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New Orleanian of the Year 2016: Sonny Lee

Son of a Saint

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All the hope symbolized by Son of a Saint can be seen in the eyes of the mothers applying to the program as they listen to founder Bivian "Sonny" Lee III. As they look at him, their eyes shine with admiration and expectation — seeing not just Lee himself, but the kind of man they hope their young boys will grow up to be.

  In 1984, Lee's father, 1970s-era New Orleans Saints cornerback Bivian Lee Jr., died of a heart attack at age 36, when Sonny was only 3. Though the child of an NFL player had more advantages than many boys in New Orleans without fathers in their lives, Lee still grew up struggling with anger, confidence issues and a lack of direction without a male role model to steer him.

  "When I was in seventh grade I got into a lot of trouble, a lot of fights," Lee says. "I had a lot of anger during that time. I didn't know where it came from. I didn't really have anybody I felt understood me."

  Ultimately, Lee graduated from the University of New Orleans, parlaying an internship with the New Orleans Zephyrs into a full-time job as the team's director of operations. From there, Saints owner Tom Benson hired him as his chief aide, a job that took Lee around the world from 2006 to 2009. Lee spent the next two years as programming director for the New Orleans Jazz Institute — then decided to leave the world of entertainment for a more personal mission, creating the Son of a Saint nonprofit to give the boys of New Orleans without fathers the male role model he never had.

  "I didn't know how I was going to make it," Lee says. "The first three years were a major struggle, but I knew I had to find my passion."

  The connections Lee had forged in his career helped launch the ambitious project. Its corporate partners include some of the city's largest organizations, and it enjoys support from the city's highest-profile entertainers — such as a recent benefit concert in Oakland, California by Solange Knowles.

  More important, however, Lee knew from Day One the kinds of support the boys needed in their lives. "I've lived it, so it's something I'm tapped into," Lee says. "I know from personal experience."

  Each year, Son of a Saint accepts 10 boys ages 10 to 13 who stay with the program through high school — currently a total of 43 boys, and 10 more will be added in 2017. Lee and his fellow mentors regularly join the boys in structured group activities with a range of goals. Some are purely entertainment, such as outings to Saints games or jazz concerts. More often, they aim to teach life skills — a mechanic might show them how to change engine oil in a car; they might learn elements of personal finance such as checkbook management and how to pay bills; or they might watch documentaries on social issues or visit potential workplaces. Occasionally, the activities inspire on a larger scale, such as a trip to Washington D.C.

  The boys also have regular appointments with a counselor — another resource Lee had as a child that many of the participants in his program ordinarily couldn't afford. Son of a Saint also has garnered scholarship support from several area private high schools and helps the boys find part-time jobs at partnered businesses such as Winn-Dixie, Pinkberry, local restaurants and others.

'You may say that everybody has the same opportunity. Yes, but for some it's a lot harder to see that.'Bivian "Sonny" Lee

  Lee takes the selection of each year's 10 boys (out of hundreds of applicants) as seriously as he does the activity planning. In the early days, lacking a father figure was the only criteria for entry, but Lee has narrowed his focus to children whose fathers have either died or are in prison for long terms. Many of the boys' fathers were murder victims.

  "There's really two types of boys in our program: 'college track' or 'prison track,'" Lee says. "That dynamic between them is beautiful, because they get stuff from each other."

  While helping individual boys is the primary mission of Son of a Saint, its larger goal is making an impact in New Orleans neighborhoods through the example set by the boys themselves. Five years after its founding, Son of a Saint this year has its first two graduates. Both are in college on scholarships, one studying accounting at Xavier University and the other in sports medicine at Southeastern Louisiana University.

  Part of addressing inequality, Lee says, is recognizing that some children are brought up to believe they have a right to "a seat at the table," while life often teaches the opposite. Son of a Saint aims to give boys the confidence to know they have the same rights as children born into other circumstances.

  "You may say that everybody has the same opportunity," Lee says. "Yes, but for some it's a lot harder to see that."

  Compared to his lofty ambitions for the boys in the program, Lee's goals for expanding Son of a Saint seem modest by comparison. He'd like a permanent home for the program beyond its current office space at UNO, ideally a clubhouse-type of environment with room for activities and perhaps a bunk room where boys could crash in case of emergencies. That happened recently when the brother of a young participant was shot and the youngster had nowhere to stay while his family was at the hospital. Lee also would like to hire a full-time case manager to keep an eye on the growing number of boys; the program's staff is only himself, two part-time employees and volunteers.

  This year will be a personal milestone for Lee. He will turn 36, and his son will turn 3 — the same ages he and his father were when his father died. Lee and his friend Steve Gleason — a former New Orleans Saint who contracted ALS and has become an ardent advocate for people with the disease — regularly talk about issues of mortality and fatherhood, Lee says. Those issues include planning videos of themselves talking to give their young children, or the importance of passing down personal items to their sons. (Lee wears an "11" ring that was his father's and bears his dad's jersey number with the Saints.)

  "I've realized this is just what I love to do," Lee said. "This is it. There's nothing greater for me."

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