Four years after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, it may appear as if the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere fell off the planet, as other natural disasters and world events have overshadowed that tragedy. But although media attention has greatly diminished, a number of Hollywood-backed organizations are still hands-on in Haiti, making progress and improving the lives
of thousands.

Nonprofits like J/P Haitian Relief Organization, Artists for Peace and Justice and the Worldwide Orphans Foundation are proving that by aggressive fundraising, hiring the right experts, employing the local community and educating Haitians from the littlest kids to adults in everything from literacy to filmmaking and construction, they can make improvements in the nation where other aid organizations have failed.

“We were completely unreasonable,” says Paul Haggis, founder of APJ, about the org’s first foray into the country. “We didn’t believe all the wise people who gave us their best advice on how we long we needed to study and plan these things. We just said, ‘No. The Haitian people don’t need it a year from now. They need solutions now.’ ”

When Sean Penn founded J/P HRO, and the organization started managing the Petionville and Cite Maxo tent camps for the tens of thousands of people displaced by the quake, many had doubts about his ability to make a difference. Today, only 2,000 camp residents are still waiting to be moved into permanent housing. “People would give (Sean), at first, very little credit, thinking it was the movie star coming down,” Chiara Lucchini Gilera, the org’s camp and relocations program manager, told Variety during a December visit to the country. “He just saw what he thought had to be done. And he got it done.”

To date, J/P HRO has provided direct support to nearly 5,000 families to relocate from the Petionville Camp, and it’s helped more than 450 families move into earthquake-resistant housing. Today, the J/P HRO Engineering and Construction team continues to demolish and clear debris from damaged structures and has removed 1.3 million tons of rubble from the area.

“The strategy now really is to teach the people how to build safely,” says Anna Calogero, J/P HRO’s Neighborhood Upgrading Project Manager and expert at alleviating slum conditions.

Some of the heavier lifting that J/P HRO has had to do has been in convincing a skeptical community that with patience and cooperation, assistance can eventually come to all.

“You’re there each time they need to talk or they feel frustrated,” says Lucchini Gilera. “You meet with community leaders. You employ people as much as possible in building the homes so that others can at least have a job for a few weeks.”

The Worldwide Orphans Foundation, founded by pediatrician Jane Aronson and supported by, among others, Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers, also has tied aid to jobs, recruiting and training 137 community members, ages 17-35, in the principles of early childhood development, and employing them to run a program for 250 at-risk children.

APJ has focused on the underpinnings of job growth. In a country where the unemployment rate is officially estimated to be around 40%, but in reality is closer to 75% when not factoring in the informal jobs that keep most of the population afloat, the future of young Haitians weighed heavily on Haggis’ mind even before the earthquake. The Oscar-winning filmmaker first visited Haiti in 2008, when he met Father Rick Frechette, an American priest and doctor whose work with the St. Luke Foundation spans more than 20 years. Initially, Haggis helped fund some of the foundation’s primary schools, but after the quake, he and Frechette determined the greater need was for a secondary school.

“Only 20% of the kids get to go to high school, and in the history of Haiti, they’ve never had a free high school for the poorest kids in the country,” Haggis says. “I thought that was a crime. (That’s) the first thing you need to change, because you’re not going to get skilled jobs if you have no education.”

With the quake still on everyone’s minds, Haggis gathered a large group of friends into his backyard — among them actors Daniel Craig, Maria Bello, Olivia Wilde, Gerard Butler and Susan Sarandon — and in one afternoon they pledged to give $4.5 million over the next five years. As a result, APJ broke ground on a school the following April, determined to open it by the beginning of the school year.

Using a Haitian architect, local contractors and engineers vetted by the St. Luke Foundation, the Academy for Peace and Justice opened its doors in October 2010 to 400 students. Today the school educates 2,300 tweens and teens from grades 7 to 11, with a goal to increase this number to 2,800 by 2016.

None of this progress would be possible without trust established in an area known for extreme gang violence.

“People come in, build something, set it up. Three weeks later they abandon it and all they leave is broken dreams,” Haggis says. “From the beginning, we said, ‘We’re not going to do that. If we go in, we’re going to establish something that lasts, and we’ll find ways to keep
it funded.’ ”

While board members often make individual trips to Haiti, a large group of donors also visits the school approximately every three months. And beyond using their check-writing skills, APJ members like Ben Stiller and Wilde have been able to connect the organizations with corporations or foundations that are able to help the cause. In a place where even the college-educated have a hard time finding work, Haggis recognizes that giving kids a secondary education and sending them on their way is not enough. That is why APJ also runs an artists institute, comprising two technical colleges for film and for audio engineering, where they train 100 students a year.

“I thought it may seem a stupid idea — and it was mine,” admits Haggis with a chuckle. “But we saw that after two years, all the graduates of the film school had jobs. There was such a great need for people to shoot commercials and shoot for businesses — and even the NGOs wanted a film to show what they are doing. Why not have Haitians do it? So we had a hiring hall, and they booked a million dollars in jobs over two years.”

When asked why donors should continue to support Haiti, Bello, an APJ board member and founder of WeAdvanceU.org — a website that provides access to medical, social and legal services to Haitian women as well as video tutorials on health education and community-strengthening — says the work in Haiti is far from over.
“It’s important to make people understand that there’s a need,” she says. “And not only a need, but there’s an opportunity to invest in Haiti that can help to change the country, not only in tourism, but in agriculture and in textiles.”

Bello, who has visited almost monthly for the past four years, says she is proud of what has been accomplished with the help of the creative community.

“I’m so in awe of my friends that stay committed,” she says. “We’re not just this secular, Hollywood community. We share Haitian friends and experiences, and we’ve held hands throughout it all. I’m proud of how we’ve shown up and continue to show up.”