Sean Penn devoted to helping a country in need of everything

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When not at home in Los Angeles, Mr. Penn spends about half his time in Haiti, and public sightings are common.

On a recent morning at the camp his group manages, at the Petionville Club, he lumbered through wearing faded jeans, a plaid button-down shirt and aviator sunglasses, greeted by residents in English (“Sean, my friend!”) and Creole (“Bonjou, Sean!”)

He sat down on the terrace of the house overlooking the tarp-covered shanties, and talked for more than an hour because the subject was Haiti, a topic he riffs on with a passionate, sometimes rambling intensity, sprinkled with the obscenities.

When it comes to the mission of his outfit, he veers toward grandiose, even choking up at times.

“My job is to help people get the future they want to have,” he said.

The Haiti that Mr. 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.

A deeply personal interest

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, that 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 Mr. Penn’s group, said the quake resonated with the actor in part because his son, Hopper, recently had 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.

Mr. 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. Mr. 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.

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