The littlest person to take a swing drew the biggest applause.
Officials wielding sledgehammers stepped up one-by-one Thursday, taking whacks at a wall in the old neonatal intensive care unit at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in a ceremony to mark the start of construction of the new NICU.
Cataleya Vargas' hammer was plastic.
And she didn't swing it so much as bop it up and down.
But the crowd erupted into cheers.
The Kennewick girl, who's about to turn 1, spent about three months in the Richland hospital after she was born last fall at 26 weeks gestation.
She and her parents celebrated the start of the new NICU project Thursday along with a roomful of Kadlec staff, supporters and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, who helped get federal dollars for the project.
"It's exciting. It's exciting that this new NICU is on board now, and we're kicking it off today. It's definitely needed," Monica Perez, Cataleya's mom, told the crowd.
Kadlec has the only Level III NICU in the region, with staff there caring for infants from the Tri-Cities and beyond.
The new project "really truly is a commitment on behalf of Kadlec to continue to provide this level of care here in the Tri-Cities as a resource for our entire region," said Larry Christensen, Kadlec's vice president of resource development.
The old NICU space is 3,000 square feet, and the construction project will bring the total to 15,000 square feet.
The expanded unit will have 27 private and semi-private rooms, plus an observation area, space for families to gather, a lactation room and storage, among other features.
"It's going to be all-inclusive, truly state of the art in providing great care for our babies and our families," Christensen said.
He helps lead the Kadlec Foundation, which since 2010 has been raising money for the $10 million project.
So far, $6 million in cash and pledges are in hand, including about $1.4 million in federal grant money secured with help from Hastings and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
Hastings spoke during the ceremony, calling the expansion of the NICU "absolutely incredible." Murray sent a letter saying she couldn't attend but that the project represents Kadlec's commitment to helping the region's most vulnerable patients.
Christensen said the fundraising so far has essentially covered construction costs, with the focus now on paying for items such as equipment, furniture and fixtures.
The unit won't stop operating while construction is going on; it will be housed temporarily in the hospital's Don and Lori Watts Pediatric Center. The new NICU is expected to open in fall 2014.
During Thursday's ceremony, Cataleya sat in the arms of her dad, Carlos Vargas. She's doing well now, with no lingering problems after her premature birth, her parents said.
She entered the world at 15 1/2 ounces and slightly less than 11 inches long -- the smallest baby ever admitted to Kadlec's NICU.
The staff who cared for her were wonderful, Monica Perez said, adding that she and Vargas "left here every night knowing that she was going to be in great hands."
But the space was compact, with little privacy.
"I'm excited for NICU families in the future who will be able to benefit from a bigger NICU," Perez said.
Cataleya will turn 1 on Sunday, and the sledgehammer ceremony also doubled as a chance to acknowledge that milestone.
Some of the medical staff who cared for Cataleya as a preemie gathered around her near the end of the event.
They led the room in singing, Happy Birthday.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; email@example.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald