Son of a Saint
The Mission of Bivian "Sonny" Lee
By AnaMaria Bech
Click aqui para español- > Son of a Saint
Passion for the mission. That’s what you can get from Bivian “Sonny” Lee when he talks about Son of a Saint, the charity he founded in 2009. Currently, Son of a Saint is welcoming 30 boys who will be added to the growing family of 120 mentees served by the organization.
Growing up without a father is a challenge that thousands of children face, and it is one that is too familiar for Lee. Bivian Lewis Lee, Jr. was a professional football player who was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1971, and who passed away at the young age of 34 from an enlarged heart. His son, “Sonny,” had just turned three, yet he remembers the day vividly. “I remember a loud noise, walking down the stairs, my father gasping for air, and the chaos... [Son of a Saint] is all about helping the next generation, but it is also therapy for myself.”
Unlike Lee, the boys at Son of a Saint have lost their father to violence or due to incarceration. That is the criteria he had to establish to select a small group from the many children in New Orleans who are in need of guidance and of a father figure in their lives.
Lee grew up in a better environment than many who grow up without a father. He had a family who could provide a good education, access to extracurricular activities, a safe environment, a nice house, and a home family made up of mostly women. But even though he had more than many, losing his father left a big void in his life. “I didn’t go fishing growing up, I didn’t talk sports with my dad…Now I’m doing these things with the boys that probably would have had the same experience that I have had.”
From his mother he learned volunteerism. When he was young, he wanted to be a veterinarian and often volunteered at animal hospitals. He played baseball and tennis growing up, but never pursued a professional career in sports. His mother discouraged him because she knew that his father did not want him to experience the things he had as a black athlete back in the ‘70s.
However, Lee had a chance to work in sports. First for AAA baseball team, the New Orleans Zephyrs, and later as chief aide to Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans. He had access to many opportunities working closely with one of Louisiana’s most powerful men. Yet, he steered back to creating something that allowed him to help people and make a difference where it is truly needed. His foundation gives mentees opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, designed to open their eyes to experiences and possibilities they once believed out of their reach.
Son of a Saint has developed a holistic approach to address the needs of every one of their boys. Besides the support and 24/7 dedication of their mentors, mentees have access to behavioral health services, recreational activities, group and one-on-one mentorship, tutoring, and tuition assistance.
After covering the basic needs for mentees through Son of a Saint, Lee has found ways to partner with organizations that provide funding and life changing experiences for the mentees that allow them to explore an entire world of possibility. Their program offers travel abroad and service missions, a time for reflection for the boys. “Visiting other countries like Ghana last year and Costa Rica previously, allows them to see their privilege and to experience other things.” For these boys, flying for the first time is a way to understand there are people who do that on a regular basis, and Lee knows having that experience may encourage them to get a job that allows them to travel. “We don’t want to just help that boy a little bit. We want to help him, make him into a leader who helps others.”
Because the mentees have dealt with traumatic experiences, the counseling part of the program is essential. Lee’s mother made sure he saw a therapist every week to help him deal with anger and frustration as a teenager. He understands these issues were present in him because of the loss of his father. When talking about news and crime committed by young boys, his frustration is evident. “I can tell you that 99% of these boys don’t have fathers, or a good father figure at home. If I could have gotten to him when he was 10…I really feel that that would not happen to a boy, or the chances that it wouldn’t, would be greater.”
After the staff and volunteers at Son of a Saint, Lee believes the strongest asset is the logic model they have developed. This model demonstrates how each element of the program leads to specific outcomes that are identified in each stage of their lives. The boys start the program at 10 years of age and stay in the program until they are 21, making the program preventative. A connection remains while the boys are in college, and the hope is that most of them would return to volunteer and mentor.
As a father himself, Lee defines the success of the program through experiencing the positive development of the mentees and watching the boys grow in the right direction. Getting messages from the mentees like “Mr. Sonny. I don’t know where I’d be without you, without this program” means a lot. “They see Son of a Saint as family, as a support for them,” Lee proudly tells us, and the most rewarding thing for him is to see the boys smiling, even though he knows they are struggling with big problems at home. He shares the stories of Jahiem and Alejandro. “Jahiem lost his mother and was living with a family friend who had a drug problem. His two older brothers were in jail for life. We intercepted him at 9 years old, before he would head in the same direction. His father was killed in jail. He is a Junior in high school, looking at colleges right now. He will probably get a full-ride scholarship. He had nowhere to live and is now living with our project manager. The project manager and his wife are going to adopt him. We also have Alejandro. He struggled being the older boy to four siblings, his father was in jail. He went to UNO and is going to the Culinary Institute of New York. We identified that he liked to cook early on, and he is attending one of the best culinary schools in the country, if not the world. He is coming back to New Orleans and we are looking into the possibility of opening his restaurant.”
The growth of the organization is focused on reaching out and serving approximately 200 mentees at a time, to have all the resources needed to fill their unique needs. “To support a boy holistically is a 24-hour job. You are raising a child. At Son of a Saint we are almost adopting a kid.”
One of their short-term goals as an organization is to find an office space of their own. Lee would like to acquire a building that can host Son of a Saint and all its activities. Lee would also like to increase the diversity of his mentee base as well as that of the mentors. Mentors are males 21 and older who want to provide guidance. They must go through a background check and a training that lasts around four hours. After that they participate for three months in group mentor sessions, which serves as additional training, but it also allows the mentors to develop a rapport with the mentees and organically identify a good pairing.
Son of a Saint is always looking for support. Whether it is through mentorship, financial contributions, hosting training sessions, providing food donations for their activities, or buying their branded merch, support is always needed and welcomed. There are many ways men and women can get involved. You can always lend a helping hand, by contacting them directly and checking out sonofasaint.org
Photography: CBass Studios