Two-time Academy Award winner Sean Penn has become an American film icon over the past three decades, but of late he’s arguably become even more famous for his tenacious humanitarian efforts — especially in Haiti, efforts that are being recognized when he receives the Variety Humanitarian of the Year Award Nov. 17 at the Rome Film Festival.
Long interested in human rights, and always outspoken about his political views and beliefs — in 2002 he very publicly denounced President George W. Bush ahead of the Iraq invasion in a full-page ad he paid for in the Washington Post — the actor was one of the first responders to the flooded city of New Orleans after Katrina hit in 2005. Along with other volunteers, he rescued stranded survivors.
But it was the devastating Haiti earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, that turned Penn into a man truly obsessed, spending most of the past two years there trying to help the ravaged country rebuild (at press time he was once more en route to Haiti).
“I had never been to Haiti before,” Penn told Vanity Fair. “I couldn’t fathom the high death toll. So, like everyone else, I started tracking the news.” But unlike most other people, the actor felt compelled not just to donate money but to fly to Haiti and personally help the relief effort. With the help of friends, he recruited a group of doctors, organized supplies and flew everyone to Haiti in a leased cargo plane.
Shocked by the human suffering he found there, the same month Penn established the J/P Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO), and since then J/P HRO has become a leader in Haiti across multiple sectors working to improve living conditions in the camps and surrounding neighborhoods by clearing rubble, and providing medical services, education and enrichment programs, housing construction, and neighborhood redevelopment. J/P HRO’s main objective remains to help displaced people get back to durable, safer and permanent homes in revitalized neighborhoods.
For his efforts, Penn was named ambassador at large for Haiti and was presented with this honor by President Michel Martelly at a ceremony in Port-au-Prince in 2012. This year, Penn was also presented with the Peace Summit Award at the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates as well as with the Intl. Humanitarian Service Award from the American Red Cross, and has been the recipient of numerous other honors for his service.
“Many people — both famous and not famous — generously gave their time and support for the people of Haiti in the days following the earthquake,” says David Meltzer, senior vice president of international services at the American Red Cross. “What sets Ambassador Penn apart is his sustained dedication over the past two and a half years to improving the conditions for Haitians affected by the devastating earthquake. He continues to raise funds and attention for Haiti, has spent months in camps and communities working directly with beneficiaries, and consistently advocates on behalf of Haitians with the highest levels of government, civil society and media to improve people’s lives.”
Penn and the American Red Cross worked closely together in the early days following the outbreak of cholera to offload and deliver medical supplies and equipment, and the actor personally intervened with the government of Haiti on behalf of the American Red Cross, and has publicly spoken in support of American Red Cross relief and recovery efforts in Haiti.
But it’s telling that the notoriously prickly — and self-aware — Penn has his own unique perspective on his humanitarian work. “I have great moments when I feel very connected and loving toward humankind, but I never have a good moment toward human beings…,” he told the New York Times T Magazine. “I love humankind; I just don’t like humans.”