Though 9-year-old Delaney Collins and her big sister Ryann are nine years apart in age, they're more like best friends than siblings.
But Ryann, 18, hasn't been home in Holly Springs since she left in November to begin basic training in the U.S. Air Force. That separation ended Tuesday morning when Ryann surprised Delaney at Herbert Akins Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina, leading to hugs and tears of joy,
"I’m really happy to see my sister," Delaney, a third-grader, said minutes after being reunited. "I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
It was emotional as well for Ryann, who said she hadn't expected to cry when she saw Delaney. It's been the longest period of time that Ryann has been separated from her family.
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"I missed them a lot," said Ryann, who graduated last year from Leesville Road High School in Raleigh. "It's been hard. Yeah, I'm glad to be finally back home."
The separation has been hard for the family, especially Delaney. Lauren Collins Ingram, the mother of the two sisters, said Delaney has become emotional whenever the family has visited places that remind her of Ryann.
"For the last seven months, it's felt like something was missing," Lauren said.
With Ryann returning home for leave for three weeks, Lauren said she decided to surprise Delaney. She told Delaney that she was coming to school Tuesday to have lunch with her. Instead of just mom, Delaney was met by bright lights as news crews recorded the family reunion.
Ryann is now an Airman First Class and crew chief of a C-130 cargo plane. She's assigned to Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville, Ark.
Ryann's military service is a source of pride for the family. Her father, Edwin Ingram, came to the surprise visit wearing a T-shirt with the words "Proud Air Force Dad."
"I feel very proud of her because she’s in the Air Force," Delaney said. "She helps people."
Before Ryann reports back to duty, the next three weeks will be filled with family events, including the Christmas dinner that she missed.
“I’m excited to finally have a home-cooked meal," Ryann said. "I haven’t had a home-cooked meal in so long."