02/25/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

Can a Hollywood Bad Boy Do Good?

It's the heart of Hollywood award season, but some of the most commendable work performed by an actor this year wasn't on the big screen. It took place in a Haitian tent camp.

Word that the last of 60,000 residents of the camp Sean Penn and his relief group supervised for the past four years have found homes elsewhere provides a moment to recognize the massive undertaking he jumped into in the wake of a tragedy. At great personal risk -- serious considerations for the rich and famous -- he took responsibility for thousands of people who had nowhere else to go and stuck with them until all were settled into new lives. His sustained and effective commitment to Haiti has set a new benchmark for celebrity social action.

Penn was not an experienced manager of emergency services trained in disaster relief. He is an actor who assumed the role of empathetic human being and played it to perfection. Unlike other celebrities who took the land-and-glad-hand public relations junket, Penn has been on the scene constantly. He took up residence and was in the country regularly, working with government officials much more closely than many NGOs, sometimes to his peril. J/P HRO, Penn's aid organization, met the basic shelter and medical needs of thousands of Haitians who had little to lose, and yet lost it all.

Many only know Penn for his controversial politics and bad behavior, but his actions benefitting Haitians have been practical and passionate. Proving that he is moving beyond his former bad boy character, Penn recently agreed to melt down the 60-plus guns he owned, and hired artist Jeff Koons to create a sculpture he auctioned off at a Beverly Hills gala that raised $6 million for Haiti.

Penn acted altruistically after the earthquake. He ran clinics that provided sadly lacking medical care and schools for children who could not afford required tuition. He hired the locals in large numbers, pumping empowerment into the economy. He led the country's premier rubble removing team and cleared the streets, enabling Haiti to open for business and build back better, as the politicians like to say. He accomplished this by raising funds from sources as diverse as Hollywood's beautiful people and the World Bank. And he put that money to work in meaningful ways that saved lives and made a difference.

Haiti has long been called the Republic of NGOs, but with 40 percent of the nation's civil servants claimed by the quake, the country needed help and Penn was there.

While the concepts of depth and celebrity are often antithetical, Penn's impact in Haiti is a case in point for examining the deeper value fame can deliver when it is applied in a holistic manner instead of the more typical one-hit-wonder fashion. Actors seeking to translate their success on the silver screen to the real thing might want to hold the press release until they study Penn's approach and have something as substantial to tout.

When he arrived in Haiti, he was like so many others: a celebrity with volunteer experience. Since then, he was named CEO of his successful NGO, Ambassador-at-large by Haitian President Michel Martelly and honored by a World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates for his accomplishments. As the first major step in his Haiti mission is completed, he has emerged a statesman. It's a role that becomes him.

Penn is no drive-by, photo-op celebrity. He's broken the mold for Hollywood activists and blazed a new trail for the glitterati who want to use their superstar status to leave a significant legacy in the world. There outta be a statue for that.


Denise Mattson is a board member of the Vincentian Family Haiti Initiative, which creates opportunities for Haitians to achieve sustainable human and economic development, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project at DePaul University.