Best friends Shayla Akins and Morgan Burke were both excited to be taking their next steps in life following their graduation from Harford Christian School Friday evening, but they also knew they would be leaving behind a senior class that has become like a family.
As members of Harford Christian's 42-person Class of 2015, Shayla and Morgan and their classmates were celebrated during the Darlington school's 45th commencement ceremony. The ceremony was held in the school gym, which is also known as Ziegler Auditorium.
The graduates talked excitedly as they lined up in a hallway near they gym entrance, preparing to march in for the commencement.
Shayla, 18, of Belcamp, said she plans to attend Howard University in Washington D.C. next year, where she will study psychology. Morgan, 18, of Bel Air, said she will attend Eastern University in Pennsylvania, where she will play softball and be a pre-med major.
"I'm excited and ready for something new," Morgan, who has spent six years at HCS, said.
Shayla, who spent 11 years at the school, echoed that sentiment.
"We are very eager, cannot wait," she said.
Both young women noted their class is very close, and they talked about how much they have enjoyed hearing "the Word of God" through their classroom work.
The graduates' friends and relatives filled nearly every seat in the gymnasium, on the floor and in the bleachers.
Salutatorian Susanna Edwards talked about how the gym/auditorium has been part of the graduates' lives at Harford Christian, going back to when the kindergartners performed their class play there.
Susanna said it has been the site of a slew of activities, including sporting events, plays, concerts, class meetings and ultimately commencement.
"In many ways, this gymnasium holds the heartbeat of Harford Christian," she said.
She thanked members of the audience for sacrificing a Friday night to celebrate with the graduates "as we perform our last duty as students of Harford Christian School."
Susanna also recognized HCS teachers and staff, and the graduates' parents, for their support and many sacrifices to help them get to their graduation day.
She also told her fellow graduates to think of God as they prepare for their futures.
"Please remember your Creator now, before you choose a path that will not satisfy you," she said.
Valedictorian Danielle Reifer urged her classmates to remember that God has been leading them during their time at Harford Christian, and they must look and listen for the indicators that let them know where God is leading them.
"Can't you see that God has been leading us the entire time?" she said.
Danielle said the indicators of God's plan could come from their inner voices, from the voices of others or their experiences.
"He uses good and bad, trials and success, to point us in the right direction," she said.
Danielle also said those indicators can get lost in the hustle of day-to-day life, and she reminded her classmates that "it is in the stillness, not business, in which we hear the voice of the Lord."
She told the audience that, "looking back, it is easy for me to see that God was with me every step of the way."
Shayla presented the senior class gift, which includes funds for a coach bus to transport students, a docking station to charge mobile devices and a podium.
Greg Purdy, of the Harford Christian Educational Foundation, presented a $10,000 contribution to support the school, which is a ministry of the Reformation Bible Church.
Principal Bryan Wilson gave a special recognition to the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who have supported the Class of 2015.
"We want you to stand, so that we can recognize and appreciate your labors over these years," Wilson said.
Wilson also honored two long-serving members of the school administration and staff, high school librarian Irene Reding and Assistant Principal Patti Parkes, who are retiring after the end of the current school year.
"We congratulate you both, for the labors that surely have not been in vain," he said.
Rev. Larry Saunders, who is the pastor of the Toronto Free Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the head of the church's Christian school, was the guest speaker for Friday's commencement.
"I admire you for your stickability," Saunders told the graduates. "I admire you for your academic prowess, and I commit you to the Lord and pray that he will give you direction in your life."
He reminded them that "we never stop learning, and education is an every-day event for the rest of our lives."
He also talked to the graduates about avoiding the trend of "me-ism" that he said is "alive and well" in a generation of young people who document so much of their lives on social media.
Saunders said the graduates must focus on serving other people in the spirit of God and Jesus Christ.
He noted they should not, however, serve others because they think God has compelled them to serve.
"Don't be like a Trojan Horse Christian, one that's pushed into place and doesn't have a lot of good in it," he said.
Saunders said the graduates should serve out of their love for God.