Finalist for Nicest Place in America: Providence, Rhode Island
or any person, of any age, hospital stays can be scary. From the buzzing machines to the lonely hallways, it's hard to imagine the experience ever being a pleasant one. The exception: The Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Here, overnight stays have become something to forward to thanks to a quirky local custom that turns the town into a magical spectacle every night before bedtime.
Shining a Light Through Dark Times
In 2010, Steve Brosnihan, a resident cartoonist at the hospital, told the last patient he saw that day—a teenager who he had bonded with over the kid’s long stay—to look out of his hospital room window at a certain spot after he left. It was the teen’s last night in the hospital and Brosnihan wanted to do something special to say goodbye. When he reached the indicated spot, he turned toward the hospital and flickered his bike light toward the teen’s window. To his surprise, the teen flickered his own room lights in response.
Since that first night, Brosnihan has shared his idea with hundreds of patients, and a growing number of kids looked for his signal and flickered their lights back at him. In 2015, Brosnihan began asking local businesses to join in, and the ritual has turned into a movement called “Good Night Lights.”
“It is all I look forward to basically all day,” said Abigail Waldron, 10, who has seen Good Night Lights during two extended stays for leukemia treatment. “It just shows you that somebody is helping you through your whole experience in the hospital.”
“It is all I look forward to basically all day."
Nearly everyone Brosnihan has approached has agreed to participate, including local bars and restaurants, law enforcement, Brown University officials and more. Tugboats salute with their powerful searchlights. Skyscrapers downtown installed sophisticated automated lights to flash a greeting long after the workers in the building have gone for the evening. One building downtown has an LED screen that spells out “Good Night, Hasbro” nightly at 8:30 p.m.
“Because it was almost a personal thing between me and the kids I was visiting,” Brosnihan says, “I hadn’t really thought about the prospect of people joining me in flickering the lights until I thought about how much fun I was having and how much fun others could be having, including the kids.”
The children love the attention, because it reminds them that even though they’re sleeping in an unfamiliar place and enduring uncomfortable treatments, people in the community are thinking about them and wishing them well.
Passing on the tradition
The experience doesn’t just connect the community to children in the hospital, it teaches Hasbro’s young patients about selflessness and giving back.
“Kids who are slightly older can’t believe that people are taking time to do something for them, people that they don’t know,” Brosnihan says. “The more thoughtful kids say they can’t wait to get out of the hospital so they can be on the other side of the windows flickering lights, which is a wonderful thing to hear.”
Brosnihan knows of plenty of families who have flashed Good Night Lights to patients after a hospital stay. He even knows of families that have flickered lights outside the hospital to honor the memory of a child that didn’t survive treatment.
“It’s a very powerful permutation of the signal,” Brosnihan says. “The families want to support those who are still in treatment, even in the wake of the loss that they have experienced.”
Making a difference—one picture at a time
Providence has a history of finding ways to connect people together, and a local photo installation has helped immensely.
For years, photographer Mary Beth Meehan has been taking portraits of Providence residents who don’t tend to stand out, including immigrants, refugees, minorities and women. In 2015, she made billboard-sized versions of her photos and mounted them on walls in downtown Providence, prompting discussions on community in the immigrant-rich capital. Included in the artistic display were an Iraqi war veteran, a mother nursing her baby and a Haitian bus driver.
“People reported that the work did make them more curious about their neighbors, as well as about their inner attitudes toward people, strangers, chance encounters,” Meehan says. “I’ve heard that the work has made Providence feel kinder, more humane. I can comfortably say that, since the banners went up, people have reported shifts both big and small inside themselves.”
The project, which received funding from the city of Providence and the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, was only supposed to be on display until 2016, but the portraits are still hanging because of the positive response of people in town.
“I just think it’s a project that really describes the city in a really understated, beautiful way,” Lynn McCormack, former director of Providence’s Department of Arts, Culture + Tourism, told the Boston Globe.