Sean Penn and Ann Lee Are at the CORE of Community Rebuilding

© Photo Courtesy of CORE


By Raye Mocioiu

Oscar-winner Sean Penn has branded himself a hero both on-screen and off. The Mystic River star has long used his Hollywood power to mobilize and motivate change internationally.

From humanitarian efforts in New Orleans and Haiti to political controversies, the likes of which have only been ventured by the bravest of journalists, Sean Penn has a history of boldly taking action for causes he cares about.

Penn made headlines in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Frustrated by the search and rescue efforts at work, he launched his own rescue mission, saving 40 stranded locals.

“It’s not enough to just be an artist,” Penn says in an interview with Variety Magazine. “I think, in Haiti, that’s how I finally felt. I had other stuff to give. And so I found a place to do that.”

In 2010, an earthquake rocked Haiti, causing significant damage to multiple cities in the region and affecting over three million people. Within hours of the disaster, Penn founded CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort, formerly known as J/P HRO), which immediately mobilized a powerful network to take action, operating a 55,000-person tent camp for displaced locals.

“When I met Sean in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, I was working for one of the biggest U.S. NGOs,” says CORE co-founder and CEO Ann Lee. “Initially, I was cynical of an actor coming in to help. A lot of times the actors came in and took photo ops and left. But Sean was there to learn and listen. His vision and perspective as an outsider proved different—he challenged and broadened my understanding of what can be achieved in a relief effort. He wasn’t like, ‘I have the answer for it.’ He was very humble. Soon, he and I began to conspire against the traditional—and flawed—ways of emergency response. Sean shoe-stringed innovation to respond swiftly to one of the worst disasters of modern time, building lasting change in the hardest hit, poorest neighborhoods. He has infused that mentality in our work over the past decade, and we pride ourselves on being nimble and, at times, scrappy.”

005-GHN Global Heroes - Sean Penn Core
© Photo Courtesy of CORE
005-GHN Global Heroes - Sean Penn Core
© Photo Courtesy of CORE

Lee, who has a long history of humanitarian efforts, worked as the lead on urban humanitarian response for the UN’s Organization for Coordination and Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and as a private-sector liaison for the Secretary General’s World Humanitarian Summit. The author of “Livelihoods in Emergencies: A Double-Edged Sword,” Lee developed a gender-sensitive emergency assessment tool called the CLARA, which is now used by international organizations around the world.

CORE’s efforts have continued for over ten years, employing hundreds of Haitians who implement education, reforestation, and community development programs. Who better, after all, to lead a community to positive change than the community members themselves?

“In 2017, in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, we realized we could take our many years of emergency response experience and help communities in the Caribbean,” Lee continues. “This was a pivotal moment for CORE as we were able to extend our work beyond Haiti and apply our model of working directly with the local community and government. Following Hurricane Florence in 2018, we helped communities in Florida and North Carolina.”

More than ten years later, the organization continues to lead sustainable programs focused on four pillars: emergency relief, disaster preparedness, environmental resiliency, and community building. The latter has proved a vital lesson, not just for the organization, but for the hard-hit communities it helps.

“The biggest impact we made in Haiti was centering all humanitarian action through and in support of communities and their social, cultural, and physical infrastructure, which in turn strengthens them against the next crisis—be it a natural disaster, economic downturn, or otherwise,” Lee shares. “We listened, we learned, and we engaged the local community to be their own best agents for rebuilding their community. That ethos is the foundation of CORE.”

More than preparing to face disasters, CORE provides sustainable programs from youth education and women’s entrepreneurship to disaster mitigation. Hard-hit communities often need that level of support to make long-term relief possible.

“Communities in crisis have many factors that lead to their vulnerability and disproportionate risk of being affected by disaster, all too often being social, economic, exclusion, and social injustice,” Lee continues. “While addressing immediate needs in a disaster, we also recognize that we need to address the root causes of vulnerability to have a long-term and sustainable impact. Focusing on holistic sustainable solutions, we build systems that better prepare communities for crises and prevent the effects of devastation on the most vulnerable populations.”

