The walls of the Audubon Aquarium of Americas rang with laughter as 9-year-old Kyzer Dunbar came face to face with King Mydas.
The huge, stately turtle reigns as undisputed ruler of the Gulf of Mexico exhibit, aquarium employees say. Flipping on his side, Mydas paused to stare up at his small, excited visitor before vanishing back down into the cool blue waters.
Kyzer’s smile lit up the room.
“He is so cool!” Kyzer laughed. “Look at all the big sharks!”
Kyzer, along with his brother Zander Dunbar, 11, Andrew Hightower, 12, Trey Hand, 13, and Cemon Anderson, 15, recently got a backstage tour of the aquarium as part of a new partnership between New Orleans’ Audubon Nature Institute with Son of a Saint.
The partnership gives fatherless boys a behind-the-scenes look at Audubon attractions such as the Aquarium of the Americas, the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium and the Audubon Zoo — and to meet potential mentors among Audubon’s animal care staff.
The first group of boys visited the insectarium last month led by Jayme Necaise, director of animal and visitor programs. This time the tour was led by Lance Ripley, the aquarium’s curator of life support and water quality.
During the tour, the boys saw the colossal 90,000-gallon water vaults, where the aquarium’s salt and fresh water supplies are managed; the aquarium kitchen, where food is prepped for all the aquarium denizens, from the tiniest of seahorses to largest of the sharks; and enjoyed a suddenly sopping wet visit to the stingray petting pool.
“Being able to have close encounters like these makes the experience more valuable for the boys,” explained Ripley. “By gauging what exhibit and what subject they find most interesting, you can potentially tap into something that they find exciting, which may be something that they haven’t explored before.”
Son of a Saint was founded in 2011 by Bivian “Sonny” Lee III in honor of his late father, former New Orleans Saints defensive back Bivian “Sonny” Lee Jr., who died in 1984 at 36 when his son was 3.
While Lee never knew his father, his mentors included his uncles and his friends’ fathers. That support during his formative years inspired Lee to found Son of a Saint, which offers that same support to boys who have no contact with their birth fathers, whether due to death, abandonment or incarceration.
Prior to founding Son of a Saint, Lee worked as chief aid to Tom Benson, director of operations for the New Orleans Zephyrs, and director of the New Orleans Jazz Institute.
He created Son of a Saint as a way to provide access to sports and sports equipment for underprivileged children, but the volunteer-based nonprofit‘s services and focus quickly expanded to include mental health services and enrichment programs, and mentorship.
“By giving them new experiences, we show them what is possible,” said Lee.
According to Lee, “providing consistent, positive messaging” gives the boys the tools they need to make positive decisions that will help them reach personal and career goals.
“We have a mixture of kids,” said Lee. “Where there are high crime levels, like we have in New Orleans, you absolutely need good mentorship. We have this thing in New Orleans where kids don’t know how to manage their anger and they make bad decisions. But making the right decision is No. 1, because a wrong decision can end your life before it even begins.”
Since 2011, the number of boys in Son of a Saint has grown from 10 to almost 50. The goal is to add 10 new boys every year, said Lee, who describes Son of a Saint as his life’s work.
Over the past couple of years the program has been focused on boys whose fathers died by violence.
“But, it goes deeper than that,” said Lee. “It’s about quality of life for the individual; seeing yourself five years from now, not just today, in this moment.”
The boys who visited the aquarium definitely had some thoughts about their futures.
Zander Dunbar wants to be a mathematical engineer, while Cemon Anderson plans to be a marine biologist, and Andrew Hightower wants to join law enforcement.
Partnering with Audubon, said Lee, allows them to see the dedication of Audubon staff, and their passion for their chosen careers
“The whole point is to show these boys both the diversity of life and the opportunities that are out there,” said Ripley, “And that they can make a choice on how they want to live their lives.”
More information on Son of a Saint is available at http://sonofasaint.org/