September 26, 2021

BRAVE BLOG: From Guatemalan to Guate-Ballin’

(Franklin, GA) — The Lady Braves softball team will continue the quest for a State Championship Tuesday when they travel south to Nashville, GA to take on the Berrien Rebels in the third round of the GHSA Class AA State Playoffs.

LilyRae Fulford

Leading the way for the Lady Braves in the circle will be freshman hurler LilyRae Fulford, an open enrollment student from nearby Hogansville.

LilyRae earned the No. 1 starting pitcher’s role over the summer after helping lead Heard County Middle School to division titles in 2018 and 2019.

She has pitched well this season for Coach Matt Hornsby and the Lady Braves, posting a record of 18 wins with just four losses.

Several factors have contributed to her stellar freshman campaign including pinpoint control, a talented and experienced battery mate in Mackenzie White, and strong defensive work from the teammates behind her.

The 14-year-old has remarkably walked only nine batters in over 127 innings of work this year while posting an ERA of just 2.20.

The Heard High student’s life story is way different than most of her Heard County classmates because she was born in Guatemala and adopted by her parents, Spence and Cheri Fulford, when she was just a baby.

Adopting a foreign-born baby like LilyRae is not an inexpensive nor an easy process to go through, but the Fulford’s say in the end it was all very worthwhile.

The couple had tried for a long time to have a baby themselves, but had no luck. Ultimately, it was a regular Sunday church service that inspired both Spence and Cheri to take the big step towards adoption.

“Spence and I had tried to get pregnant and nothing was happening. Then, we were in church one Sunday morning and the children’s sermon was about how we are ‘all God’s children’ and how we are all adopted children here on Earth and that our parents are just the caretakers of us until we go home to be with our lord,” says Cheri.

Baby LilyRae listening to her mom’s voice from the US

“When we left the service that day, Spence and I didn’t even have to say anything to each other — we just knew this was what we wanted to do.”

Originally, the couple tried to adopt a child from Peru but found the process to be very difficult.

Spence and Cheri thought that the domestic adoption process might be even more difficult so a foreign adoption seemed the most feasible avenue to a new child.

Eventually, a friend familiar with the adoption process suggested they try to adopt a baby from Guatemala, but at first the Fulford’s thought going that route would be way too expensive.

The friend, Susanna, was familiar with the process and encouraged them not to give up telling them both, “You’ve just got to trust if it is meant to be that God will lay out a path for you.”

The Fulford’s went to work on trying to figure out how to afford the adoption that would end up being over $50,000 including all the travel expenses, medical testing, attorneys and paperwork in both countries.

In an effort to make the adoption happen, they emptied their 401K’s, sold the assets they could, and looked into refinancing their home but were still about $10,000 short of the money they needed.

Cheri believes that what happened next was most certainly a part of God’s plan.

Despite having just checked into the refinancing of their home only 30 days prior Susanna encouraged them to just keep trying and after reaching out again to a lender the numbers amazingly came out exactly where they needed to be in order for them to afford an adoption.

Even after raising the money, a long and arduous process still awaited the Fulford family including LilyRae’s older brother Rusty. Cheri had Rusty via previous marriage, but Spence had no biological children and was hoping to adopt “a Daddy’s girl.”

Baby LilyRae with her foster mom and new family in Guatemala

About a month after clearing the initial financial hurdles, Cheri and Spence received an email with a photo of a newborn baby girl born on December 5, 2005 as “Claudia Pamela Melindez-Lopez.”

The couple were given 72 hours to make a decision about the baby but they did not need any time at all as they immediately knew from the moment they saw the photo that they very much wanted that baby girl.

Ironically, it took about nine months (sometimes referred to as a “paperwork pregnancy”) before LilyRae would finally make it back here to the United States.

LilyRae stayed with her foster mother, Irma, until she was able to get all the proper paperwork, etc. so that she could travel.

Despite the language barrier, the family grew very close to Irma and still keep in contact with her.

Among other hoops and hurdles, Cheri was required to make at least two trips to Guatemala in order to earn U.S. citizenship for LilyRae.

As soon as LilyRae’s plane landed in America she was immediately recognized as a United States citizen.

