Seven-year-old Brianna Aebischer was so focused on her teacher, LaNita Keeton, reading “The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything,” the second grader didn’t notice the U.S. Air Force airman sneaking up behind her.
After having her pink stuffed animal “Penelope” held in front her face, Brianna turned around and instantly broke down into tears, hugging her mother, Kristen, who had just returned from a four-and-a-half-month assignment in Saudi Arabia.
“It was a good surprise,” a still choked up Brianna said. “I missed my mommy over that time, and I was waiting for her to come back.”
Kristen was just as emotional as her daughter and spoke about her surprise visit.
“It was wonderful. I couldn’t stop shaking. I had to tell my mom, ‘Just don’t talk about it, just let me kind of push through it.’” Kristen said. “It was an emotional roller coaster, definitely.”
Brianna’s Berg Elementary classmates were excited for her, and not just because of the cupcakes Kristen brought. Many of them wanted to know about Penelope as well.
“She gave it to me to take with me when I deployed,” Kristen explained to the students. “So when I was deployed, I could take pictures with it, and it flew in couple jets. Everybody was hanging out with it, and it came to work with us.”
Kristen said Penelope was sort of like “Flat Stanley,” the project in which students mail letters to each other across the world and include photos of the places Flat Stanley has been with them.
“It was with me almost every day, actually it was with me every day. It was in my backpack, where if we had work and would go out to the flight line, I would take pictures of it in the truck or on the plane,” Kristen said.
The idea to arrange this surprise came from Brianna’s grandmother, Deb West. Deb had been planning this for several weeks with both the Daily News’ and Keeton’s help.
“It was amazing, that’s exactly the reaction I hoped for,” Deb said.
Deb said she did her best to keep Brianna busy while her mother was away and had her participate in the Newton YMCA’s summer program. She and Kristen also fondly recalled the first time Kristen was deployed and Brianna’s reaction when her parents came home.
“The first time it was a little bit easier coming home, because she was so young,” Kristen said. “We showed up late, so we just went to bed and early in the morning we all got up. Mom went in there and got her up out of bed and me and my husband were both sitting in the living room. She comes peeking around the corner and my mom goes, ‘Bri, who’s that?’”
“And she’s like, ‘Mommy and Daddy!’” Kristen said chuckling.
Deb explained what she told Brianna that day to get her out of bed.
“I said, ‘I got a surprise for you!’ and she said, ‘Is it bubblegum?’” Deb said before joining her daughter in the laughter.
“‘This is better than bubblegum!’” Kristen said imitating Brianna’s reaction.
Kristen said they will be here for another two weeks while she rests and reintegrates, before she and Brianna head back home to Wichita, Kan. to go back to “being normal.” Her husband is still deployed, but will soon be joining the rest of the family.
“I’m happy that my mom was coming back and giving presents to the class,” Brianna said smiling as her right hand was covered in cupcake frosting.
Staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.