HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — A Hillsborough elementary school student got a huge surprise Friday just in time for Veterans Day: her dad showed up at her school to see her in person for the first time in almost a year.

  • Parents orchestrated surprise for Coral Pena
  • Dad walked out on stage just before Pledge of Allegiance
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As students at Claywell Elementary School poured into the school's play court for a Veterans Day assembly, second grader Coral Pena watched and waited along with her classmates, completely unaware of the surprise her parents had orchestrated.

That surprise unfolded as Coral's dad, U.S. Army Private Rafael Sanchez, walked out on stage right before the Pledge of Allegiance. It was the first time he'd seen Coral or her little sister since he'd left home for training.

"Beautiful," Sanchez said, describing that moment on stage. "Honestly, amazing. Trying to soak it all up."

"It's very different going from spending every day with each other to only speaking through technology," he added.

Crafting the surprise took some effort, according to Coral's mom, Jessica Pena.

"It was the hardest thing ever," she said. "I hate lying to my kids, but it was so worth it."

"She's a huge 'daddy's girl'," Pena went on. "She would always tell me, 'I miss daddy, I miss daddy!'"

Their reunion was especially sweet as it took place as they, along with all the other students and staff at Claywell, honored those who serve and those who have served.

"We get to appreciate the people that get to put their lives on the line for us," Pena said. "For our freedom, for our kids, for our kids to have freedom, for our kids to be able to do stuff like this. It's amazing."