The first time Shantelle Songster met Isaiah Henley, he curled his lips into a smile that touched her heart.
She knew then, more than a year ago, that the two were meant for each other.
Monday, they made it official.
Songster adopted the 3-year-old Isaiah in a ceremony that offered a bright ending at Christmastime, no less, to a story that could have been far darker.
The boy suffered serious and permanent injuries in 2007 when he was violently shaken as an infant. He wasn't expected to survive but pulled through only to end up in a foster family that wasn't up to the task of caring for a child with disabilities.
That's when Songster, a 25-year-old teacher's assistant who works with developmentally disabled children at Aspire of Western New York, stepped forward. She agreed to be his foster mother, even though she and her family knew it meant taking on an enormous responsibility.
"I love this little kid as if he was my own," Songster said in Erie County Family Court before the ceremony.
Gateway-Longview Inc., a nonprofit child and family service, helped Songster navigate the process. She is young and single, but was passionate about Isaiah and aware from her work of the challenge ahead of her.
"It seemed like a really good fit," said Michelle Federowicz, director of foster care and permanency services at Gateway-Longview. "I remember them at our summer picnic and how proud Shantelle was that he took his first step and how so committed she was to him."
Federowicz and other staff from Gateway-Longview attended the ceremony, bringing balloons and flowers. It was a special day for them, too.
"It's hard enough to find foster families. It's even harder to find families for children who need special care," said Kathy Swenson, vice president of the Gateway Longview Foundation.
About 1,000 children in Erie County are in foster care, she said.
Isaiah needs an assortment of assistance -- including physical, occupational and speech therapy -- a situation that is likely to continue for the rest of his life.
At first, Songster's mother was skeptical about the adoption, given Isaiah's problems. But she came around to accept the decision, and Monday she sat in the back of the courtroom with her husband, dabbing away tears of joy with a tissue.
"Shantelle is a girl who, when she makes up her mind to do something, that's it," said Vertris Songster, who lives in Brooklyn. "Right now, it just feels wonderful to have my first grandchild."
The younger Songster doesn't have family in Buffalo but is receiving help from a host of friends, so she'll be able to keep working and raise Isaiah. Meanwhile, her mother said that the two have been talking and will continue to talk first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
"I told Shantelle I would support her 100 percent," she said. "I'm very proud of her."
The adoption finalization before Family Court Judge Patricia A. Maxwell proved short and sweet.
Songster signed a few papers as she held Isaiah. Friends, family, media and court personnel surrounded them. A man dressed as Santa watched from the back of the room.
"OK. It's official," Maxwell declared after the last signature.
"Am I your mommy?" Songster said with excitement. "I am your mommy." The judge then leaned over toward Isaiah and offered congratulations to him, saying, "I'm adopted, too."
As people celebrated with cookies and cake, and took pictures of the new family, Maxwell added that this adoption represented what Family Court at its best is all about.
"Being home for the holidays is a special thing," she said. "And, what could be better than to get that at Christmas."