Why I Remain Hopeful

10/26/2011 05:50 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2011

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Our news constantly bombards us with stories about one celebrity or another. It seems like all we care about is their social life, their vulnerabilities, their shortcoming. Then to compensate for it many celebrities give their name or bit of time to a charitable organization. This was best brought to life in the movie, Brüno, Sasha Baron Cohen's celebrity character responds to a question regarding his social involvement: "Darfur is old news... what about Darfive." He is commenting on our need to move on to what is fashionable and that human tragedies go in and out like the latest clothing designs. Painful as it might be, the suffering of the Haitian people has not ended like an episode of a television drama. For me, what matters is how a celebrity uses his/her resources and ability to influence for good.

That is why, the article about Sean Penn and his relief organization J/P HRO in the NY Times Sunday Magazine section earlier this year had a significant impact on me. I have been involved in humanitarian work for many years and have seen the difference that effective organizations can make in the life of people and communities in areas ravaged by natural disaster or in the many places ravaged by human atrocities. What particularly struck me in that article and in other written about Penn and J/P HRO were the comments about his personal commitment. As Dr. Louise Ivers from Partners in Health said: "I think he really gives a damn about the Haitian people." The organization's work has been praised by people from so many sectors including military, government, NGO, private funders and most importantly the constituents themselves. During my recent trip to Haiti I wanted to see the work first hand.

Their mission statement is quite direct: "To save lives and bring sustainable programs to the Haitian people quickly and effectively." Like everything in life, it is easy to write an eloquent mission statement, it is much more difficult to do the work involved. The work is especially challenging when you take on the responsibilities of camp management. That is the task that no one seems to really want -- as it requires tremendous responsibility making sure that residents are safe and provided with all necessary services as well as a deep commitment to collaboration with partners.

As I walked through the Petionville camp -- I saw some of the schools, the medical clinics, the sanitation projects, the thousands of tents that seem to go on forever. The people running these programs had clear focus on their goals and a deep respect for the people they were serving. None of the conversations took on the feel of organizational self-promotion but rather really trying to help and empower the Haitian people. Felix, the Canadian born Program Director, shared with me all that was taking place with great professional understanding and clarity as well as deep personal commitment to the success of the program. His focus was always on empowering the Haitian people.

The period of emergency relief from the earthquake and cholera is now transitioning to the second stage of relief which is sustainable development. Countless lives were saved by J/P HRO and their management of the largest IDP camp in Haiti, which at one point had approximately 50,000 people whose already difficult lives had been devastated by the violent movement of the earth on January 12, 2010.

Currently there are 23,000 people living in the camp. Camp life is difficult. People who were already impoverished and vulnerable have seen whatever stability they thought they had removed in one short moment. The trauma of the earthquake lives on as a daily reality.

In addition to being most strategic in their work one can feel a core ethic of J/P HRO -- respect for the Haitian people. That sense of humaneness permeates the camp. What also stands out is their integrated approach. It seems like most work being done now often occurs in silos. J/P HRO understands that all parts of humanitarian relief efforts are inextricably linked.

The focus now of J/P HRO is on maintaining service to the people living there and playing a major role in helping the transition process back to local neighborhoods. I visited the tent where the community leaders gather and in listening to the extremely capable leadership team, it is clear that empowerment of these leaders is a real priority.

I visited the area of Delmas where many people will be resettling and rebuilding their lives. J/P HRO wants to make sure that the people moving back have access to health, education and social services. I went to a building that had just been rented and was in the process of being prepared. Here will be a community center. Ira, the young Israeli woman who will be running it talked with great passion about the activities that will take place here: recreational, literacy, arts, discussion groups, counseling and a meeting place for local groups. As we walked through the eight room house she brought each activity to life. All programs will be run by Haitians who will volunteer their time. She is but one of the many outstanding staff members doing the work.

What I witnessed on my visit was the following: an organization who really understands relief work, a group that has little interest in self-promotion and is really focused on mission, a willingness to take on major responsibility, a commitment to partnerships where all parties take their roles seriously, a keen understanding of the vulnerability of the Haitians both in the camp and what will be required in their transition back to their neighborhoods, a provider of educational, medical, social, sanitation services, a creator of jobs, a partner in rehabilitating and building safe housing -- and at the core of it all a willingness to listen to the voices of the Haitian people and a long-term commitment to helping improve their lives.

It is clear that for Sean Penn this was not just a passing interest. He lived there for over six months. His commitment is unabated. He wants the best for the Haitian people. It is clear to me that he not only gives a damn -- but is willing to take that and make a huge commitment to the precious human beings in Haiti who simply want to live safe lives and dream about a better future for their children.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is president of CedarStreet Leadership and has a deep personal commitment to humanitarian issues. He has done extensive travel in the part of the world where the most impoverished and vulnerable people are living.