The broad smile on the toddler's face said it all as "Firefighter Mike" pulled a T-shirt over her head and adjusted a plastic red helmet over her braids.

"I'm a fire girl!" she proudly proclaimed.

Michael Hineline turned to the rest of the excited children.

"If you see a fire, what should you do?" the Baltimore firefighter hollered.

"Stop, drop and roll!" the crowd shouted in unison.

Firefighter Chon Bunch from Truck 29 warned the kids not to hide if there's a fire.

"You'll hear us coming, and we'll be screaming and kicking over tables," he said. "It might be scary, but don't hide because that will make it harder for us to find you."

The brief lesson over, the kids swarmed to the table to collect their toys. More than 40 kids picked up new games, new skateboards, new dolls and new footballs. All are living at the House of Ruth, a shelter in Northeast Baltimore for women escaping abusive relationships.

Baltimore firefighters have for years adopted needy families to help at Christmas, and this year they're also visiting several hospitals, including Sinai, Kennedy Krieger and the Mount Washington Pediatric Center. The toys and sometimes food are all donated by city firefighters.

Wednesday's trip on the large truck was their first to the House of Ruth and it came with special conditions. Hineline warned the firefighters from Truck 29, based at Cold Spring Lane and The Alameda, that unlike in hospitals, they had to be careful what they talked about and were told to not ask the children why they were there.

Photographs of the children and their mothers were not allowed, and names of the occupants were not divulged, as many are hiding from their husbands or boyfriends.

Kerri Wojciechowski, the associate director of communications for the nonprofit's 84-bed center, said people often forget that most battered women come with children. And while they are often not abused, or sick, or even poor, they have suffered domestic trauma and need help and care.

"They have witnessed what happened in their homes," Wojciechowski said. "Kids know what's going on. They know when something's not right. This shelter is often the first time they've been in a stable environment. They might have switched schools often and moved to get away from their abuser."

For the mothers, it was a time to relax a bit. "It's nice to know that somebody cares enough to take the time to share," said one woman, holding her 1-month-old boy, who was trying to hold a bean-bag shaped like a red fire truck.

For the firefighters, it was a time to forget about fires and station closings and budget cuts and contracts. They grinned when the first child walked into the room, saw the table of gifts and gleefully yelled, "They got toys!"

Deputy Chief Raymond Devilbiss, a veteran of 39 years, sat in a chair and played the role of grandfather. A 2-year-old girl handed him a toy in clamshell packaging, and Devilbiss had to break out a pocketknife to rescue the doll trapped inside.

"Come here baby, I got it," he shouted.

The 59-year-old paused for a moment and said: "I find myself wondering if I appreciate my own blessings."

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