The Fulfords say friends and family were very helpful to the adoption process with some friends even donating airline miles to help the couple travel back and forth to see LilyRae in Guatemala.

When not in Guatemala, Cheri sent cassette tapes of herself reading books so that LilyRae would learn to recognize her new mother’s voice.

“From the moment we saw that first photo, we felt like we were already new parents and that our child was just living somewhere else,” says Cheri.

LilyRae took to the family right away and especially loved her older brother, Rusty, who was age 11 at the time.

The new adopted baby was immediately named “Lily Rae Fulford” so she never went by her original birth name of Claudia.

LilyRae with her late Great Uncle Ray Sommers

She was named “Rae” after her great uncle, Ray Summers, a well-known Franklin resident who passed away suddenly in 2016. Ray never had kids of his own and was very close to LilyRae.

As a child growing up in Troup County, LilyRae participated in gymnastics, dance, and t-ball but it did not take long for her to realize her true passion was the sport of softball and especially pitching.

She truly filled the role of “Daddy’s girl” for her father Spence who coached her from t-ball all the way up until the last couple of years.

Spence says despite her unreal control of the strike zone now, she has come a long way after hitting the very first batter she ever faced in her travel ball league.

LilyRae says in the circle is where she feels like she belongs.

“I just feel like I am at at home on the pitcher’s mound. It is where I am comfortable at and where all my worries go away,” says LilyRae.

She adds that her cousins Zack and Zoe Thompson, standout baseball and softball players in their own rights at Lagrange High are two of her biggest role models and people that she looks up to.

In addition to her father and her coaches, she credits her current pitching coach Carleigh Baker for helping her achieve this much success as only a freshman. She works very hard year-round to perfect her pitching — often sacrificing time with her friends and other activities typical for kids her age.

LilyRae is very close with her two freshman varsity teammates, Chloe Scarbrough and Aubree Ussery. She has attended school with Chloe since daycare and Aubree since kindergarten.

Young LilyRae with her father

She says gaining the trust of her teammates was her biggest goal in the beginning of this season.

“My biggest challenge this year has been earning the trust of the coaches, my teammates, and even our Lady Brave fans,” says LilyRae.

“I know they all were thinking of me as just a little freshman and following such a good senior pitcher from last season was tough. Katelyn Jiles was a great pitcher and left me some very big shoes to fill.”

Being adopted and looking so different from her family is not always easy for LilyRae, but she is very thankful for her parents and her life here in Georgia.

“My parents do everything for me,” she states. “They feed me, clothe me, love me, give me a home, and do everything to help me with my softball — I am very blessed.”

She says part of the challenge of being adopted comes from having to deal with so many unanswered questions.

“It is hard when people ask me questions that I just don’t know the answers to like where my true ancestors are and it is hard when my friends wonder why I don’t look exactly like my parents. I also sometimes wonder why my biological parents didn’t keep me.”

Cheri has told LilyRae that there are different kinds of love in this world and that it may have been a different type of love that led her mother to give her up for adoption.

LiyRae first figured out she was adopted at about the age of 5 and her parents have vowed to always be honest with her about her background. She does know that she has three biological sisters somewhere.

Lady Braves celebrate “Forever Family Day with LilyRae

The freshman’s Lady Brave teammates recognized the uniqueness of her situation earlier this season and threw a special party for her in celebration of her ‘Forever Family Day’ on August 23.

Forever Family Day marks the first time LilyRae was able to be home with her new adopted family.

LilyRae says people that don’t know her usually expect her to speak Spanish and she finds it funny how they are always very surprised by her very southern and country accent.

In addition to softball, the 9th grader also devotes much of her time to her schoolwork and hopes to enter the pediatric field as either a doctor or a nurse someday.

For this week, however, LilyRae’s primary goal is to lead the Lady Braves to Columbus in hopes of fulfilling all of their dreams on the biggest varsity softball stage of all.

The Lady Braves will face Berrien in a third round best-of-3 series beginning with a doubleheader Tuesday in Nashville, GA and a third game if necessary on Wednesday.

The winner of that series will advance to the Final Four State Championship Tournament in Columbus Friday and Saturday.

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