Carlos Woods went Christmas shopping on Wednesday.
He bought a snowman headband, a piggy bank shaped like a hippopotamus and a birthday card.
His $5 excursion through Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall ended with a handshake and a "God bless you" from Santa.
A typical outing for most children
But Carlos isn't just any child, and for him, this wasn't a typical outing.
Carlos, who turns 12 the day before Christmas Eve, was hit in the head by a stray bullet in April 2001 as he retrieved a juice bottle from the doorway of his Chapel Street rowhouse. Doctors didn't give him much of a chance to survive.
But Carlos did survive.
And on Wednesday, he joined 187 classmates from the William S. Baer School for students with severe disabilities on a field trip to the mall. Most were youngsters and young adults suffering from genetic defects or diseases such as cerebral palsy.
But some were like Carlos, the nearly forgotten victims of Baltimore street crimes.
Carlos paired up with 30-year-old volunteer Rob Paymer, who directs Bridges, a summer continuing education program, and hit the stores.
"He's a good man and a shrewd shopper," Paymer said, pushing Carlos in his wheelchair in the line to meet Santa. The two developed an understanding — the ever-smiling and always happy Carlos lifted his right arm to signal yes. He didn't need a signal to say no.
Dozens of volunteers joined teachers and staff to help the kids shop with $5 stipends. The volunteers like Paymer were not told the background of the kids. Upon hearing Carlos' story, Paymer fell silent and looked down at the smiling boy in the wheelchair dressed in a purple Ravens jacket and a bib.
"He's such a sweet guy," Paymer said.
Carlos can eat some mashed-up food — by bowing his head to the food — but also uses a feeding tube. He smiles at people he seems to recognize and can say "yeah," but that's about the extent of his vocabulary.
A visit two years ago to Carlos' house in East Baltimore found a child who could recognize Beyonce, loved Superman and hugged his great-aunt's 7-year-old daughter. The bullet left him with symptoms similar to that of a person with cerebral palsy.
No one really knows whether Carlos and his classmates will remember the trip to the mall; some of them had no idea where they were in the first place. But teachers said it's important to break what can be monotonous routines.
Even dressing to brace for the cold is a new experience for some who rarely leave their homes except to go to the school. It wasn't easy for the staff, either, who had to start preparing a day in advance for the trip.
The mall set aside back offices for feeding stations — 40 of the children are fed through tubes, and nearly all are in wheelchairs. The school is about two blocks from the mall, and city police shut down streets as the parade of students were pushed to Mondawmin. Stores offered discounts, and there was a group shot with Santa.
Teachers have organized smaller trips; this was the first time they tried bringing nearly every student out at once into the community.
"We wanted them to have a little Christmas," said Graham Kastendike, who heads the Baer School's partnership board, which raises private funds to pay for what the city cannot afford. There's a lot the children can't do, but, said Kastendike, "They can all recognize Santa Claus."
Connie Smith and Beatrice Broadway heard at their Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council meeting that the school needed help. They signed up immediately and were assigned to Timothy McGlotton.
Timothy promptly fell asleep in his chair as they pushed him to the Dollar Store. Smith and Broadway said they'd find a nice toy for him. "I don't think Timothy is going to wake up," Broadway said.
But Carlos squirmed in his chair and became even happier when Paymer wheeled him up to Santa. ""I love you," Santa told him, holding his left hand.
The man behind the beard and hat was Luke Durant, who has played Santa at Mondawmin for 28 years. When he learned Carlos's story, he leaned over and took some extra time, never mind the long line of anxious kids waiting their turn.
"I'm proud of you," Santa said. "Miracles do happen."