After five long months away on duty, Petty Officer First Class Toni Debem decided she could not just make a usual return home to her family, greeting them when her ship docked in California.
Instead the mother of two decided to surprise her daughter, Nadia, at a place and time the third-grader would least expect it, right in the middle of library time at Edwin Rhodes Elementary School in Chino, Calif.
“She thinks that she is going to get out of school on Thursday, and she thinks that she’s going to drive to San Diego and see the ship pull in because that’s what happens usually,” Debem told local affiliate KABC of her plan.
Nadia instead got to see her mom two days early, on Tuesday, when Debem, a Navy counselor, walked into the library to surprise her daughter, grabbing her and hugging her from behind.
The reunion, in which many “I missed yous” and “I love yous” were exchanged, was all caught-on-camera.
The surprise was so unexpected for young Nadia that not even a library full of cameras and onlookers not interested in reading books could tip her off.
“My teacher told me that there was going to be cameras, but I thought to do an interview for the school,” Nadia told KABC. “I didn’t know it was for my mom coming home.”
In addition to Nadia, Debem is also the mother of an 18-month-old son, Marc. He and Debem’s husband, and the children’s father, Michael, were also on hand for the reunion surprise.
“I just miss our one-on-one time, and the family outings and going to the zoo and going to the Sequoias and being able to have those funny, silly moments that I’ve missed out on,” Debem said.
Debem was deployed with the Washington-based aircraft carrier USS Stennis. She is on leave until March 15 when she has to report for duty again.