When Petty Officer Jason Sapp opened the classroom door Monday morning, his children rushed to his side.
The Coast Guardsman knelt just inside the door, embracing his 6-year-old son, Hunter, and his 4-year-old daughter, Riley. Hunter clutched a balloon in one hand, and Riley held a bouquet of flowers by her side as she clung to her father.
A seven-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, Sapp had just finished a six-month deployment in Bahrain. He returned home Sunday night for a two-week break, which gave him a chance to spend time with his family before returning to duty.
Sapp surprised his oldest children Monday with a visit to the Ada Early Childhood Center, where Riley attends school. Sapp’s son, Hunter, is a student at Hayes Grade Center, but he was in the classroom when his father arrived. Sapp’s other daughter, 2-year-old J.J., was also in the room.
Sapp said he planned to take it easy for the next two weeks.
"It's just good to slow down, relax, be with my family," he said.
Sapp's wife, Alexandria, said she began planning the surprise visit a month ago, when she learned that her husband was coming home.
“It all started out with my idea to bring snacks to the kids,” she said. “I was going to bring cookies, and when they were busy eating, I was just going to sneak that in and catch them off guard.
“The teachers kind of took it and ran with it, so it was all their idea. And it was perfect. It worked out great.”
Alexandria said she kept the visit secret from her children by telling them she was going to visit a relative in Texas.
The teachers played their part by taking Hunter and other Hayes students to the Early Childhood Center, where the children were supposed to read together. As the children settled down, pre-kindergarten teacher Kathy Evans told them she was looking forward to the reading session.
“I am so excited that you guys are here to read to our class,” she said. “It’s a nice thing to buddy up with another school and to read. So this is very, very nice.”
Principal Cindy Brady stepped to the front of the classroom, opened her book and started reading to the students. Someone knocked on the door a few minutes later, and one of the teachers asked Riley to answer.
When Riley opened the door, she shouted “Daddy!” as she and Hunter hugged their father.
With Hunter seated on one side and Riley on the other, Sapp sat down in front of the classroom and opened another children’s book. This book, titled The Adventures of Onyx and the Guardians of the Straits, was about a homeless dog who finds a home — and a purpose — when she wanders onto a Coast Guard station in Michigan.
As Sapp read, he paused occasionally and flipped the book around so the children could see one of the pictures. The children listened quietly as he turned the pages.
When Sapp finished the book, the group rewarded him with a round of applause.
After giving Sapp an Ada Cougars T-shirt, Brady told the children that the serviceman was a true hero.
“You’re going to see people on television that fly through the air in their costumes and do things that we might consider a hero,” she said. “This man is a hero. He has served his country — he’s still serving his country. He’s given up time with his family, which is obviously precious to him.”
Under Brady’s direction, the students stood and gave Sapp a standing ovation. Before they sat down again, they sang "God Bless America" for him.
Outside the classroom, Sapp and his family talked to reporters. Riley responded to a couple of questions by nodding, then shook her head and hid her face on her father's shoulder.
Hunter said he was glad to see his father again.
"Happy," he said.
Alexandria Sapp said she choked up when her husband walked into the classroom, and she saw Hunter and Riley's faces.
"I've been waiting for it all day, all night," she said. "For the past six months, really."