you want to buy a print of the Phoenix Key Project, all of the proceeds from the sale will be donated to Mercer’s art therapy nonprofit Butte County Art on Wheels.

(WATCH the news coverage below)

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