Steamboat Springs Appropriately, graduation at Christian Heritage School opened with a prayer. The Rev. Kevin King of Anchor Way Baptist Church thanked God for the time that the seven seniors had spent at the school and for the time that those in attendance Sunday afternoon had given to be parents, teachers and friends.
With his "Amen" the mood was set for the rest of the ceremony.
As the seven seniors walked onto the stage, thunder and the sound of heavy rain filled the auditorium, sometimes drowning out the voices of those at the podium.
As music teacher Christel Houston gave awards to Laura Heiner and Jane Melvin for their musical talent, a loud thunderclap sounded a second before the applause could begin.
"God is with us," Houston said.
The ceremony was full of affection and private jokes for the students who had attended Christian Heritage since elementary school. Teachers cried and hugged as they gave out awards, scholarships and finally diplomas.
Casey Hays was named class salutatorian by a narrow margin. His grade point average was only .003 points higher than Melvin's. Hays has worked at McDonald's for the last three years, working his way from table cleaner to assistant manager, all while keeping a 3.9 grade point average.
He plans to work one more year at the fast food restaurant in hopes of saving the money he will need to attend college and law school.
"It's nice to look around the classroom and know that they are all your friends," Hays said. He went through the entire list of his six classmates and told them why he loved them and remembered something funny they had done in his five years at CHS.
He complimented Laura Heiner as one of the best storytellers he had ever met.
Heiner was named the class valedictorian with a 4.06 GPA, which included extra points accumulated by taking advance placement classes.
She was ranked No. 1 in a class where five of the students had GPAs of 3.9 or more, teacher Brian Houston said.
Heiner is the youngest person to ever be hired at the Doak Walker Care Center, Houston said. Her goal after graduation is to study medicine and either work with children who have cancer or start a medical clinic in a third world country.
Heiner has been class president since her eighth-grade year.
"When you go to a school of this small size," Heiner said, "it is an unusual situation because God chooses your friends. I'm up here with six of my best friends.
"Next year, we are going to go to college and be among people we've never met ... we should think of it as a mission field."
Heiner took her seat and Eddie Van Baak walked to the podium to present two Radiant Crabapple trees to the school as a parting gift from the class of 2003 that "will stick around for awhile."
The keynote speaker for the evening was Jeremiah Kiely, valedictorian of the school's class of 2000.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life," Kiely said. "I knew that I wanted people to say that I was funny and cool and I knew that I wanted to be great."
Kiely used the example of the Apostle Peter from the Bible as an illustration of greatness. He told of Peter stepping out of the boat to walk on water when he saw Jesus approaching.
"To be great, you need to step out of the Christian boat," Kiely said.
"You need to step out of this Christian subculture and take a step out into the storm."
And with that advice, the class of 2003 stepped out into the storm -- the literal one pouring down in the parking lot and the figurative one they would face in life outside of their small school.
To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210 or