Members of the Vilonia High School 2011 graduating class said they have stood together and stayed strong while being faced with some painful tests this year. 

"We have been challenged," said Tori Lambert, a student speaker, addressing her peers. "And, we appreciate those who have helped us." 

The reference was made regarding the devastation left by last month’s tornado as well as the death of a fellow student 17-year-old Amanda Allison, who was shot and killed earlier in the year. An empty chair sat among the seniors honoring Allison.  The back rest was draped with Allison’s red gown. The seat held her ring, a red rose and a poem.  

She’s not physically here, Lambert said. "But, she will live on in our memories." 

Lambert also talked about self-confidence and encouraged the graduates to "spread your wings as far as you can, now prepare to take flight." 

A second student speaker, Hannah Gore also addressed her peers. She also talked briefly about the recent tornado and community spirit. 

"Our community came together and stood strong," she said. She also touched on the subject of hard work and making one’s dreams come true. Our life from now on, she told the students, is like a road trip. Yet, she said, a map cannot be purchased to guide along the way.

"Along the way, it’s okay to ask for a helping hand," she said. "But, don’t expect others to make your dreams come true. That is up to you."

Beginning at about 10 a.m. at UCA, the ceremony lasted about two hours with 217 students being presented diplomas by school board president Jerry Roberts.  Andy Ashley, high school principal, and Jason Miller, assistant principal, introduced the graduates as they made their way to the stage. 

Students performed the traditional turning of the rings and changing of the tassels. As well, they tossed their caps in the air. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends clapped, cheered and snapped photos. As students filed out of the auditorium, there were high fives, thumbs up and posing for more photos. Everyone appeared to have plenty of supporters in attendance. Yet, some family members were missing.  One particular family turned to technology to connect loved ones.

Kacey Barton and her dad Neal visited via Skype. He is stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Kuwait. This is his second deployment to the Middle East.  Barton’s "Uncle Rich" held the cellphone throughout the ceremony allowing the soldier to watch.  

"I did it," Barton told her dad. He responded by saying that he had been connected via Skype throughout the two hour connection and that he was proud of her.  The two were upset, Rich Barton said, at the thought of Neal Barton being absent. He also said that he and his brother had been practicing the Skype connection for about a week in preparation for the graduation.

"Technology is great," Rich Barton added. Lori Barton, Kacey’s mother, said her daughter really didn’t want to attend with the absence of her father. 

The milling students also talked briefly about their futures. As well, they said goodbye to each other and to teachers. In addition, they reminisced about the year’s achievements. Tori Lambert and Zack Jefferson were among them.  Both were named as the Citizens of the Year, by the high school faculty, and both said they were honored with the titles.

"I have always tried to have a good relationship with my teachers," Jefferson offered. 

With his diploma in hand, Mason Buerer joked that he was glad the ceremony was complete and that his name was not mispronounced. On a serious note, he said, this year has been very difficult.  He mentioned Allison’s death.  As well, his house was among the ones in Vilonia that was destroyed during the tornado. 

"I have learned this year to live from day to day," he said. "Nothing about tomorrow is guaranteed. I’m just ready to move on with college." 

Ashley said the 2011 graduating class is the largest in history with 49 honor graduates. Also, he said, scholarships have been awarded to the seniors amounting to a total of $2.6 million.