Plaza Elementary School students thought they were in the gym on Oct. 12 for an assembly about veterans when Principal Mark Gray asked if anyone had family in the military. Dozens of students raised their hands, including first-grader Brooke Reyes.
Brooke’s father, Staff Sgt. Jason Reyes, had deployed to Dubai four months earlier and missed Brooke’s first day of school and the birth of his second daughter, Bianca. Brooke, in front of the student body, spoke of her father and said she missed him. Gray then asked where her father was. “Dubai, I think,” Brooke responded.
“Really? I don’t think he’s in Dubai,” Gray told Brooke.
At that moment, Brooke’s jaw dropped and a smile flashed across her face as she saw Reyes walk into Plaza’s gym. She ran into her father’s arms, and the two embraced as the crowd cheered and sang “God Bless America.”
“He surprised me a lot,” Brooke told reporters. “He’s my hero.”
Brooke’s mother, Alissa Reyes, arranged the surprise reunion. At first, Alissa said, she had just wanted to have her husband walk into their daughter’s classroom. “But I wanted to do something special just for her,” she said, “to help make her feel extra special.”
The idea was brought to Plaza’s administration, and it snowballed from there. “As a principal, it was one of the most special moments I’ve experienced,” Gray said. “I feel blessed I had an opportunity to see a little girl see her father.”
Reyes, an aircraft maintainer with the Air Force, said at first he nervous at the thought of surprising Brooke. “I thought, am I ready for this?” he said. “I just wanted to come home and see my family.”
In the end, he said, it was worth it. “There’s no feeling like right now,” he said.
Reyes was sent on his second deployment in June when his wife was seven months pregnant. “It was tough,” Alissa said. “Not having my partner in crime, the love of my life with me during those special beginning moments with Bianca and Brooke, that was tough.”
Jason’s mother was with Alissa when she gave birth to Bianca. “I was happy that I was able to give my mother that experience,” he said.
Although Brooke missed her father, she was strong and even comforted her classmates who would become upset at not seeing their parents for a few hours, first-grade teacher Janie Gillen said. “She would step right up and say, ‘You’ll see your mom and dad when you go home,’” Gillen said. “She’s such a strong little girl.”
Reyes said Brooke only knew that he would be back before Halloween, but was not aware of the exact date.
It was the first time that many Baldwin school officials witnessed a military homecoming. “There are just so many feelings right now,” Dr. Shari Camhi, the Baldwin Schools superintendent, said. “And with the timing around Veterans Day, how could you not be proud?”
“We felt so honored to be a part of it, for sure,” Gillen said. “What a hero he is.”
Reyes will remain home for two years before possibly being sent back overseas. After his surprise homecoming, he said he looked forward to eating homemade food and doing Brooke’s favorite activity with him — wrestling.
“I’m just happy to see her and to go home and play,” he said.