Just in time for Veterans Day, Marine Sgt. Andrew Valora went to an Oro Valley elementary school last week to give his thanks for a classroom's support while he and others were deployed overseas.

He got a surprise welcome-home party at Copper Creek Elementary School.

Last year, Valora and the rest of Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 were "adopted" by Lynn Thacker's 2nd-grade class at Copper Creek. While the Marines were deployed in Afghanistan, the class sent a care package consisting of 10 boxes filled with a video of them singing "God Bless the U.S.A.," snacks, and bathroom essentials such as waterless toothbrushes, soap and deodorant.

"They sent a whole bunch of stuff, stuff we were really short-handed on," said Valora. "They knew the right things to send. And we were so under-equipped while we were out there, for the first couple months, that this was absolutely fantastic. It was very nice to feel that support, especially from such a young audience."

He left for his most recent of five tours in March, and returned Oct. 6. As soon as he got back, Valora intended to thank each of the students individually.

During his visit to the school, family friend Lori Edwards organized a surprise welcome-home party with music, singing, drinks, treats and photographs of Valora with each student.

"I wasn't expecting this at all," Valora said.

Edwards' daughter Jaden was in Thacker's class last year. That's how the class came to sending goods to Valora and his fellow troops. Sending the gifts to the troops seemed like a small gesture, but teacher Thacker knew sending the goods meant a lot to the soldiers.

"The American spirit is alive and well in Tucson, Arizona," said Edwards. "I think this blessed us more than it blessed Andrew, if that is even possible."

As a class project, Thacker teaches her students about symbols such as the American flag. She tries to help her students understand what it means to be an American.

"They learn that … the flag stands for freedom," Thacker said. "I have always been big on respecting everyone, and also the flag. So whenever we say the Pledge, they understand why we say it."

She said the welcome-home party for Valora brought everything full circle, with the students and staff getting to meet Valora face-to-face.

Valora grew up on the Northwest, and completed his schooling within the Flowing Wells School District. After graduating from high school in 2002, he worked at a nursery doing landscaping, then at Home Depot. He did not want to get stuck working at the same place for 20 years, and wanted to travel, and figured the Marine Corps would be a good way to do that.

Valora has been to Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Singapore, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Dubai and Hawaii since joining the Marines in 2003.

Valora's squadron, the "Sand Sharks," is based out of Yuma.

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