Army Master Sgt. Scott Skellenger made the most unlikely and unexpected Christmas wish come true for his children — Chloe, 9, and Gavin, 11 — on Friday with a heart-tugging reunion.
During separate visits to their respective Parkville schools, Skellenger surprised his son and daughter with an early homecoming.
Originally scheduled to return home in January from an eight-month deployment, Skellenger knew he wanted a surprise reunion when he learned he’d be home before the holidays instead. With the help of Union Chapel Elementary and Plaza Middle School staff, he got his wish.
“We have a number of families who have a military connection,” Union Chapel Principal Steve Archer said. “The experience of having a parent in another place is difficult for the children. Technology can help them be in touch, but it’s bittersweet. They can see their loved one but can’t touch them.
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“Our teachers know their students well and they work closely with the families. We also have a school counselor and social worker to assist them. We’re a community from the beginning of the year.”
Skellenger’s first stop Friday was Union Chapel, where Chloe is a fourth-grader. Near the end of recess, the principal, teachers, and fellow students lined the stairs and hallway, while Skellenger waited at the top.
An otherwise typical Friday playtime for Chloe turned into something much different as she glimpsed her father standing at the top of the stairs.
Reunited with hugs — and more hugs — followed by cheers and applause from students and staff at Union Chapel, the father and daughter were inseparable for the rest of the day, especially because Chloe said her father’s deployment has been difficult and challenging.
“We have FaceTime once a week, but it’s hard not being able to fill him in,” she said. “I can’t look at him in person and hug him. It’s just really hard.”
For Scott, an officer in the 1107th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group, this was his third deployment to the Middle East. His wife, Jessica, also is a combat medic in the National Guard, so military life is woven into the family’s fabric.
“I can be deployed again and probably will,” he said. “The kids know. We have an open line of communication with them and talk about it. We’ll typically know about deployment 6 to 12 months out and we let them know what’s coming up.
“I believe the distance makes them stronger. They have to make decisions on their own and they grow up sooner, but I’m happy to be home. It’s been hard not to be able to see them in person and hard not to be there when they need me.”
After sharing lunch with Chloe and her fellow Union Chapel students, it was off to Plaza Middle School to surprise Gavin.
Gavin and his fellow students were told that media outlets were coming Friday to cover their exceptional work on a recent “Super Hero” unit, which set the stage for the big surprise.
Plaza’s principal and teachers had been excited to plan the homecoming and some of Gavin’s classmates also were in on the secret, with several students managing to keep quiet while creating “Welcome Home” and “Thank You for Serving” banners to display for Scott’s return and family reunion.
While the students were being filmed, and with Gavin sitting in the front row, Scott walked in with Chloe.
Speechless, Gavin stood to greet his father and buried his face in his father’s chest as they held each other in a tight embrace.
“I’m so happy,” Gavin said. “I’m overwhelmed. Being able to see him, hang out with him, and play football — I don’t know what to say.”
As at Union Chapel, the Plaza students and staff reveled in the Skellenger family’s happiness — applauding, cheering, and displaying their colorful banners made in Scott’s honor.
“Everyone was so excited for today,” said Vanna Easley, Union Chapel assistant principal. “We build so many relationships with our students. We are such a family and community. This is like a family member coming home. Think how these holidays are going to look in these children’s memories: ‘Remember the Christmas dad came home?’”