An unexpected Christmas gift came early for Caldwell County Elementary School student Gracey Parker this week.
As students gathered in the school gym Wednesday morning, Principal Malissa Thomas told them they would be drawing names for presents and one student would be getting a huge one at the end.
Gracey, a third-grader, made her way to the floor after her name was called for the final present.
Little did she know, her father, 1st Lt. David Parker, who she hadn't seen in a year due to him being deployed in Syria and Kuwait with the Army National Guard, was hiding in the box.
"The school came up with the idea of putting her dad in a big box wrapped like a present," said Niki Smith, Gracey's mother.
Principal Thomas told Gracey to pull the top off the present. A few seconds after she did, her father stood up for her holiday surprise.
"The surprise was even better than we hoped," Smith said. "Gracey was so excited. … Once he popped up out of that present, the look on her face was all I cared about."
Gracey was very happy.
"When we went into the office, she said, 'Mama, I had no idea, I thought I wasn't gonna get to see Daddy until after Christmas,'" Smith said. "We knew it was going to be worth it to do it this way."
"I really appreciate the school for all their help, we couldn't have done this without them."
She and Gracey's stepmother, Marie Parker, came up with the idea to surprise her.
"We knew we wanted it to be a big surprise for her because it was the first deployment she's ever been through," Smith said. "It took us about three or four months to plan it all out perfectly."
Smith said she and Marie contacted CCES Vice Principal Kendra Glenn and she brought it to Principal Thomas.
"The school really hit the ground running with this surprise," Smith said.
Lt. Parker, Gracey's dad, said he was on board with the surprise as soon as they told him about it.
"I thought it was a good way to let her be proud in front of her friends," he said. "Being there in front of her peers would mean more to her than any other surprise we could have done."
He said school officials outdid themselves.
"They were very supportive of the idea and did the majority of the work to set everything up," the veteran said. "It went even better than I expected."
"Although she was a little overwhelmed, she was happy that we did it. She was really happy to see me."
Lt. Parker will be spending the holidays in Kentucky until the first of the year then he will be going back to South Carolina, where he is stationed.
Superintendent Nate Huggins said he was grateful that he got to witness the special family reunion.
"It was heartwarming to see a soldier come home and see his child," Huggins said. "It's a memory that Gracey will remember for the rest of her life."
"It was wonderful that we had the opportunity to be a part of this."