If You Love New Orleans, Invest In Its Future: Spotlight on Son of a Saint

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Bivian "Sonny" Lee III mentors at Son of a Saint

Erron Thomas & Veronika Lee

“If you love New Orleans, invest in its future” is the motto of the Son of a Saint organization—but it doesn’t mean what you think it does, according to William B. Jones, the nonprofit’s Community Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator. “A lot of times people hear the word ‘invest’ and think that means money — that’s not what it means. When we say it, we mean time.”

Jones adds, “We teach our boys the way to spell love is T I M E.”

A native of Milwaukee who has lived in D.C., New York, Texas, Maryland, Virginia and now, New Orleans, Jones explains that most of the boys in the Son of a Saint program are young boys in the city who don’t have access to resources and funds. 

“[For our volunteers and mentors], we just need your time. Our boys aren’t going to say it, but that’s what they want,” he says. 

The mentorship program gets its name from its founder and distinguished UNO Alumnus Bivian “Sonny” Lee III. Sonny started the organization in honor of his father, Bivian Lee, Jr., an NFL defensive back for the Saints who died at the age of 36 of a heart attack. As an adult, Sonny realized that the resources he had as a child such as access to psychiatrists who helped him with mental health issues, were not easily accessible to everyone. In 2011, he formed Son of a Saint to honor his late father and single mother. It was an organization that would “pay it forward” for fatherless young men in the New Orleans community. 

Jones’ role in the nonprofit involves connecting individuals in the city to youth who need guidance. The children in the program are fatherless – many with fathers who have been incarcerated, murdered or neglectful. Most of the boys in the program have experienced trauma in their young lives. 

William B. Jones, Community Outreach & Volunteer Coordinator

He describes the kind of experiences local mentors provide the boys. “There is a pilot mentor who wants to show what it means to be a pilot. One owns his own pest control company and wants to show the boys what it looks like to kill bugs under the house.” For Jones, the beauty of Son of a Saint is connecting boys with opportunities they might not have experienced in life otherwise. It’s evident to see that you don’t necessarily have to contribute financially. Simply devoting a certain amount of time doing something you enjoy doing can impact a child’s future. His eyes light up as he proudly states a fatherless young man who has been in the program has received a scholarship to West Point. “He came from the streets of New Orleans and now is going to West Point – his life has changed! He had to be resilient and have some trust in us and his mom in this whole process.”

While Will Jones is undoubtedly proud of participants who end up in college, he and the organization don’t feel college is the only opportunity for mentees. Through the immense exposure this program offers, its mentees are better equipped in making decisions with their life. It broadens horizons that otherwise they would never have known existed. 

“We push education and career development. It’s one way that can change your life. You have to continue to stay on the Straight and Narrow. The ages of 10-12 – It’s kind of an interception, the streets want you to go this way and we want you to go this way to have a successful productive life. If you stay in the program until you are 21 years old, it’s going to lead to a productive life. We have one of our boys working on the set of a Bryan Cranston [Walter White from AMC’s (‘Breaking Bad’)] production as an intern. Without this program, I don’t know if he would get this opportunity.” 

The program’s logic model

Some of the life-changing events Jones describes include a recent trip where 15 boys were sent to Ghana. Others have been horseback riding and some recently visited Microsoft offices to learn coding. “We want to put these kids in the mindset that you may be in this certain situation in life right now but you can change. Stay the course – stay with us and you will be resilient and have a successful life.”

Jones himself is a demonstration of resilience and hard work. After completing an undergraduate degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin, not far from his hometown, he moved to D.C. to spread his wings. His first job there was going door-to-door selling coupon books – which taught him about listening to people and learning about their experiences.

“I learned a lot about myself. You can’t always rely on mom and dad – you got to grow up [at some point.] People stay home for that safety net. You get into this cycle. Depending on what you are doing, you wonder if you are doing something positive with your life. [You must learn] to roll with the punches, learn how to make friends, network.”

William has a sink or swim mentality that has helped in his role. “A lot of our boys only know New Orleans. There are other things out there. You don’t need to be a product of things you have dealt with or are still dealing with. [These kids] think that because certain things happened to their parents, it will happen to them. There is much more than New Orleans. There’s nothing wrong with it, but spread your wings. You can always come back home if need be.”

Son of a Saint already enjoys a relationship with its founder’s alma mater. Boys in the program are tutored on UNO’s campus and also utilize the athletic facilities. When asked how UNO students can get involved in volunteering and mentoring, Jones says there are many ways the community can get involved. He adds that volunteer and partnership opportunities are not just for men. Son of a Saint hosts mixer events where potential volunteers can learn about ways to help, which include setting up for gala events and fundraisers, tutoring and more. 

“Whatever resources you have, you can share. Even just donating clothes or food – our boys need to eat. Clothes you ordered online that don’t fit? Give it to the boys. Hey, it’s not just about money but we will accept the funds!” he adds, with a laugh. 

Son of a Saint will hold its next volunteer mixer in April. Driftwood will share event details as the date approaches. For more information, visit sonofasaint.org.

Follow Son of a Saint on Instagram @sonofasaintorg

Sonny poses with UNO’s own President Nicklow at the Son of a Saint gala event