Miabela Ortiz had become so accustomed to seeing her big stepbrother on FaceTime that when he showed up in person Tuesday at her school, she thought at first she was looking at a giant iPhone.
“I was like, ‘Is this really happening or is this just a big screen on FaceTime?’ ” said Miabela, a fifth-grader at Forest Brook Elementary School in Smithtown.
For about a year, Eric Ortiz had been mostly away from Miabela and his 5-year-old stepbrother, Emilio, while he completed Army basic training and moved to Fort Hood, Texas.
He left for the military a month after graduating from Hauppauge High School in 2017 and is stationed in Texas as a military police officer.
The tight-knit siblings last saw each other in December. When Ortiz learned he would have another short leave in June, he knew he wanted to make it special.
His stepmother, Rosangela Roque-Ortiz, contacted the school a week ago to help set up a surprise reunion and principal Kristen Reingold happily obliged.
“It was the least we could do to welcome him home and thank him for his service,” Reingold said.
Reingold and Miabela’s teacher, Eileen Doda, devised a plan to have three students read essays about their heroes during a schoolwide assembly. Miabela would be the last speaker. Her hero was her big brother.
On Tuesday afternoon, in a gym full of classmates, Miabela spoke about her brother’s military career and how he always helped her with school work and coached her in soccer. She talked about how nice he was to the people around him. How he loves his family so much.
“He is my hero because he always looks for good and protects our country,” Miabela said. “Even when things get hard, he keeps trying. He never gives up.”
When she finished, Ortiz walked in through a side door.
Miabela yelped and leapt into his arms. Emilio quickly followed suit. The room broke into applause.
“Every time I come here, it’s months apart,” Ortiz said. “I miss Mia so much, I miss Emilio so much. It all came together today when they ran at me and hugged me. It’s a good feeling.”
Ortiz said he was touched to see the enthusiastic reaction of his siblings’ classmates to his visit. Many of them told him about their father or grandfather being a veteran. They high-fived him and said, “Thank you for your service.”
Years ago, when he was a student at Forest Brook, Ortiz remembers doing the same with members of the military who would visit the school.
“I’d look up to them,” he said. “It’s great to come back to this school… knowing that people could do that for me and say, ‘I could do that, I could also serve my country.’ ”