In the U.S., 24 million children are being raised without fathers in the home. It's a trend blamed for many social ills, including increased poverty, incarceration and curtailed education. Eighty-five percent of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes.

It’s an issue in New Orleans that Bivian “Sonny” Lee III wanted to remediate, and it was the inspiration for the organization he founded in 2011 called Son of a Saint, providing young boys who had lost their fathers because of violence or incarceration with the emotional support they desperately needed.

“My father, who played for the New Orleans Saints along with Archie Manning, took his last breath when I was 3 years old when he died of a sudden heart attack,” Lee said. “Unlike a lot of these kids we’re now mentoring, I had a mom who kept me on the straight and narrow, but there was a void in my life. I didn’t go fishing; I didn’t know where the tools were in Home Depot. I was missing a role model.”

Lee had previously been the director of operations for the New Orleans Zephyrs and had served as chief aide to Gayle and Tom Benson. Determined to help those who were in much worse situations than he’d ever been in, he began small, by putting $100 into a bank account, and going in search of kids who needed mentors. Marquell Price was one of those kids back in 2011 who was first approached.

NO.sonofsaint.041619.03.JPG

Marquell Price laughs with Son of a Saint founder Sonny Lee as they play pool at the Icehouse in New Orleans, Monday, April 8, 2019.  

He’d been abandoned by his father at the age of 5, lived in a building where illegal substances were being sold at his doorstep, and where U.S. marshals had broken down his own apartment door, looking for a man his mom was dating. Drugs and violence were an integral part of his life.

“Sonny found me through my basketball coach,” Price recalled. “I didn’t trust him. I thought it was weird that some stranger was trying to help me. But we started texting and meeting up. He brought me to different events, and over time taught me how to be presentable, how to have goals, how to be a man.”

If this sounds simplistic, one only has to look at the kids coming out of the program and the transformations that have occurred. Inducting kids early on is key. To become a Son of a Saint, a boy must be between 10 and 13 years old when he enters the program.

It involves one-on-one mentorship that provides lifelines for the boys, gives them emotional support and helps them develop life skills. In exchange, the boys are expected to maintain a 2.8 GPA, complete four hours of community service each month and maintain good conduct everywhere. Meredith Clancy, social worker and staff case manager for Son of a Saint, said it’s a holistic approach to well-being.

“Many of these boys have experienced multiple traumas,” Clancy said. “That often manifests itself in anger, sadness, acting out and even suicidal ideations. As a case manager, I evaluate each boy and connect them to counseling, which teaches them anger management and coping skills, through our partnerships with the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans and Fleur de Lis. In conjunction with (Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response), workshops are provided for the boys and their mentors — all at no cost.”

Partnering is the operative word, as it takes a village to implement the necessary support for an organization that saves lives and then rebuilds them. Lee has enlisted everyone he knows to join in.

One of those fellow mentors is multiple Grammy winner and Oscar-nominated composer and musician Terence Blanchard. He feels that exposing these kids to events outside of their own experiences opens up possibilities they never dreamed of.

“I had written the score for the stage play of 'Bud, Not Buddy,' and invited the kids to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.,  to experience the performance firsthand," he said.

"The musical is based on a book about an orphaned African American boy who sets out to find his father. We got them the book so they could read the story beforehand. This was not only a play about them but a story created by a man who looked like them.

"Having role models is critical.”

As of 2018, part of the Son of a Saint experience involves cultural immersion in foreign lands. Last year, it was Costa Rica. But it wasn’t a beach trip. It involved learning about service to others and giving back. Price was a part of that trip.

“At first I was scared. I had never been away from my mom. After two days, I was loving it.

"We went to an orphanage, and I was seeing people with different skin complexions, who spoke a different language and were actually in worse circumstances than I’d ever been in. It was the most powerful thing that had ever happened to me in my life.

"I made a decision upon coming back that I would find old clothes and shoes that my friends and I had outgrown and send them to the orphanage there.”

Price, an artist who maintains a 3.64 GPA and works at Deanie’s Seafood, will be going to college in the fall to major in architecture and visual design. 

This year, with the help of No Barriers Youth, corporate and individual donors and AFAR Magazine, the Son of a Saint group will journey to Ghana, in West Africa.

“We believe travel is not about escaping but about enriching one’s life,” said Greg Sulllivan, co-founder with Joe Diaz of AFAR Magazine. “We’ve been planning experiential travel for people for years, but decided to start a nonprofit for kids who didn’t have the means to travel. We now raise funds to send 100 kids a year to do ecological cleanup, assist the elderly and immerse themselves in another culture.”

“Niney-one percent of our kids are black, so seeing Africa will be eye-opening, and I’ve never been,” Lee said. “But for most, everything is a revelation. Getting a passport, getting on a plane, experiencing TSA. … It’s all new.”

*****************************

Funds are still being raised for the Thanksgiving trip to Africa. Tickets to the benefit are on sale for the April 17 event held in partnership with the Audubon Nature Institute, taking place at the Audubon Zoo. The benefit features a Ghana-inspired menu and African entertainment.

For tickets, call (504) 561-7508, or go to sonofasaint.org, and click on Events.