When family-related tragedy, like the unexpected death of a parent, strikes a child at a young age, the road to a healthy, happy adolescence and future adult success becomes that much more difficult to navigate — mentally, emotionally and beyond.
For Son of a Saint founder Bivian “Sonny” Lee III, those struggles hit close to home. Lee’s father, Bivian Lee, Jr., was an NFL defensive back for the New Orleans Saints in the early 1970s who died tragically from an enlarged heart at age 36. “I grew up in New Orleans East. My father passed when I was three years old. He died in front of me — he took his last breath in front of me. It’s impactful for me just remembering that. Also, I grew up with a lot of women in my family, but not many males at all.”
The lasting influence of his father’s death at such a young age eventually led Lee to dedicate his life to young men in similar situations. In 2011, he founded Son of a Saint: a mentorship, emotional support and life skills program for young boys in New Orleans who are fatherless due to death, abandonment or incarceration.
It’s often said that the best kinds of leaders and positive role models have a personal connection to, and deep understanding of, the communities and issues they’re trying to tackle. There is, perhaps, no better example of this than Lee.
“Growing up, I had a very loving environment. But I didn’t go fishing. I didn’t know what the tools were at Home Depot, so I didn’t build things. I didn’t do some of those guy things. Even when it came to my confidence; there was a lack of confidence, I think, on my part. I also had some challenges in middle school navigating anger.”
After graduating from St. Augustine High School and the University of New Orleans, Lee worked for the New Orleans Zephyrs and, eventually, as chief aide to the late owner of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Benson. “My experiences traveling with him, it was everything you can imagine: first class, private jets, yachts — everything. It was Mr. and Mrs. Benson and me, 12 to 16 hours a day. When we would travel it would be for months at a time if we were going somewhere. I was trusted. I really learned a lot through just people-watching more than anything, but obviously communicating, too — interacting with people.”
Eventually, though, a story in the newspaper inspired him to take a gigantic leap of faith. “I saw [in the newspaper] that there had been a murder: One boy murdered another boy. And the thing that boy and I had in common is that we didn’t have our fathers. So, I said, ‘How can I give back? What was the difference between his life and my life?’ Obviously, the trauma of my dad dying in front of me could have steered me the wrong way, but my family kept me on the right track. I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I just give everything my mom gave to me, to others? Why don’t I just create that for boys on the preventive side?’”
Son of a Saint selects a group of boys ages 10-13 to join the program every year, with each Son of a Saint mentee official remaining in the program until he is 18. “A lot of people focus on kids after they commit crimes and after they do bad things. I was like, well, if [we focused on them] before — when they’re 10 or so, before they get in the system — we could prevent that. It makes sense,” he says. “And for the results that we wanted to have, our program had to be long-term. It had to be very intentional. Really, once they’re in [Son of a Saint] at 10, it’s like a family, so you never really leave the family.”
Lee found his first group of Son of a Saint mentees through coaches and school connections, and quickly immersed himself in doing everything in his power to better their lives. “We just started plugging away on activities with the boys. I was pretty much doing everything that I could outside of just mentorship, even taking them to and from places. I was picking boys up. I was going to their schools and talking to their teachers. If there was a conduct issue, I was there. I was there if they needed a pair of shoes or book backpack or something for school. I was there if they needed mental health services — I tried to coordinate that with them. For all of those things, I was just doing it. And we slowly started to see success.”
Lee ran Son of a Saint as a volunteer organization for the first three years, coordinating mentors, mentees and everything in between practically single-handedly. “It was a lot of work in the beginning, but I knew it was special,” he says with great modesty. When he was finally able to make it his full-time job, the organization took off exponentially: Lee hired his first full-time staff member in 2016, and now nine employees — including a mental health specialist, case worker and education coordinator — are working to better the lives of New Orleans’ fatherless boys.
Son of a Saint prides itself on creating lasting, meaningful relationships among everyone in the program, from strong connections between mentors and mentees, to the bond developed between the boys themselves. “I participated in [a different mentoring program] while I was working with the Saints. The people from the program came to my house, and they asked me some questions that were just on paper. Then they immediately connected me with a boy who lived across town, but he had no interest in sports. I said, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Saints game! Let’s go meet the players!’ But he had no interest. And I was like, ‘Why would they just pair me with a boy on paper?’ That didn’t really work.”
This experience stuck with Lee, who makes sure that his mentor-mentee relationships aren’t built on an arbitrary, on-paper checklist, but instead on spending time together in real life. “For us, we have a mentor ‘in training’ for three months. Mentors come in and come to our group activities. We don’t just pair them with a boy. We let those relationships happen organically, as opposed to just kind of, ‘Here’s a boy! Bye!’ The whole program has really been therapy for me.”
Son of a Saint’s long-term, holistic approach to mentorship is not only unique among mentorship programs in New Orleans, but across the nation. Each Son of a Saint mentee participates in at least one recreational activity a week, and is required to complete at least eight hours of community service per month. What’s more, there are more than 20 group mentoring classes offered monthly, along with tutoring, behavioral health counseling and tuition assistance for those in need of such services.
And out of all the activities — from sports, to horseback riding, to fishing, yoga, music, chess and the arts — offered to the boys, Lee says that traveling and community service are what make for the most talked-about experiences. “If you were to ask 100 boys — we have 100 boys — if you were to ask all of them what’s the most memorable thing, it’s travel. Whether it’s going to the beach, or New York City, or going to camp. It’s usually a travel experience.”
Lee, of course, also continues to lead by example. He recently went fishing with a board member who he considers a mentor for the first time. “It goes to show you, like I’m almost 38 now, and I have my mentors. I have people that I look up to,” he laughs. “It was a thrill. I’ve been trying to catch that fish for 35 years.”
“With these boys, I think the biggest part of this is, because I’ve gone through it as an adolescent, it’s almost like a proven method. With Son of a Saint, it was like, ‘I know these things are going to work, because I’m a product of it, and I know what worked for me. I know what these boys are looking for and what they need.’ To this day, that’s actually been true.”