We are not saviors. We are not coming to help for the glory and recognition, and then leaving once the initial job is completed. We are trusted partners to the community, and that requires close collaboration with community leaders and members to ensure we are addressing their needs.

—Ann Lee, Co-Founder and CEO, CORE

With that mindset, CORE has invested heavily in building a brighter future for women and children, providing equal access to education for children from the most marginalized communities.

“With the support of the Qatar Haiti Fund, we rebuilt The University of Haiti: Faculty of Sciences Department, which will benefit 2,215 students, professors, and administrative staff. In our early years in Haiti, we founded The School of Hope, which is the first school in Haiti to serve children with disabilities,” Lee recalls. “We also implemented an entrepreneurial program for women that has become a critical voice for women’s inclusion in the labor market, while also empowering local businesswomen and equipping them with the skills to succeed.”

On September 1, 2019, Category 5 Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas, causing widespread devastation and leaving thousands displaced and destroying critical infrastructure. Within days, CORE deployed an emergency response team to provide immediate relief to the most vulnerable communities.

“Our first task was ensuring the health and safety of Bahamians. In partnership with the Municipality of San Juan, we deployed a mobile health unit, many of whom had first-hand experience responding to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. CORE’s mobile medical clinic provided hard-hit communities access to emergency care immediately following Hurricane Dorian, and our team of experienced doctors and nurses from the Municipality of San Juan were able to treat difficult-to-reach patients in the field, who otherwise would not have received critical care. With a focus on children and seniors, especially vulnerable populations, our mobile clinic treated conditions from trauma and dehydration to broken bones and infections.”

After the initial stages of immediate relief, CORE has developed programs ranging from rebuilding communities demolished to offering psychosocial support to those impacted.

These efforts are driven by local community members hired to ensure their initiatives are reflective of the community.

In March 2020, as COVID-19 cases surged across the country, CORE stepped up, immediately calling on every community to join together in a coordinated commitment to masking, distancing, testing, tracing, and quarantining in order to save lives.

Over the summer of 2020, they developed CORE 8, a list of simple guidelines (four for civilians and four for governments) to work together and ensure that everyone was doing their part to stop the spread—from increased testing capacity to public education on the government side, and self-isolation and accurate information sharing on the civilian side.

On CORE’s end, this involved COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution plans that ensured the safety of high-risk, low-income communities, as well as communities of color. Without federal funding, these programs were possible thanks to CORE’s longtime philanthropic partners, private organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, and other humanitarian organizations. CORE also helped supply PPE, emergency medicine, and funded food programs.

In a critical time, these efforts made an incredible impact. Under the combined leadership of Ann Lee and Sean Penn, CORE administered millions of free tests and vaccines, focusing their efforts on the most vulnerable communities across the United States, including the Navajo Nation.

In 2021, CORE broadened its focus to have an international scope by serving the urgent need to support vulnerable groups in Brazil and India, and expanded relief efforts in Haiti to include a critical vaccination program.

In addition, CORE continues to support recovery efforts for the most affected communities in Haiti following the most recent earthquake, and in New Orleans after Hurricane Ida.

Hurricane Ida made landfall as one of the strongest storms in U.S. history, striking Baton Rouge and New Orleans on August 29, 2021, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The storm caused major damage and flooding, leaving as many as one million households stranded without power. With the help of local partners, CORE was able to provide emergency shelter solutions, roof repair and tarping, water and other essential resources for those staying in collective centers. With local hospitals already at limited capacity due to the recent COVID-19 surge, CORE focused on providing immediate solutions to hard-hit communities to allow them to stay in their homes.

Similarly, CORE’s teams responded rapidly in the hardest-hit areas of Grand’Anse, Sud, and Nippes in Haiti to support rescue operations, emergency medical services, provide essential resources, and address the critical need for emergency shelter amid tropical storms following the most recent earthquake.

As the only organization on the ground with local Haitian leadership, CORE works with local and government partners to support the immediate and long-term needs of the Haitian people. As they have since the beginning of their work in Haiti, CORE began by supporting operations to clear the debris and remove the rubble.

Says Ann Lee, “It’s critical to clear rubble so that the rebuilding process can begin.”

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