Adopted Mississippi Woman Reunites With Biological Father, Thanks to Viral Video
Only days ago, Tori Welford's filmmaker friends won $20,000 for a short film revealing how she was abandoned at birth. Yet she gained something greater in the process.
The three college-age friends thought they were just entering a video contest, but it became much more.
On September 14, Faith Counts announced that student filmmaker Kyle Churchwell won a $20,000 grand prize in the third annual “Film Your Faith” contest. The nonprofit group uses primarily social media to promote the value of faith, irrespective of religion or creed. Churchwell received the award at the annual gathering of the Religion News Association.
The film spotlights the life of 21-year-old Tori Welford whose mother abandoned her at birth. “It’s a very heavy story,” said Churchwell. “When someone literally throws you in the trash, it would be easy to think you’re not wanted. In the video, Tori speaks of forgiving her mother. To tell all of that on camera, such personal stuff, is beyond me.”
The filmmaker says he plans to share the prize money with her.
Abandoned at Birth
Narrated by Welford, the two-minute video entitled “Faith is Knowing” features photos from her childhood.
These include images that show faint evidence of the abuse she experienced as a newborn. “The day I was born, my mother went home and she placed me in a trash bag and put me in a trash can on the front porch,” states Welford in the short film.
“I was probably in the trash can for five or six hours,” said Welford following the awards ceremony. “The brother from my biological family found me. I was blue and purple and had ants all over me.” After several days at the local hospital, state officials placed the baby girl under the foster care guardianship of Elaine Rogers of Lucedale, Mississippi.
Four years later, Rogers adopted Welford. Yet one dramatic element of her story developed only in the past two months, following the release of the video online.
Going Public With Her Life Story
The short film was selected from “hundreds of really great video entries” according to Kerry Troup, communications director for Faith Counts who hosted the awards ceremony.
“We only have two criteria,” said Troup. “One is that the video is two minutes or less. Two is that the video shows faith in a positive light.” A panel of filmmakers and movie critics, including from Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures and Rotten Tomatoes, chose the $20,000 award winner.
Kyle and his brother Jaron Churchwell both attend the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. Together, they run a local business called Coast Media, which produces wedding and promotional videos. Upon hearing of the contest, they approached Welford about telling her story.
“We live in a really small town where everybody knows pretty much everybody,” said Welford. Lucedale has a population of 3,403 people. “Through friends, I knew them and their family pretty well.”
She and the filmmakers had to navigate some complexities of her life story. Her biological mother, whom the young woman has met, is currently incarcerated.
“We had some people on our end comment, ‘I don’t know if that’s a great idea,’” said Jaron, relating dialogue from early in production. “But Tori shouldn’t be ashamed of her experience,” he added. “She has every right to tell it however she wants to. If anyone’s feelings are hurt, it is what it is.”
Upon completion of the short film, they set out to get it noticed beyond their small town. (An award of $10,000 was also presented to the “fan favorite” video that garnered the most votes online.) They encouraged friends and family to share the video widely, primarily via Facebook.
Across various platforms, the short film now has over 10,000 views and counting.
Viral Video Reconnects Father and Daughter
“The surprising part came when Tori was able to find out who her real father was,” said Kyle Churchwell. “When she told me, I was not expecting that!”
Tori Welford had never seen or spoken with her biological father. “About two months ago, because of this video, I met my father,” said Welford. “He saw it on Facebook and contacted me through some family members. He wrote that, ‘I was watching your video and I just cried.’”
In his online message, the man stated the baby picture showed in the short film looked familiar to him. Welford faced a flood of emotions, some echoes from early childhood. “Growing up, I had feelings of being unwanted,” said Welford.
She recalled the conversation when her adoptive mother Elaine Rogers told her how she was abandoned at birth. “Tori, I don’t want you to be angry or bitter,” said Rogers. “No matter what, you have to forgive her for what she did. You know that God has a purpose for your life. You’re a miracle.”
Days later, the two met together with the man claiming to be Welford’s father. “We did a DNA test and it came back that he was my dad,” she said. The young woman says they have embarked on a promising relationship.
“I’ve been around him three times,” said Welford. “He’s really nice and has some other children too that I met. I was around him just before I came here.”
The Unifying Influence of Faith
Founded in 2014, Faith Counts represents a joint effort by leaders of several major religious traditions to document and promote the value of faith. With young adults as their primary target audience, the group concentrates heavily on social media.
Such distinct religious advocates as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the [Jewish] Orthodox Union, Sikh American Legal Defense Fund, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hindu American Foundation and The Salvation Army rarely work together. Yet they have found common ground in backing Faith Counts.
When hosting the awards ceremony, nonprofit representative Kerry Troup referred to their extensive research into the social and economic contributions of religion in the U.S. “One of the findings in that study showed that, every single year, religion contributes $1.2 trillion dollars to the U.S. economy,” she said.
Taking the stage for an acceptance speech, Kyle Churchwell noted how he resonates with the group’s broad-based mission. “I want to thank everyone at Faith Counts for the opportunity to share such a positive story to showcase faith,” he said. “I like that your organization encompasses everyone with such a diverse group.”
“It’s definitely one of the strong points.”
Seeing Light in the Beauty of Life
In the short film, Welford speaks candidly of her evangelical Christian faith. She said at the award ceremony that she has attended the same church all her life and “was saved at age 12.”
“I was always taught about forgiveness, but it wasn’t until I found out everything that it really changed my life,” she said. “When I was born, I went through so much. I have faith God has something out there for me — I don’t know what it is, but he’ll show it to me in his time.”
The student filmmakers are excited to invest the award money in new production equipment, as well as giving a portion to Welford. Yet they also say they are gratified at the message their film communicates to the wider culture.
“Everyone deserves a chance,” said Churchwell. “Think about a world where Tori didn’t exist and people missed out on being touched by her story. That’s what I think about.”