Sean Penn’s yearlong project turns Haiti golf course into camp for 55,000

Jan 9, 2011 02:38AM

Story Image
Hatian children attend a camp managed by Penn and his Jenkins-Penn Humanitarian Relief Organization in April 2010 in Port-Au Prince. The children are among 55,000 people at the camp. | Kevork Djansezian~Getty Images

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—Actor Senn Penn’s mud-splattered SUV lurches through a hilly slum here, ironically named Bel Air.

Half-naked children clamber around the crumbling shacks. A family stews food on the porch of a building stamped with red letters, meaning it’s destined for demolition — only the place is still here, and so is the family.

It’s a bad set designer’s version of the apocalypse, except that it’s real — especially for Penn, 50, who has been a fixture in Haiti since moving here almost immediately after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that threw the country into chaos, and the actor’s own life, too.

“There’s a great thing Paul Newman said about his long marriage,” he says wryly. “ ‘As it turns out, we still love each other.’ That’s how I feel: ‘As it turns out, I’m still here.’ “

Entering a small, newly erected school for about 300 children, nearly 50 children squeal with delight at seeing Penn.

Not Penn the actor: Penn the leader of a camp that houses 55,000 displaced persons. Penn the man whose rubble-busting machinery might turn this squalor into something bordering on the human.

One by one, the girls line up to kiss him. If Penn hesitates — he’s hardly the kiss-and-cuddle type, and cholera is a clear and present danger — he kisses them on the cheek nonetheless, with a disarming gentleness.

A camp in Petionville, a once-affluent suburb, has become Penn’s obsession. He pauses to look over what was previously a nine-hole golf club spread across several hills; it’s now sprinkled with 11,000 tarp-covered structures housing the displaced persons he and his group of about 50 volunteers and trained professionals oversee, along with a Haitian staff of 108.

The camp has become a veritable city of its own. There’s a medical unit whose hospital stays open 24/7; a tent where cholera victims are hooked to IV’s; an outdoor market.

As Penn walks on, a gun safely concealed inside his pants, children run up to greet him. “Hey you!” they call, or “seanpenn!”

After getting a text from a friend right after the earthquake alerting him, “Oh God, poor Haiti,” Penn started manning the phone. Within days, he had booked the two planes and arranged for doctors and medical supplies to accompany him.

“The airport was chaos,” he says. “As soon as you landed, another plane came in. The military was pulling off pallets, then they’d meet the next plane. Everything was going in all directions. And there’d been the big aftershock, so the port was closed.”

Penn stayed in a friend’s backyard, sending his doctors to one of the hospitals and speaking to Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, who “gave us a good map” of what to do.

Soon, he learned that some 35,000 locals had sought refuge at the golf club, where the military’s 82nd Airborne was based. Penn asked to be of service. “They said, ‘You can stay if you’re effective. If you stop being effective, we kick you out.’ “ He was so effective, he became camp manager.

With beverage mogul Diana Jenkins, Penn established the Jenkins-Penn Haiti Relief Operation.

Today, Penn orders supplies, arranges funds, supervises staff and tries to figure out what to do if a hurricane hits. Deep gashes of sleep deprivation line his face. His eyes seem half-closed with fatigue.

Recently, he has started to take breaks, alternating a few days in Malibu with a few days here. He has also taken several weeks to shoot a film. But always, he returns.

He speaks of a future when he might leave the camp in others’ hands, then wavers. “Let’s face it,” he says, “I’m a person that feels pretty alienated from the rest of the world and never felt understood by anyone.”

As for his future in Haiti, “there’s no end point.”

“This is where I’ll be when I’m not working, for the rest of my life,” he says. Hollywood Reporter


Author: `