Nearly three years ago, a bunch of small candles placed in white paper bags filled with sand changed Jay Cincotta's life.
After a growing effort that began in 1996 to bring Columbia together by lining streets with luminarias, Cincotta and his wife, Cindy, drove around Columbia for hours on New Year's Day 2000 to see the culmination of their endeavor - 500 streets aglow in candlelight.
Days later - overwhelmed that a small effort he and his wife started could unite so many people - Cincotta quit his job as a software developer at RWD Technologies in Columbia to start his own business.
"It gave me the guts to follow my personal dream," said Cincotta, who founded eSymmetrix Inc., a software development and consulting business.
Cincotta, who now lives in Dayton and runs the business out of his home, has since turned over leadership of the Luminary Project. On Saturday, the nonreligious event will enter its seventh year, with the goal of lighting 1,000 streets throughout Columbia.
The project didn't begin with such big aspirations.
It grew slowly from an assignment in a personal enrichment class that the Cincottas were attending. They were supposed to develop a project that could be done only with the help of other people.
They came up with the idea of luminarias - Cincotta was drawn to the candle displays from his childhood in Columbia. His family used to tour an Ellicott City neighborhood decorated with the candles every Christmas Eve. From the back seat of his parents' car, he would see the candles and "get this sense of awe."
"The thing about it that was inspiring to me, even as a little kid, was that a lot of people coordinated this," Cincotta said.
"It was the community that it represented that inspired me," he said.
So, in 1996 the couple went door to door on Deerfoot Way in Kings Contrivance and requested $5 to go toward candles and supplies, hoping their neighbors would cooperate.
By Christmas Eve that year, 32 homes on their street in the Huntington neighborhood were decorated with 200 luminarias. The candles drew neighbors from their homes, and the event turned into a block party with apple cider and cookies.
"It was just a great thing," Cincotta said. "Everybody felt good about it."
The project grew to 10 streets in the Huntington neighborhood in 1997, to about 100 streets throughout Kings Contrivance in 1998, when the event was shifted to around New Year's, as Cincotta was worried about it being tied to a religious holiday.
In 1999, Cincotta created the nonprofit organization, the Luminary Project, and 500 streets participated in the effort held New Year's Day 2000.
After that event, Cincotta said he was wary that residents would leave the luminarias outside after New Year's, causing a lot of trash along Columbia's well-kept streets. But when he woke up the next morning, he saw that all of them had been picked up.
"I was blown away," he said. "That was the thing that told us, `Wow, this touched people.' "
After Cincotta founded eSymmetrix Inc., he scaled down his role with the Luminary Project.
The nonprofit group is now headed by Jeff Chamblee, with whom Cincotta worked at RWD Technologies. In the past two years, about 2,000 people along 200 streets have participated in the project, which Chamblee called a community-building event.
"As a community event that people can do themselves, it builds a sense of community and empowerment," said Chamblee, who lives in Wilde Lake.
To participate in the effort, one resident typically organizes a street and buys the supplies with neighbors' donations. A kit, which has supplies for 60 candles, costs $20. A typical cul-de-sac takes about 100 candles, Chamblee said.
The Columbia Association, which helps advertise the event, provides space at its maintenance facility to house the supplies.
About 200 people have signed up to organize their streets for Saturday, Chamblee said.
Dennis Frank of Wilde Lake is organizing about 40 houses on West Running Brook Road. The residents have bought about 1,000 luminarias and will gather Saturday to assemble them.
"Then we put them on a trailer, just like a hayride, and set them out about every 5 or 6 feet," Frank said.
Any money left over after the project is donated to community organizations, such as PTA groups or Boy Scout troops, Chamblee said. In the past, the Luminary Project has donated as much as $4,000, he said.
In the coming years, Cincotta wants the Luminary Project to become more ambitious by creating a board of directors consisting of community and business leaders, and also increasing the amount of money that goes to charity. He envisions 500,000 candles lining Columbia's streets.
"Each candle would represent a dollar that goes into a pot for organizations doing good will," he said. "Whoa, that would be awesome."
Information: www.lumina ryproject.com.