The Haiti that Penn saw when he arrived in the country for the first time, about a week after the earthquake, was apocalyptic, a tableau of death and destruction that shocked the world.
Port-au-Prince, the densely packed capital with an estimated 3 million people, was shaken by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, which flattened thousands of schools filled with students and offices filled with workers. Officials estimated the death toll at more than 300,000, an equal number injured, and at least 1.5 million homeless. The government was crippled; aid groups were swamped.
Benjamin Krause, the country director for Penn's group, said the quake resonated with the actor in part because his son, Hopper, had recently recovered from a skateboarding accident that caused a serious head injury.
"Sean turns on the television and sees parents next to children holding their hands as they are having surgeries in the streets with no pain medication whatsoever," he said. "It moved him to call up all the people he could to get pain medication lined up and as many medical professionals as possible."
He also may have been in search of a cause. A 2010 Vanity Fair profile suggested as much, saying he had been rudderless, despite his movie success, following the death of his brother, Chris, in 2006 and the divorce from Robin Wright Penn in 2009.
Penn and Diana Jenkins, a Southern California philanthropist, put together a planeload of supplies and volunteers — seven doctors and 23 relief workers. They called themselves the Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization, which changed to J/P HRO after her involvement waned.
The actor, who carried a gun in the chaotic early days, landed with his coterie at the Petionville Club, where they found a contingent from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Penn embedded with the military, and his involvement grew from there.
He soon started showing up at meetings of aid officials trying to coordinate the disparate relief efforts. "He would sit down like everyone else and listen," said Giovanni Cassani of the International Organization for Migration.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a U.N. special envoy to Haiti, was among those impressed with Penn's efforts.
"He was not a drive-by celebrity," Clinton said in a recent interview. "He went into those camps and he was actually solving their water problems, solving their sanitation problems."
J/P HRO now operates out of airy office space in a former school, has a fleet of trucks and heavy equipment, a staff of 300 and hires so many laborers to clear rubble that on some days it's the largest employer in Petionville, one of several cities that make up the capital region.
The irony is that Penn has been a critic of foreign nongovernmental organizations in Haiti, so plentiful that the country has been ridiculed as the "Republic of NGOs."
He still tells the story of a "very reputable" NGO whose actions after the quake were "akin to the worst of Hollywood ambition." Penn's group had donated a shipment of painkillers, but distribution was delayed, he said, so the organization that would hand out the drugs could affix stickers on the boxes and get credit.
"What's wrong with NGOs goes much deeper in terms of development and in terms of emergency relief and the lack of coordination of the two," Penn said. "Everybody waits for somebody to demonstrate that something's going to be impressive to donors to steal the idea from the person that actually did it and then try to sell it as their thing until that gains or loses popularity
He ridiculed what he sees as the typical "NGO person" or "U.N. person" as out of touch and ineffective. "It's Lance Armstrong on a stationary bike saying, 'I'll get there as soon as the corruption is over,'" he said.
Penn and his staff say their mission evolved as new challenges surfaced. They started managing the camp, then took over the clinic when the Army pulled out, and did the same with the schools, allowing other groups, including Save the Children, to focus elsewhere.
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