More than 600 students, faculty, alumni, current and founding board members and guests packed the Heritage Christian Academy gymnasium Thursday morning to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the independent, Christian, non-denominational, board-run, college-preparatory school.

Headmaster Linda Garris welcomed the audience to the silver anniversary chapel event which featured prayers, speeches and musical performances.

"I hope that we have made this founding board proud. I hope that we have succeeded in your vision and the vision that God gave you -- that they prayed so hard for," Garris said. "I hope that we've made you proud and will continue to make you proud for another 25 years."

The program opened with a prayer by board member and Commonwealth's Attorney Rick Boling. Pledges to the American flag, Christian flag and the Bible were led by HCA kindergarten teacher Rachel Gerhold and students Zane Marshall, Ellery Jenkins and Mya Orten.

"Ain't God good!" said Hopkinsville Mayor Carter Hendricks to the crowd. "Any occasion is a good occasion to remind ourselves God is good. Here today, as we celebrate 25 years, it just seems particularly important to remind ourselves how good God is because you truly are blessed to be in this fine school in this awesome community."

Hendricks shared with the audience, ranging in age from toddlers to seniors, that 25 years is "a long time to get where you are."

He encouraged the crowd to commit to "the ideals and values and vision that makes this school so awesome."

"Young people, in particular, visualize yourselves 25 years from

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now. Where will you be? What will you be doing? How will you be living out the values that you learned right here at Heritage Christian Academy today?" he said. "What will you be doing the day you come back to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Heritage Christian Academy? That's what I want you to think about today."

Humble beginnings

Several Christian County residents formed a steering committee in 1993 to discuss establishing a Christian school in Hopkinsville.

After considering several options, including a merger with University Heights Academy and a church-run school, the group decided to open a non-denominational system.

"We wanted Christian education … not only in the textbooks, not only in the classrooms, but also in the learning environment," said Kent Workman, HCA founding board member. "We wanted a Christian worldview of education."

On March 29, 1994, more than 600 people attended the first town meeting at the Hopkinsville Community College auditorium to determine community interest in establishing a private Christian school.

That fall, Heritage Christian Academy opened its doors with 155 students in kindergarten through ninth grade and 22 employees. Classes were held at Second Baptist and Hillcrest Baptist churches. The enrollment grew to 240 students the next year. By the 1996-97 school year, pre-kindergarten through 12th grades were offered.

Early in the history of HCA, the Wadlington family donated 28 acres of land adjacent to what is now Eagle Way. A 65,000 square-foot building was constructed on this land with classes opening there in September 2000.

Just seven years later, in March 2017, community members in Madisonville expressed an interest in establishing an HCA satellite campus in that town. The doors of HCA-Madisonville opened for the 2017-2018 school year. HCA now offers the same fully-accredited Christian education in Madisonville.

"This school has a tremendous heritage that God has given -- and he continues to give it," Workman said. "Heritage alone does not ensure continued success. Our nation is proof of that. As students, as faculty, as board members, as parents, as grandparents, I want you to know that every day this school needs to see the face of God in everything they do and everywhere they go."

A special place

HCA alumni and musicians Cayce Burks, Rachel Crick and Brian Harrell played and sang inspirational songs during the anniversary chapel.

"That's the thing about this school that makes it special," Burks said to the crowd. "You know when you come back after 10 years, we still feel like we're a family."

Harrell has been a part of the HCA family since it started. He attended first grade at the school's lower campus at Hillcrest Baptist Church in 1994. He graduated in 2006. His wife, Natalie, teaches Bible class at HCA and their son, Julian, attends preschool there.

"It makes me feel old, first of all," Harrell said about the silver anniversary. "I think it's pretty special to see how humbly it started. What a small scale it was … Looking back it felt like a grassroots effort. As the years went on, everything just got better and better."

Looking forward to 25 more years, Harrell said he hopes to see the school grow in Madisonville and the campus expand in Hopkinsville.

"More than anything, honestly, I hope much doesn't change," said Harrell, who is a contemporary worship leader at Edgewood Baptist Church. "I moved three times from the lower campus to upper campus to here. Even though the building was different the mission felt very much the same. The purpose for the school stayed the same."

