IT'S NOT every day that a 9-year-old can turn on 250,000 colored lights. But that's exactly what Hannah Reidy did last month.
Reidy joined County Executive James N. Robey and Vic Broccolino, president of Howard County General Hospital, to throw the switch that lit the 70 displays that make up the 11th annual Symphony of Lights in Columbia.
The 20-minute drive-through light display is a popular fund-raiser for the hospital.
"It was really fun seeing all the lights go on," said Hannah, who won the honor by riding in the millionth car to visit last year's display. "There were about a million people watching us. They were all lined up for the race."
In fact, about 2,500 people lined up for the Dazzle Dash -- a 5K family run/walk Nov. 21 that has kicked off the event for the past seven years, Broccolino said. Symphony of Lights opened to cars the next evening.
In the past 10 years, the elaborate light display has raised nearly $1 million, Broccolino said. Proceeds benefit the hospital's Maternal Child Services.
The idea for Symphony of Lights came from David Abramson, former chairman of the hospital's board of directors, and his wife, Lynn, who saw a similar light show in 1993 in Newport News, Va.
"We thought it was unique," said David Abramson, who chairs the steering committee for Symphony of Lights. "We thought it would be a wonderful way to raise money for the hospital -- and at the same time have the hospital do something nice for the community."
It took a lot of elbow grease to launch the first display.
"The first big hurdle was finding a site," David Abramson said. "Fortunately, Merriweather Post Pavilion had enough open space and a long enough course [1.4 miles] where we could stage it. We got a lot of support from the Columbia Association. Then, we hired a contractor from North Carolina to build the displays. There were dozens of meetings with the Columbia Association, permit hearings and meetings with Jim Robey, who was the police chief at the time. We were embraced by all the constituency."
Symphony of Lights was the first drive-through display in the state; the first year, it drew national attention, David Abramson said. "We were profiled on Good Morning America," he said. Since then, Symphony of Lights has become a Howard County tradition.
"There have been marriage proposals," Broccolino said. Then-Air Force Staff Sgt. Reno Lynch flew back from Korea last year to propose his girlfriend, Stacey Palmer, at Symphony of Lights.
As Lynch and Palmer drove through the display, a sign caught her eye. It read, "Stacey, Will you marry me?" The couple had had their first date at Symphony of Lights and returned to see the display together most years after that.
"We have had women go into labor on the course. We took them to our hospital," Broccolino said. "There have been people who wander off the course and get stuck in the mud. We have to get tow trucks to pull them out."
The Reidy family visits Symphony of Lights every year. Last holiday season, of course, they were lucky.
"We just happened to go on New Year's Day," said Hannah's grandmother, Pat Reidy. Other family members in the car that day were Hannah's grandfather Joe, her mother, Rachel and her aunt Megan -- and even the family dog, Bailey.
"They had a reader board on the street with the countdown to a million, but we didn't even think about it," Pat Reidy said.
"We didn't know what was going on," Rachel Reidy said. "A cop car stopped our car; then [people] all came rushing out and told us we were the millionth car."
"I kept thinking, `Is this a dream?' " Hannah Reidy said.
"They showered us with gifts," Pat Reidy said. The most memorable was a helicopter ride over the display donated by Steve Walker, owner of America Rising in Glenwood.
"The helicopter ride was awesome," Hannah Reidy said. "It was my favorite part. [Symphony of Lights] looked like a Christmas tree all lit up from far away."
The family was also flown over their neighborhood in Laurel. Neighbors stood outside with flashlights and waved, Pat Reidy said.
Other prizes included an overnight stay at the Inn at Peralynna Manor in Columbia; a gift certificate to The Mall in Columbia; and dinner at King's Contrivance restaurant. The family also went on a guided tour of the hospital's Maternal Child units.
"I got to see the babies," said Hannah, who hopes to be a trauma doctor when she grows up. "It was my first time in a hospital. A little while after the tour, I had to go there -- my stomach was hurting, and we thought it might be my appendix. I wasn't scared at all."
"It's nice that Hannah has a different perspective on the hospital," Rachel Reidy said. "She knows that they do things for the community, and it's a place where you can volunteer and help. You don't always have to be a patient."
Visitors to Symphony of Lights this year will see gigantic light sculptures, some 25 feet high, others 66 feet wide, said Sharon Sopp, communications coordinator for the Howard Hospital Foundation.