“I never knew he would actually come here!” Little girl gets BIG surprise from her Navy sailor big brother

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(CNN) — In New Jersey, two siblings are reunited after the eldest returned from a three-year deployment.

Pig-tailed, with roses in her arms, Ryleigh Gardner has a smile that can make a grown-up teary!

“I never knew he would actually come here!” Ryleigh said.

Ryleigh’s surprise came to Shamong Elementary School.

The children gathered cross-legged on the gym floor, while backstage…Ryleigh’s older brother, Navy Pay Officer Second Class Frank “Tommy” Schaffer waited to surprise his little sister.

The two hadn’t seen one another in three years!

“It’s pretty rough, you know, being away from family, especially a younger sibling. You know being away so long, you just strive to get that connection back,” Schaffer said.

Ryleigh never lost the connection.

A school project got the children thinking about a role model in their young lives.

Ryleigh…chose her big brother — a sailor deployed to Japan.

Still hidden behind the curtain, Tommy read her words, and an unsuspecting Ryleigh listened.

“As long as I can remember, my brother has always been there for me,” Ryleigh wrote.

Then…the brother she never expected to see, came out with flowers, hugs and tears!

“When he popped out, it was like, “Wow!? I can’t believe he’s here!” Ryleigh said.

Neither could Ryleigh and Tommy’s mother, Deann.

Military service is a shared family sacrifice.

“I know my little one misses him, And I just, you know, really happy that they’re together,” Deann said.

So are Ryleigh and Tommy.

“You know, we’re going to out, hang out together, just me and her, so it will be real good,” Tommy said.