HCA alumni Jonathan Greene and Taylor Glover returned to their alma mater Thursday. A 2013 graduate, Greene played on the HCA basketball team. Glover sang on the HCA praise team and performed with the drama team at HCA before graduating in 2016.

"I always had a huge heart for worship," Glover said. "It is a good place for spiritual support."

"I had great, close, close friends that I still have now," Greene said. "Here it's just a small family."

HCA alumna Morgan Gossett now teaches and coaches at the school. Her children also attend there.

"I think we all can agree Heritage is a very special place. It's special to my heart," she said. "This place is warm and inviting and I know it's because of the people here, the teachers here, but it's also because I think the Lord is in this place."

Looking forward

Garris has been a fixture at HCA for 22 years. She worked as a teacher, coach and assistant headmaster before taking the helm as headmaster for the past 15 years. She is also headmaster for the Madisonville satellite school.

"I've seen (HCA) grow from an empty lot to what we have today," she said. "A lot of blessings from God. This community has been wonderful to us. God has just provided us with everything."

HCA's current enrollment for the 2018-2019 school year is 487 with 72 staff members. Currently, 47 students attend classes in Madisonville.

"This is an historical event, folks, because this is the largest group of students gathered together in one place Heritage Christian Academy has ever had," Garris said at the anniversary chapel celebration. "With the Madisonville campus here today, there are 500 students in this building today."

When HCA opened at 8349 Eagle Way bypass, not all of the 65,000 square-foot building was completed inside. As the school has grown, the building has also been in an ongoing state of expansion. HCA finished the remaining space in the building last August. The new spaces allowed for expansion in the preschool department, new sixth-grade classrooms and office space.

"As the years have gone by, money has been available with God's blessing. Now, our five-year plan is to have another building on this location as we continue to grow," Garris said.

HCA has received accreditation from the Association of Christian Schools International and AdvancED. The state of Kentucky also recognizes both of these accreditations. Garris said in two weeks the school will go through the accreditation process for the fourth time.

She said the students showcase the academic strength of an HCA education.

"We have students who are scoring high on the ACT even in their sophomore years. I think we're doing something right," she said. "I'm a strong believer -- and I tell my staff this -- this is not about us. We keep that focus. God put us here for a reason."

Reach Michele Vowell at 270-887-3242 or mvowell@kentuckynewera.com.

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More information:

Heritage Christian Academy timeline

1993 - Several Christian County residents formed a steering committee to discuss establishing a Christian school in Hopkinsville. After considering several options, including a merger with University Heights Academy and a church-run school, the group decided to open a non-denominational system.

March 29, 1994 - More than 600 people attended the first town meeting at the Hopkinsville Community College auditorium to determine community interest in establishing a private Christian school.

Fall 1994 - Heritage Christian Academy, an independent, board-run, non-denominational, Christian, college-preparatory school, opened its doors with 155 students in kindergarten through ninth grade and 22 employees. Classes were held at Second Baptist and Hillcrest Baptist churches. Enrollment grew to 240 students the next year.

"The purpose of such an education is to instruct and disciple children in God's law and reverential fear to use this means to affectively draw children unto himself that they may confess him and live to his glory." - the first purpose of Heritage Christian Academy, 1994.

Fall 1996 - Pre-kindergarten through 12th grade classes are offered.

September 2000 - Early in the history of HCA, the Wadlington family donated 28 acres of land adjacent to what is now Eagle Way bypass. A 65,000 square-foot building was constructed on this land with classes for kindergarten through 12th grades.

March 2017 - Community members in Madisonville expressed an interest in establishing an HCA satellite campus there.

Summer 2017 - Doors of HCA-Madisonville opened for the 2017-2018 school year. HCA now offers the same fully-accredited Christian education in Madisonville.

August 2018 - HCA finishes the remaining space in the building to allow for expansion in the preschool department, new sixth-grade classrooms and office space.

March 7, 2019 - HCA celebrates with a 25th anniversary chapel event. Current enrollment is 487 students with 72 staff members at the Hopkinsville campus and 47 students at the satellite school in Madisonville.

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