CHAMPAIGN — It was a breathless moment, then a tearful reunion, as a Champaign woman surprised her children at school Friday when she returned home from serving in Afghanistan.
Cpl. Theresa Brownfield and her kids, first-graders Michael, Carolyn and Caitlyn, and third-grader Matthew, wrapped each other in a giant hug as Brownfield surprised them at Stratton Leadership and Microsociety Magnet School in Champaign.
Brownfield is home from serving a year for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. She works in human resources and with NATO, and was stationed at Kandahar Air Field.
Her son, Matthew, had been on stage with other third-graders, preparing for a holiday program scheduled for Friday night.
The first-graders were in the cafeteria watching the rehearsal, under the premise of learning how to be a good audience.
Brownfield's first-graders sat together near the front, and their older brother eventually joined them, as he and other third-graders were supposed to be watching their classmates practice.
Assistant Principal Ian Tatum told the students they needed to remember that special guests might be in the audience, and then Brownfield walked in.
There was a yell of "Mommy!" and all four kids ran toward her.
After that huge hug and a few tears, Matthew put an construction-paper elf hat on Brownfield's head. Then, the third-graders reprised one of their songs, and Matthew stood in front, performing the dance moves and glancing at his mom.
Before entering the cafeteria, Brownfield stocked up on tissues, with her husband, Joe Brownfield, and brother, Tim Spohrer looking on.
Stratton Principal Stephanie Eckels told her Matthew was suspicious, especially about having to wear a shirt referencing that his mom was in Afghanistan, and his name. All four kids have matching shirts, with each of their names.
Sure enough, after the surprise, Matthew said he suspected something.
"The shirt made me think Mommy was home," he said.
But seeing her walk into the school's cafeteria was still a surprise.
"I was stunned," he said, adding that he hadn't seen her in a long time.
Brownfield called the surprise "amazing," adding that she had to try hard not to cry. She said she was most surprised by how much her kids have grown. She last saw them over the Fourth of July, when she was home on leave.
She's also glad to be able to attend Matthew's concert and that she'll be home for his birthday next week. She originally told her kids she'd be home in mid-January.
She'll be in Champaign until a few days after Christmas, when she'll have to leave again to receive some medical care.
"I'm just glad to be home," she said. "I want to be mommy again."