Airman returns early, hides in decoy toy box at kids’ school
Jacob and his sister, McCartnie Rea, went to school as usual Friday. They had no idea of the big surprise that was coming that morning.
With hundreds of other Plum Point Middle School students, they were summoned to the cafeteria for a Toys for Tots event.
As Principal Kelley Adams and a Toys for Tots representative briefed the students on the program, school staff quietly and selectively handed several students some gift toys. Among the selected, Jacob and McCartnie were asked to go up on stage to demonstrate how the program works by dropping the toys into a box.
The red box was so large that McCartnie thought there may
be a dollhouse inside. When Derek Rea, their father, came out of that box, they almost didn’t recognize him.
Jacob, 13, thought it was a police officer who came to tell them more about the toys program. McCartnie, 12, couldn’t believe it.
“I thought they were playing a joke on me or something,” McCartnie said. “That’s not my dad. He’s not coming home until March.”
Derek, a technical sergeant with the U.S. Air Force, was deployed to Qatar, a country in the Middle East, in August. He was scheduled to come home in March 2019. Because of an accident at work, he was sent back home on medical leave and came home Thursday, Nov. 29. Once he had learned that he was coming home earlier than expected, he reached out to Plum Point Middle to arrange a surprise.
To hide the surprise, the school designed a decoy Toys for Tots event, which is a program the school is organizing this year to give toys to children in need.
“I knew it would surprise them, and they would get a kick out of it,” said the father, who had a big smile on his face. “It means a lot to be home for the holidays.”
Because of the jet lag and excitement, Derek didn’t sleep well Thurs- day night. It was tough for him to not go see his two children right away. But he told himself it was worth the wait. He went to bed early Thursday and woke up around 3:30 a.m. Friday. As the morning came, he grew more anxious and excited.
“More and more butterflies,” he said.
A few minutes before 10 a.m. when the students were scheduled to come, he climbed inside the red box and waited.
“I was just happy” to see him, Jacob said, describ- ing the moment.
Followed by his sister, he ran to his father to hug him. They buried their heads in his shoulder with tears coming down their faces as their father held them tight. In the background, the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” played on.
“It’s really insane,” said Laura Jones, a friend of Jacob’s and one of the students who teared up as they witnessed the emotional moment. “You see this kind of thing on YouTube. But you don’t think it’s around you. But it is.”
Laura takes photos for the school’s marching band and was asked to take photos of the event Friday. She cried as her camera shutter clicked.
“It’s just so beautiful to see that they are gonna have their holidays with their dad,” she said after the event, her eyes still red from crying moments earlier.
After the emotional reunion, the Reas headed to a Mexican restaurant where they used to go every weekend for celebration.
On their way out of school, Jacob was teased by his father and sister on his wearing a pair of slippers to school Friday.
“He didn’t know Dad’s coming,” McCartnie said.
“Just lazy,” Derek said.
Returning Sgt. Derek Rea, center, sticks his tongue out in an emotional moment after he surprised his two children, McCartnie and Jacob, on Friday morning at Plum Point Middle School by coming home earlier than expected.
Top, McCartnie Rea is surprised to see her father, Sgt. Derek Rea, coming out of a large toy box Friday morning. She didn’t know her father had come home earlier than expected and arranged the event to surprise her and her brother, Jacob. Above, Derek Rea runs out of the box where he was hiding.