18 years later, there's still Hope

CHARLESTON — Skyler James figured her parents would go overboard when it came to a high school graduation present.

"I thought it'd be a necklace or a bracelet," she said. "Some kind of jewelry."

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But when it came time for gift-giving at Sunday's party in the fellowship hall at Wesley United Methodist Church, Bonnie and Greg James delivered something even better. They surprised their 18-year-old daughter with the man who came to her rescue the day she was born.

Nice to finally meet you, Charlie Heflin.

"Best gift ever," Skyler said. "I never expected it to be Charlie."

The two first met Nov. 4, 1995, when Heflin — then an Urbana-based cable-repair supervisor and trained emergency medical technician listening to scanner traffic — scooped up a baby abandoned by her birth mother at Mount Olive Cemetery west of Mayview. The story of baby "Crystal Hope" — all 6 pounds, 6 ounces — played out on the front pages of The News-Gazette.

"Crystal Hope" eventually found a home with Bonnie and Greg James in Charleston. Heflin moved on, too, graduating from Parkland College before settling in near Evansville, Ind., where he lives today.

After years of searching for Heflin, Bonnie James tracked him down 3-1/2 weeks ago. It was a phone call neither will forget.

"She asked if I could come for graduation," Heflin said. "I said I'd be happy to."

Heflin attended the Charleston High ceremony last Friday but remained in the shadows, saving the face-to-face reunion until 30 minutes into Sunday's party. It was an encounter neither will forget.

"Hugs. Lots of hugs, lots of tears," Skyler said. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place."

Heflin, 45, presented Skyler with framed copies of The News-Gazette articles from '95, which she now keeps in her home.

"After 18 years, I was so elated to find out that she turned out to be such a beautiful young woman, so vibrant and intelligent," Heflin said. "Such a joyous occasion."

Teachers at Charleston second Heflin's take on Skyler, who will attend Concordia University in Chicago. An honor roll student, choir member and student council regular, Skyler "is a wonderful, wonderful role model," high school English teacher Kristin Runyon said.

With at least one more Facebook friend than she had a week ago.

His name's Charlie.

"We've been talking every day since," Skyler said Thursday. "It's not going to be 18 more years before we stay in touch."

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