Through his Son of a Saint Foundation, Bivian “Sonny” Lee and other volunteers try to fill enormous gap left in the lives of many young boys in New Orleans
by Lyndon Jones
A web page on the Son of a Saint site doles out some staggering statistics:
• Eighty-five percent of youths in prisons grew up in fatherless homes
• Seventy-one percent of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes.
And then there is this—the likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father and triples if he lives in a neighborhood with a high concentration of single-parent families, according to researchers.
Those are just some of the sobering facts and figures that drove Bivian “Sonny” Lee III, 30, to start his Son of a Saint Foundation in 2011 t provide strong male role models for young Black males between the ages of nine and 13 whose fathers have either died or are incarcerated.
Lee is the son of the late Bivian Lee, a former NFL player who was a third-round draft choice by the New Orleans Saints after finishing his college career at Prairie View A & M. The elder Lee played cornerback for the Black and Gold from 1971 to 1975. And Lee, the youngest and only male in his family, knows firsthand what it’s like to not have a father present in the home.
“I was raised in a family of all women,” he says.
His father died at the age of 36 in 1984 from a heart condition when he was only three years old and left a huge void in his life, he says. Still, Lee was fortunate.
He had access to professionals to help him deal with anger issues stemming from the loss of his father; and thanks to extended male family members and community members, Lee had strong male role models in his life, he says, adding also that attending St. Augustine High School also gave him the opportunity to see positive Black male role models.
Not Just Playing Ball
Originally known as Son of a Saint Sports Foundation, Lee says the largely volunteer-based non-profit initially focused on sports as its primary way to reach fatherless boys. To be sure, participation in team sports can have a positive impact on child development that can be especially critical to redirecting the lives of at-risk youth. Still, Son of the Saint has expanded its focus beyond playing fields and basketball courts.
“We’re not an organization that’s heavy on staffing,” he says. “It’s really a lot of word of mouth and partnerships.”
Day-long educational and mentor sessions are held each week with participants, usually on a local college campus. The sessions—led by a cadre of volunteers—focus on everything from etiquette and time management to life-skills training and decision making, anger management, leadership, work ethic, civic responsibility, team work and critical thinking, according to the organization’s website.
In addition to broadening recreational access to sports like tennis and horse-back riding, Son of a Saint now also offers mental health services, group mentorship and exposes the boys to trips abroad and foreign language education.
“We’re not just throwing the football with our kids,” Lee says. “That’s why we took ‘sports’ out of the name, because there’s a lot more to what we do. We’d like to expand, maybe use our blueprint to go to Baton Rouge or Florida.”
But for now, Lee says the immediate goal is to continue to do more in New Orleans. And that means encouraging men to volunteer with Son of a Saint or other organizations as well as becoming more active in their immediate surroundings.
“It’s asking mentors to step up.”
Going into its third year, Son of a Saint actively seeks out about ten kids per year. The foundation currently serves 32 boys from the Greater New Orleans area whose fathers died—some killed on the streets of New Orleans—or are in prison for long terms that will effectively span the youth’s entire childhood.
The youth are expected to remain with the program until they receive a college acceptance letter, at which time they will transition into mentors, according to the website.
“Usually if there’s a murder in the community we get follow-up on what’s going on,” says Lee. “If there is a male child left behind between the ages of 9 and 13, we try to reach out to him. And they (the family and community members) reach out to us, as well.”
Lee knows how pervasive fatherlessness is and how it can negatively impact the life of a child in the city of New Orleans. At one time, he says, the focus was on young boys whose fathers weren’t around for non-specific reasons.
“But the problem with that is that there were just too many. We can’t take thousands of kids,” says Lee, but insists he is resolved his to do his part. “We’re very selective in who we take on. We want to take in kids who come from traumatic situations.”
Lee says his organization also focuses on those youth may be on the verge of venturing into hostile and criminal situations themselves. These, Lee says, are the priority.
“We want to end the cycle of violence around the kid’s life.”
Lee says he gives his kids a code of conduct.
“It’s a reminder how to live each day,” he says, adding that he is also seeing improvement in school among participants.
To further the goal of enhancing the lives of fatherless boys, Son of a Saint is hosting a fundraiser on the rooftop of the National Rice Mill Loft from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18. Tickets are $50 and include food and an open bar. NOCCA Jazz Trio and DJ Diagnosis will provide entertainment for the event.