EL CAJON, Calif. (KGTV) - Santa brought a Christmas surprise for one 4th-grade girl at WD Hall Elementary School.
Friday, on Penelope Sandoval's 9th birthday, her class got a visit from Santa Claus. What she didn't know was that Santa was actually her father in disguise.
Alex Sandoval is in the Navy and has been deployed to Guam for almost two years. He hasn't been home since last December.
"It's exciting for me," he said of the surprise visit. "She's growing older, getting more emotional. She feels (my absence). I feel it too."
Linda Sandoval, Penelope's mother, set up the surprise with her teacher, Laura Albright.
"I know what that’s like to have a parent not here at this time," says Albright, who grew up with both parents in the military. "And I’ve seen Penelope wish her dad was here. So to be able to create something special that she’ll remember for the rest of her life is phenomenal."
It took a few minutes for Penelope to realize her dad was behind the Santa suit and beard. But once she saw through his disguise, both started to cry.
"Daddy!" she said as Alex pulled down the beard. "I missed you."
"I was overwhelmed," Alex told ABC 10News after hugging his daughter for a few minutes. "As soon as she realized it was me, tears started coming out."
"I really wanted him to come home," Penelope added. "My wish came true."
Penelope isn't the only student at WD Hall getting a Christmas surprise this week. The school hosted a holiday donation drive throughout December. All of the toys, clothes, and books will go to other WD Hall families in need.
"They're donating to their peers. It builds such a sense of community that we’re all in this together," says Albright. "Whether they donated a 99 cent toy or another toy, they were making a difference for another child that they may sit next to, play with, or eat lunch with."
The school brought in enough donations to help 16 families. They'll each get a book, crayons, a coloring book, clothes, and four toys for every kid. The families will also get a $25 grocery gift card.
"They'll get to come on Saturday and "shop" for the items," says PTO President Heather Myers. "We'll donate whatever we have left to the Ronald McDonald House."
All to make the holidays happier for students and families. And for Penelope, a birthday and Christmas surprise she'll never forget.
"It was super surprising," she says. "I wasn't expecting that."