‘Bless you as you walk:’ Vail Christian graduates Class of 2023

'Our potential will be defined by each one of us, not by someone else,' valedictorian says in address

Jon Talbert gives the commencement address for Vail Christian's graduation Saturday at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

It was a sunny Saturday morning in Beaver Creek paired with a bit of bustle as vendors stocked the tents across the village and barbecue masters tended to their smokers for the Blues, Brews and BBQ festival. Meanwhile, there was a formal flood of foot traffic pouring underground into the Vilar Performing Arts Center, dressed to the 10s for a very special occasion as 47 Vail Christian High School seniors and their families celebrated the esteemed Class of 2023.

As everyone took their seats in the intimate theater, rings of joy pierced the air as a tight-knit community of school staff, relatives and fellow students gathered, socialized and shared cheerful memories of their grads. But when the 10 o’clock hour struck, the sound of bagpipes playing “Highland Cathedral” commanded the attention of the room as the graduates took the stage.

Highland Cathedral gives the processional to begin Vail Christian’s graduation Saturday in Beaver Creek.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Head of School Steve O’Neil started the ceremony by thanking the visiting family members and faculty. “It would not have been without people like them to prepare … these graduates for lives of purpose, lives of service, and lives of leadership,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil then humorously used ChatGPT for the beginning of his speech, before calling an abrupt “time out.”

“Forget ChatGPT, AI is not human there is no feeling in it,” O’Neil said.

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“ChatGPT simply can’t capture this amazing class,” O’Neil said before recounting the incredible moments he’s shared with his students throughout the years. “Class of 2023 we’re happy for you, we’re proud of you, but on behalf of the faculty and staff, including myself, we really are sad to say goodbye. Congratulations.”

Ryan Hutchinson, salutatorian, speaks at Vail Christian’s graduation Saturday in Beaver Creek.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Salutatorian Ryan Hutchinson talked about the challenges faced in the long journey to commencement, including the familiar last battle against senioritis on the last stretch.

“Now as we begin the next chapter of our lives, I urge you to look back on this past four years and realize just how far we’ve come,” Hutchinson said. “No longer are we the clueless freshmen of 2019. We are the incredibly talented, amazing seniors about to take our next big leap. Whatever challenges or opportunities are presented to us, in college and beyond, I know that we will rise to them and succeed. After all, we are the Vail Christian Saints.”

Valedictorian Ava Garrison spoke to the parameters in which graduates are defined, specifically what college they’re off to, and how seeing the world with a blank canvas is the way to finding one’s path.

Steve O’Neil, Head of School for Vail Christian, speaks at graduation Saturday in Beaver Creek.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“We’re not just acceptances, not just schools,” Garrison said. “What if we were asked, “Oh, you’re a senior, how are you going to change the world?’ What would we say to a question like that, a question that allows us to dream instead of being squeezed into a box labeled ‘Harvard 2027?’ We are unique people, I mean look at our class, look at these personalities and faces and colors that make up the Class of 2023. We are so much more than the schools that accepted us. Our potential will be defined by each one of us, not by someone else.

“We grow, we change, and we are so much more. That we have proven thus far.”

The commencement address was given by Jon Talbert, professional sports chaplain and chief guide and brand evangelist for Forte, the world’s first wellness soul care platform. Coming from the coast of California, Talbert used an unlikely comparison for a ski town graduation to deliver his commencement speech. Speaking on the life lessons that can be learned through big wave surfing, Talbert touched on the spirit of pioneering and taking on unchartered, and even dangerous, challenges with ultimate faith in self.

Seniors perform the Song of Encouragement at Vail Christian’s graduation Saturday in Beaver Creek. The song was named, “I Lived.”
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“You can’t panic. You have to control your emotions when you feel feelings of fear and terror and helplessness and you’ve lost complete control of yourself and you have to submit to the violence of the wave. You have to control your emotions, not let them control you, or you’ll never go out again,” he said.

“When it comes to life beyond high school … there is a matter of maintaining a healthy and vibrant inner life that moves you from merely surviving to thriving. If your soul, your mind, your will, and emotions are tended to, cared for, you’ll actually function fully in confidence in clarity, you’ll function well in failure, in success in relationships and struggle and pain and beauty. … A well-manicured soul breeds success.

“Our hopes for you in coming years is not for you to conform to the ways of the world, but to transform it,” he concluded.

As students started lining up to accept their diplomas, Principal Mindy Larson, in her final graduation ceremony as principal, took center stage to congratulate her students. Some gave her hugs, while a large portion of the graduates opted for choreographed special handshakes, where Larson was impressive in memorizing so many routines. But none were to be outdone by Cole Kirkham’s backflip, which was executed to near-perfection and had the crowd cheering.

Valedictorian Ava Garrison speaks at Vail Christian’s graduation Saturday in Beaver Creek.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Following the diplomas, students gathered once more on the stage for an emotional performance of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” where singing was joined by rhythmic clapping and joyous dancing.

O’Neil ended the ceremony with a benediction. “May your hearts and desires be realized in each day, hour and moment as we celebrate the gift you are to all of us. Bless you as you walk, even tentatively, into this next phase.”

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