As class after class at Maiden Choice School poured into the gymnasium on the afternoon of Dec. 20, the faces in each new batch of students lit up as bright as a Christmas tree.
There to greet them at the school for students with significant educational disabilities were piles of toys, temporary tattoo and face-painting stations, and several special guests.
"The kids were smiling and they were excited, giving hugs to everybody," said Yanina Giller, the school's assistant principal. "(They) can't necessarily express verbally, but their gestures and facial expressions were definitely happy."
Maia Hammett-Aron, 17, of Catonsville, couldn't stop smiling as she held a plush Smurf toy in her lap.
Chaz Stanley, 16, of Windsor Mill, playfully moved to the end of the line to try to get a second round of gifts.
Lashe Land, 16, of Woodlawn, smiled wide as he spent time with Capt. Dee-Fense, a Baltimore Ravens super fan who often attends community events.
Each of Maiden Choice's 109 students, aged 3 to 21, had the opportunity to participate in the festivities at the school on Shelbourne Road.
The school partnered with the Baltimore County nonprofit Dee's Vision and Macy's Make-A-Wish Foundation to throw a party that featured carols, guests and presents.
Each student left with a Smurf toy; a coloring book and crayons; and a WWE action figure, "Toy Story 3" toy, winter hat or gloves.
Dee's Vision aims to provide positive experiences to children with special needs and those of military families, said Bates, a Middle River resident.
Macy's Make-A-Wish Foundation donated the Smurf toys.
The event at Maiden Choice was the first of two on the day. Macy's and Dee's Vision later visited Westport Homes Boys and Girls Club for a similar activity with military families, Bates said.
Bates got into the fun at Maiden Choice as she dressed in a panda bear costume and hugged many of the students as they moved from activity to activity.
"The kids are so excited: They're squealing when they come in," Bates said, noting it took months to plan the event. "The (children) can be a little apprehensive at first, and then they'll put their hand out. They're so loving and gentle."
The day wasn't just a chance for the students to party.
It also allowed them to practice their skills in a controlled environment with strangers, said principal Nancy Briganti.
"When we talked about this event, it's not just play," Briganti said. "It's, 'How do we use skills and participate in community activities?' "
Giller noted the students had to express what they wanted when choosing gifts, and at the face-painting and tattoo stations.
Another teaching moment came when a student became overwhelmed at the party, acted out and had to leave, Giller said.
The student asked to be allowed to go back to the party twice.
When the teacher consented, the student's behavior at the event improved, she added.
"He was already in a much better state of mind, and he enjoyed the activities," Giller said. "That helps the students there go back into the community with their parents and respond to the situation much better."
Given the success of the event, Briganti said she would like to continue the partnership and that she will keep in touch about doing other events with Dee's Vision.
"Our hope (is) that we will build a relationship and continue that kind of work together," Briganti said.
"This is what's going to make our students successful citizens in the future," she said. "It's really going to bring a good quality of life for them."
Whenever Maiden Choice wants Dee's Vision to come back, Bates said she would be ready.
Bates suggested with a laugh that she could wear her bunny costume for an event near Easter.