Yard signs with Heritage Christian Academy senior photos lined the school entrance greeting dozens of vehicles in a drive-thru parade Friday evening to celebrate the Class of 2020.

As bundles of silver and blue balloons blew in the warm breeze, 31 HCA seniors, wearing their blue caps and gowns, stood more than 6 feet apart. Their names were written in chalk on the sidewalk at their feet.

Friends, family, teachers and staff drove by the graduating Warriors. Balloons and signs decorated their vehicles as they waved, honked their horns and shouted well wishes to the students.

“It’s really neat,” said senior Naomi Mullins, about the drive-thru parade. “I didn’t expect to go this long either. It’s just really nice for everybody to be thinking about us. It makes it less weird since the coronavirus.”

Since early March, schools have been closed to in-person classes and many senior traditions, like prom, have been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For HCA seniors, one of those traditions is parading through the school while wearing their caps and gowns.

“All the teachers, students step out into the hallways and clap and cheer them on as they come through the hallway … like a send off,” said Jennifer Blanchard, HCA advertising manager. “(This is) a little different because the seniors are going to be staying put and we’re the ones going to drive through and cheer them on.”

The concept for this drive-thru outdoor parade was developed by several parents and school staff to celebrate their seniors. Officials said HCA is still planning to hold an in-person graduation when mass gathering restrictions are lifted by the governor.

“We just wanted to do something to recognize them now,” Blanchard said. “We don’t want them to think that just because we haven’t seen them every day in the building that we haven’t been thinking of them. We still want to honor them. We are still proud of them. We want them to know that … Hopefully, this will lift their spirits.”

Braden Porter said he appreciates the efforts of the school and the parents to make the end of his senior year memorable despite the pandemic.

“It stinks that we had to miss out. I understand the whole coronavirus thing. People’s lives were at risk and we don’t need to get anybody else sick,” he said. “I still wish I could have had a full senior year, but this is fine. We’re making do with what we have … It’s good to see everybody at a distance.”

After graduation, Porter plans to follow in his father’s footsteps to the University of Kentucky, where he plans to study agriculture economics.

“This is the last time I’m going to see a lot of these guys,” he said. “I would like to cherish every moment with them. Of course, I’ll keep in touch, but I won’t get to spend every day with them like I did in high school.”

Senior Zoe Bellak may be the only member of her class planning to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Bellack plans to study television and video production.

“I felt like I belonged there,” she said about SIU. “Everything clicked with me there. It got me excited to go to college.”

Bellak has been going to HCA since she was in the third grade, she said she has a little anxiety about leaving for college in the fall.

“I’m going to be leaving and I won’t be seeing this place for a long time,” she said. “I have mixed feelings about that.”

Like Bellak, Mullins also has attended HCA since third grade. She plans to attend Murray State University in the fall.

“It will be weird because it’s so routine to go to Heritage every day,” she said. “It’s going to be a big adjustment. I’m going to miss the memories here. I’ll miss my friends. A lot of us are going in different directions.”

Blanchard said she hoped the Class of 2020 will remember the good things about their senior year — including the drive-thru parade.

“As strange as it is this year, it’s not the traditional year that they would normally have as a senior, hopefully they will still think of things like this,” Blanchard said. “Not any other class has done it this way. They are definitely going to be unique and special.”

HCA Headmaster Linda Garris sent best wishes to the Class of 2020.

“They’re a great class,” she said. “A lot of these students have been at Heritage all of their lives. They’re a great group of students. They’ve worked hard. We’re just super proud of them. I know they’re going to do great things.”

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