Modesto sailor’s surprise homecoming with sons touches all at Freedom Elementary

naustin@modbee.comDecember 13, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— Some presents come in glittery paper. Some come in small packages. But the best ones come with the biggest hugs and widest smiles of the season, like those wrapped around Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Aguinaldo in a surprise homecoming at Freedom Elementary School.

The moment came after Santa arrived and read out two Christmas wishes, made by kindergartner Alex and fourth-grader Adrein Aguinaldo. Both said: “I wish my dad could come home.” Sometimes, wishes still come true, Santa said dramatically, and in strode their father – home after a nine-month deployment on the USS Nimitz.

He was due home in October, but his duty was extended. Then the family expected him in November – didn’t happen. The boys were crossing their fingers that he would make it home for the holidays, said mom Marisa Aguinaldo.

“Best Christmas ever!” she said with a smile after the boys raced into their father’s waiting arms while the Savage Middle School band played “Anchors Aweigh.”

Alex, sitting in the front row in the farthest corner, was the first to jump up after Adam Aguinaldo arrived at the stage and turned to face the 700 children sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed. With a shriek of “Dada!” he ran to a scoop-up hug.

Adrein, sitting right in the aisle, said he saw the familiar uniform walking by him. “I thought, ‘Is it possible?’ – and then, right when he turned around, I saw it was,” Adrein said. “It’s just a magical day.”

The magic touched other parents on hand for the holiday music assembly on the last day before winter break.

“My heart grew 10 sizes today,” laughed Nicole Porter, dabbing away tears. “I just keep staring – thank you for sharing this,” she told the Aguinaldos.

“I cry for the littlest things – I lost it completely,” said Juliana Carpenter.

Marisa suggested surprising the boys in their classes, and the idea snowballed from there with a push from Adrein’s teacher, Alison Hamilton, said Principal Audry Garza.

“It’s good for the children to see Christmas is not about the things and material goods. It’s the people and being with family,” Garza said.

An assortment of Freedom students’ wishes, captured in ornament-shaped posters around the stage, shared her view. “I wish for peace for the world,” “I wish people wouldn’t have to starve” and the practical “I hope all of us are not sick on Christmas” were among the postings.

After 11 years in the Navy, absences are just a part of life for Adam Aguinaldo. He’s home on leave until Jan. 2, then returns to duty at Lemoore Naval Air Station.

“We wanted to involve the whole community. Everybody knows that being apart is part of being a military family. This way, they get to see the homecoming,” Marisa said. This deployment was a first for Alex. Adrein has been through several and understands, she said, “But he’s real attached to his dad.”

Adam landed in San Francisco on Thursday night. Marisa met him there, telling the boys she was visiting their aunt and newborn cousin. Friday was all about the boys.

“The best part of having him home is having our family complete again,” Marisa said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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