Megan Rapinoe launches fire relief fund for Redding hometown

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The Carr fire has enveloped more than 225,000 acres in California and is responsible for eight fatalities, including three firefighters.

Megan Rapinoe still starts most mornings in Redding, the northern California city near the Oregon border. She isn't present physically, of course, having long since left her hometown to follow a soccer ball wherever it led. But the regular video chats with her mom bring her back, put her squarely in the middle of the latest gossip in a place that feels to residents like a town no matter how much the population grows.

Among the biggest stars in women's soccer, a mainstay of the U.S. women's national team who has drawn paychecks everywhere from Seattle to Lyon, France, Rapinoe still needs a regular fix of stories from places like Jack's Grill, the Redding restaurant where her mom works.

Except that a month ago the humor grew more difficult to find. The gossip gave way to safety checks, details of evacuation lists and stories of friends and coworkers who lost everything.

Born out of a spark in late July, the Carr Fire continues to burn a month later. It has enveloped more than 225,000 acres in California, an area greater than the five boroughs of New York. In addition to eight fatalities, it is responsible for the destruction of more than 1,000 homes. Many of those were in Redding, where nearly 40,000 people were evacuated from the fire's path.

Rapinoe's parents live on the fortunate side of town (as does Jack's), spared from the flames. So does her older sister. But where the rest of us might feel sympathy seeing the images of destruction, as with any disaster, Rapinoe feels pain born of familiarity in those images. She knows family friends who lost the house in which she used to attend childhood parties. She knows a dozen such stories.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

"This isn't about what we believe in," Megan Rapinoe said. "This is about people who need help." Some critics have said they won't donate to her cause because Rapinoe kneeled during the national anthem.

Though increasing in frequency, fires have long been a fact of life when hot, dry summers turn the surrounding forests into tinder. The Fountain Fire when she was 7 years old claimed more than 300 homes in nearby smaller towns. But nothing like this. Nothing in Redding.

"It just hits home, seeing some of the areas that were damaged," Rapinoe said. "Even seeing wider shots of the city, areas that I know, the river trails that I've walked on, all of that -- being able to see that and have it be totally charred, it does hit home more. You know the people in the community, you know intimately what the community is like and what it's going to take."

With the support of U.S. Soccer, she is trying to help fill those needs, both in the short term as students in Redding go back to school and families seek shelter and in the long term rebuilding that will take years. Hoping to mimic, on whatever scale possible, what NFL standout J.J. Watt accomplished in raising money for Houston after Hurricane Harvey, she partnered with Shasta Regional Community Foundation to launch a fundraising drive with an initial goal of $100,000.

That Rapinoe and Redding don't always see eye to eye isn't the point. It will always be home. It is not just where her family lives but family itself.

Redding is not the California that many people imagine. It is quiet, far from the populations of the Bay Area or Los Angeles and shielded by mountain ranges and two large nearby lakes. It doesn't have a major college or a big factory driving industry. It gets by without them. It is also the seat of Shasta County, which Donald Trump won handily in the 2016 election, a winning margin topped in the state only by two more sparsely populated counties directly adjacent to Shasta. It voted strongly in favor of Proposition 8 in 2008, the ballot initiative that attempted to amend the state constitution and prohibit same-sex marriage.

You don't need to like me -- you don't need to donate to my fundraiser. If you want to go to a separate fundraiser and donate to Redding, I'll be more than happy. ...
Megan Rapinoe

Redding, with a population of more than 90,000,  is conservative. A gay athlete outspoken not just on matters affecting the LGBTQ community but a variety of social issues, Rapinoe is very much not. The resulting relationship with her hometown has at times been fraught, most notably in 2016 when she joined athletes who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color.

"It's been tested a lot; I think I've tested it quite a bit," Rapinoe said of the bond. "Redding is a pretty small, conservative, northern California town. I think my views, my political stances, are probably very different from a lot of people. I think the kneeling was a big thing. Even just stories of people coming in and saying stuff to my mom in the restaurant or saying stuff to family members, obviously, I think it was a very hot-button issue. But I've always felt very supported there throughout my career. Every time I go back I just feel so much love from there."

So when a commenter on one of her social media posts announcing the fundraiser for fire relief said that Rapinoe's political protests disqualified her as an advocate for charity, Rapinoe tried not to respond. She waited a day. But she couldn't stay silent. The commenter didn't like that Rapinoe took a knee during the anthem? Then they should visit Redding. They would find more than a few sympathetic ears. That doesn't change that some of those same people are hurting. Let them disagree on any issues they want, but let them first do it with a roof over their heads.

"There are a lot of people in Redding that probably disagree with everything I say or all the stances I have," Rapinoe said. "And we can have a debate about that, but this is something so different. At the end of the day, this isn't about what we believe in. This is about people who need help. Obviously I have a personal connection to Redding, but I also just generally in my life believe we all have a responsibility to make this world a better place and help people. ...

"You don't need to like me -- you don't need to donate to my fundraiser. If you want to go to a separate fundraiser and donate to Redding, I'll be more than happy if anything spurs you to do that. Ultimately the people of Redding need help in this moment."

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The Carr fire is responsible for the destruction of more than 1,000 homes.

They will need help long beyond this moment, but there is an urgency to act now. Like any such disaster, Redding's ongoing needs will outstrip our collective attention span. The fire is more than 95 percent contained, and the public will move on to other causes -- even other fires in what has been a brutal summer throughout the West. That is why Rapinoe is trying to do all she can with the reach soccer has allowed her to raise money as quickly as she can. While she will be unable to play because of a rib injury, those efforts will culminate with the game between the United States and Chile in San Jose, California, on Sept. 4, at which a group of those affected by the fire will be guests of U.S. Soccer.

Rapinoe is a product of Redding. The talent that takes her around the globe and the voice she believes can help change the world both took shape there.

"I feel like Redding is kind of this underdog, hard-working, blue-collar, is-what-it-is kind of town, and I try to take that with me," Rapinoe said. "I never want to just say, 'Oh, I'm from California.' I'm not from California; I'm from Redding. For me, that means something."

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