By Tim Nash
Sometimes it was hard to miss. The routes they took usually avoided it — airport to hotel, hotel to training field, hotel to stadium. Still, it was there and they knew it.
When U.S. National team players travel abroad, they are protected. In some cases, depending on the country, they are escorted and given strict rules to follow. The rules are sometimes designed for the safety of the players, other times to hide the extreme poverty and substandard living conditions of the people.
Lorrie Fair saw it. A lot of it. In at least 70 different countries during her 10 years playing with the U.S. Women’s National team. She remembers the views from the bus windows, things she saw walking the streets, and conversations with players and locals. It’s hard, she says, to take what you have for granted in those situations
“The national team itself made me acutely aware that being born as a girl in the U.S., is kind of like a lottery ticket,” says Fair, now Lorrie Fair Allen. “I’m not saying that’s the case for all girls born in this country, but by and large, if you are a female born in this country you have opportunities that many don’t. You can participate in sports, education and be an equal and contributing member of your society.
“Travelling the world and all the different countries I’ve been to, I just realized soccer had provided me with so many gifts.”
Now, 10 years after retiring from soccer, she has found a way to even out the gift-taking to gift-giving ratio. As Director of Operations for the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, Fair Allen oversees the programs the foundation undertakes.
Theron, a Hollywood A-list actress, is a native of South Africa. She saw the devastation HIV was causing and started the foundation in 2007. “HIV is 100 percent preventable, and I think that’s what drives Charlize,” she says.
“Our mission is to invest in African youth to keep themselves safe from HIV,” says Fair Allen. “While our mission is pretty focused, the work around HIV prevention is really, really broad. There are so many structural and social drivers, especially in South Africa, that drive HIV infection — everything from unemployment to poverty, to lack of education, to lack of health services, lack of treatment options, gender-based violence. It all drives the HIV epidemic. For example, if a young person drops out of secondary school, they have a 50 percent chance of getting HIV. They just face incredible odds, not just to succeed but to protect themselves from HIV.”
Career Ends, Journey Begins
It’s rather fitting that the last game of Lorrie Fair’s career was a charity match. Fair played for the U.S. Women’s National team for 10 years, making her debut at age 17 for the USA. She won a World Cup championship in 1999, earned a Silver medal in the 2000 Olympics and retired in 2005 after 120 international appearances.
It was big news when she became the first foreign international player to sign with Chelsea Football Club in 2008 as a player and director of community relations and social responsibility. But the ACL injury she suffered in the charity match, when an out-of-shape Brit couldn’t stop his momentum and ran her over, gave her permission to spend all her time pursuing her passion. She was offered a job with a soccer-based foundation in L.A.
“One of the stipulations for my leaving London and coming back to L.A., was that I had been saving money to go on this crazy overland adventure,” she says. “I had saved for like four or five years, so it wasn’t like a small trip or anything. I would start work in May, 2009, and leave in December. I said, ‘I’ll take the job, but I’ll be leaving after seven months. When they said yes, I was like ‘Cool.’
The job turned out to be different than what Fair expected, but the contacts she made put her on her current path.
“That’s when I met Ashley George, the executive director of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach,” she says. “They were working on a very specific project in Africa that revolved around community cohesiveness. They were bringing communities together around soccer fields, clean water sources, food gardens, dry toilet block, and wash facilities. These units would have HIV education and health education for the community.
“I knew I needed to pay it forward, but I somehow felt there was a big way I could do it. I wanted to have an impact on more than just soccer. Soccer can really be a hook to getting girls to be empowered socially, psychologically and educationally. It can help encourage them to have more self-confidence and to stay in school. In a lot of countries that is not encouraged and sometimes not allowed.”
From London to Johannesburg by Car
Fair started working for the U.S. State Department in 2008 as member of its sports envoy program. Her work with the program further convinced her of just how fortunate she has been.
“I went to Afghanistan and Iraq,” she says. “We got shelled in Iraq, and I realized these girls are risking their lives to go play soccer. They are not doing it just for themselves. They are doing it for the generations after them. That, to a lesser extent, was exactly what Michelle Akers and Carin Gabarra and Carla Overbeck and all the members of the 1991 World Cup team were doing. Obviously, it wasn’t a life-and-a-death situation, though.
So with the money she had saved, she bought land cruiser, had it outfitted for overland travel and hit the road with a few friends for “Kickabout Africa 2010.
“I left London in January of 2010 and went through Europe and around the Middle East, into Africa through Sinai and down to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. The purpose of the trip was to see what kind of effect the World Cup would have on Africa.”
At the end of the journey, at the celebrations surrounding the opening of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, she ran into Ashley George again.
“Charlize and Ashley realized that I was available, and they needed someone in Africa on the ground to help implement the programs,” she says. “I had a background in sport development and I already had the car. They asked me if I wanted to live there for the next year and work for them. So I did and moved down to South Africa for all of 2011 to manage the implementation of this project.”
The foundation awards around $900,000 in grants to various organizations, and Fair Allen manages it, mostly by forming close working relationships with the grantees.
“We grant to community-based organizations in South Africa. Usually, the grants are pretty small but we give larger ones, as well. We don’t have a lot of grantees but we have really in-depth relationships with all of them. We want to support them on many levels. We want to not only fund them but support them in a way that helps them do the best job they possibly can.”
Often, she is reminded of her lottery ticket, and the opportunities she had simply because of the place she was born. What, she wonders, would the children of Africa do with just one or two opportunities.
‘These young people, despite their circumstances, are dynamic and resourceful and completely capable,” she says. “It’s just that there are not a lot of opportunities around them and there are a lot if dangers around them.
“It’s difficult sometimes because it’s not going as fast as we’d like. It never will really. But more often than not, you get inspired,” she says.
“I knew that whatever I was going to get involved with was going have something to do with human rights. And I am kind of hooked on Africa. Once you are there, there is just something special about it.”
Tim Nash is the author of “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First 30 Years of US Women’s Soccer. For more of his articles and information about the book click here