Ridge Circle Elementary School students and teachers knew there would be an assembly Thursday but they didn't know why.
It was for a returning hero, First Lt. Jordon Wolf, who had been stationed in Afghanistan. Students, a sea of red and pink as they dressed for Valentine's Day, clapped and cheered. But one sat frozen for a moment at the back of the gym, her hands clasped over her mouth.
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She stood up to walk, then started to run.
To her dad.
The reunion of 11-year-old daughter Kayla Wolf was a surprise, bringing tears to many at the assembly at the Streamwood school. Wolf, an Army reservist, had been deployed since April. He returned to the U.S. a few weeks ago but just flew into Chicago Thursday.
Wolf told his daughter he'd be home this month, but she didn't know it would be this soon.
"He tricked me," Kayla said later.
But she didn't seem too upset by the deception.
In addition to surprising Kayla, Wolf wanted to thank her classmates for a care package they sent his unit during the holidays.
That was the brainchild of Lindsay Ross and her fellow fifth grade teacher, who were looking for community service ideas.
"We were thinking about raising money for (Hurricane) Sandy," Ross said. "But then we realized this would be more meaningful and make more of an impression on our kids."
The 44 students wrote cards and sent gifts ranging from granola bars to personal care items.
Wolf told the students that it's hard to be away from family during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season and thanked them for sending the package.
"You helped us have a little bit of home when we were far, far away from home," he said.
In return, he brought the students a U.S. flag that was raised in Afghanistan.
A social worker, this was Wolf's first deployment since joining the Army Reserves two years ago. he did clinical work throughout his tour, supporting the troops so they could continue doing their jobs. Sometimes that meant helping soldiers deal with the trauma of watching friends die, other times it was helping them deal with the stress of being so far away from their families.
The work was fulfilling, Wolf said, but remembering how hard it was not being able to hug his kids every day brought tears to his eyes Thursday. The last time he got to see his kids without a computer screen between them was March 18, 2012. His youngest daughter was just a year old and his son was 4 when he left. Wolf said Kayla looks like she has grown a foot taller since then.
Being reunited was surreal for everyone involved.
"I kept thinking it was a dream," Kayla said. "But this wasn't a dream because my mom pinched me."
After leaving Ridge Circle, Wolf went to a second surprise homecoming of the day, picking up his younger kids from child care.
Wolf's mom Bonnie said the family planned a quiet evening at home where she'd be able to sit and gaze at her son now that he was finally home.
"I'm just going to look and look and look," she said.