- Associated Press - Monday, April 23, 2012

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Sean Penn no longer lives in a tent, surrounded by some 40,000 desperate people camped on a muddy golf course.

And he no longer rushes about the capital with a Glock pistol tucked in his waistband, hefting bags of donated rice and warning darkly of a worsening humanitarian crisis.

But the actor who stormed onto the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in history certainly has not lost interest.

Defying skeptics, he has put down roots in Haiti, a country he hadn’t even visited before the January 2010 earthquake, and has become a major figure in the effort to rebuild.

“At the beginning, we thought he was going to be like one of the celebrities who don’t spend the night,” said Maryse Kedar, president of an education foundation who has worked alongside Mr. Penn. “I can tell you that Sean surprised a lot of people here. Haiti became his second home.”

Mr. Penn’s role has evolved during the two years of Haiti’s meandering recovery. He started as the head of a band of volunteers, morphed into the unofficial mayor of the golf course-turned-homeless camp and became a member of what passes for Haiti’s establishment — a part of the president’s circle who addresses investors at aid conferences and represents this tumbledown Caribbean country to the world.

He is now an ambassador-at-large for President Michel Martelly, the first non-Haitian to receive the designation, and the CEO of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, a rapidly growing and increasingly prominent aid group.

The actor, who will be honored for his work in Haiti on Wednesday with the 2012 Peace Summit Award at the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Chicago, has yoked himself to an unlikely cause: helping a country that has lurched from one calamity to another.

A celebrity’s life

“This country is finally getting out of the hole,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press at a house in the Haitian capital that serves as his nongovernmental organization’s crash pad, with rooms divided by plywood and a sign in the kitchen saying no seconds until everyone has had a chance to eat.

It’s strange to see a celebrity of his stature in these surroundings.

He brings glamour to a country that has none, where the streets are largely dirt and most people don’t have indoor plumbing, not to mention any kind of steady job. His leftist politics don’t seem like a match for right-of-center Mr. Martelly, and his leadership of an aid group partially funded by the U.N. doesn’t square with his contempt for foreign nongovernmental organizations. His salty language is not exactly diplomatic.

But maybe there is a kind of weird logic to Mr. Penn’s adventure in Haiti.

He is an actor whose most famous roles are underdogs and whose politics frequently put him at odds with the U.S. government, embracing the likes of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez. Haiti is a land of contrasts and contradictions, a poor country in the shadow of the U.S., a place of inspiration and despair.

Or maybe he just wanted to help, says Bichat Laroque, 26, who lives with his mother in the displaced persons camp managed by Mr. Penn’s group: “He married Madonna and he made a lot of money, and after a terrible earthquake he says, ‘Let’s do good things in Haiti.’ “

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.

Former President Bill Clinton, a U.N. special envoy to Haiti, was among those impressed with Mr. Penn’s efforts.

“He was not a drive-by celebrity,” Mr. Clinton said in a recent interview. “He went into those camps and he was actually solving their water problems, solving their sanitation problems.”

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