Aaron Singer and Jess Mercer both have experienced homelessness—Mercer lived out of a hotel as a teen, Singer out of his car about a decade ago. During these times, each turned to local community recreational centers to find comfort and belonging—a place that felt like home when they didn’t have one.
Mercer said finding that safe, accepting space was “so valuable to me as a young kid really searching for community.”
That is the kind of place the two Camp Fire survivors want to create for Paradise in the wake of the disaster, Mercer said—one where everybody is welcome and belongs. On a recent afternoon, the pair stood together in the back room of Paradise Stronger, a nonprofit gym located off the Skyway in Paradise, and spoke excitedly about their plans for the new Equilibrium Wellness Center. Volunteers worked on walls, the whir of drills punctuating the conversation. With a $150,000 grant from the North Valley Community Foundation’s Butte Strong Fund, the pair hope to officially open the center in the next few months.
“There’s a lot of people who still live in their cars and still live in [RVs] and don’t have a space that offers a reprieve,” Singer said. The center will provide wellness classes, a variety of events and activities, and a place for the community to just “come and sit and be.”
Even before they really knew one another, Singer and Mercer shared a love of their town and a drive to help their community heal, rebuild and grow after the Camp Fire.
It’s that drive that led Singer to found Paradise Stronger, designed to be a hub of health, wellness and support for the Paradise community. And it’s what led Mercer to create Butte County Art on Wheels and the Balanced Brain Project in order to help fire survivors and youth process and heal from trauma with art and creative self-expression.
The pair crossed paths many times over the past several years as they worked on different community events and programs. (They also serve as board members of The Gold Nugget Museum.) When they realized they had the same dream—to create a wellness center to help their fragmented community connect and heal—they formed a natural partnership.
‘Something for everybody’
What might look like just an empty back room in a Paradise shopping center to some is to Mercer and Singer a blank canvas filled with limitless potential.
There will be couches and a projector so people can use the space for family movie nights or game and trivia nights.
There are shelves along one wall, where they plan to set up a free book exchange and provide board games, art supplies and a spot to display locally made artwork. They already have a drum set and piano, and aim to bring in more instruments and set up a performance space for open mic nights and poetry readings.
The center will include a sensory nook as well, a trauma-informed space designed to help people cope with anxiety and shift from a survival mentality into the present moment.
There is also an existing kitchen area in the room, which Singer and Mercer plan to get up and running for skills-based nutrition and cooking classes, and hope to offer to community members in need.
The pair envision renting out the space for parties or team-building exercises, as well. Other offerings could include one-on-one counseling and emotional well-being classes on topics like PTSD.
“It’ll be something for everybody,” Mercer said. “It’s like a menu of wellness, and you just choose what you need that day.”
The Butte Strong grant will fund the project for two years and cover a portion of salaries (including Mercer’s as the project manager, as well as a center intern), discounts for some members, scholarships for youth, some office renovations and items for the center—e.g., lighting, games, a ping pong table, a pool table, rugs and computers—according to David Little, NVCF executive vice president of communications.
Mercer and Singer said it is their goal to create a comfortable, inclusive space that will host a variety of events and classes of all price points—some free, some pay-what-you-can and others with an admission charge. Paradise Stronger will continue to require a membership or drop in fee, but people are not required to use the gym’s services in order to access the center.
Just like home
In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, most of the community was scattered and forced to relocate. The sense of separation has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A series of compounded trauma has led to kind of an almost unbearable isolation,” Mercer said. “We were isolated in our campers that were already isolating.”
Mercer has noticed that people are struggling to have real conversations outside of Zoom, text messages or online video games. Similarly, Singer said he’s witnessed loved ones continue to struggle with depression and PTSD. They both know people who are still living in RVs nearly four years post-fire.
It’s been a challenge for the community to create and foster shared spaces where everyone can relax and decompress; where they can just show up and be themselves, Mercer said. There’s no longer a bowling alley or movie theater in Paradise, for example. Many people still don’t have actual living rooms and are longing for them.
Singer said his goal is to provide a space geared toward “helping people find their own head space and emotional space so they can feel like they have some kind of reprieve; they can have a break from life.”
The Equilibrium Wellness Center broadens the scope of healing and strength-building provided by Paradise Stronger, which Singer said opened in 2020 with the “desire to help the whole person,” physically and emotionally. The gym hosts monthly hikes, walks with doctors (where participants can get to know a local health provider and ask them questions) and other educational wellness events. Paradise Stronger also offers specialized exercise classes for seniors and people with disabilities.
The nonprofit received two previous grants from the Butte Strong Fund totaling $90,000 to help provide classes, equipment, staff, and group counseling. Little with NVCF said the nonprofit has launched successful programs and taken on a significant role in community recovery.
“Paradise Stronger is an innovative program that sees needs in the community and tries to fill them,” he said.
Underlying the need for the dedicated outlet that the Equilibrium Wellness Center will provide, Singer added: “There’s a lot of people dealing with PTSD and emotional trauma. There’s a lot of people who need a space to decompress.
“I want community to happen. I want community to heal in that space.”
Paradise Stronger and the Equilibrium Wellness Center
6848 Skyway, Ste. P, Paradise