Philanthropic Faces: Bivian “Sonny” Lee III
For Sonny Lee, success isn’t just a goal, it’s a mission. It has to be when you start a nonprofit organization from the ground up and celebrate its 10th anniversary this month.
The organization is Son of a Saint, which offers a number of programs to help boys whose fathers are dead or incarcerated.
The roots of Son of a Saint are personal for Sonny. His father, Bivian Lee Jr., a cornerback for the New Orleans Saints from 1971 to 1975, died in 1984 at the age of 36. He left behind his wife, young daughter and son. Mentors, sports and counseling gave Sonny the right perspective, so he didn’t go down a destructive path.
And after working as Director of Operations for the New Orleans Zephyrs, Director of Programs for the New Orleans Jazz Institute and as Chief Aide to New Orleans Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson, Sonny realized it was time to give back, and he started Son of a Saint.
Through the years Sonny has been recognized for his work, and among his awards are: Gambit Weekly, 40 Under 40 (2011) and New Orleanian of the Year (2016); Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, Children’s Hero Award (2017); Adore “A-List” Honoree (2019); University of New Orleans Homer Hitt Alumnus of the Year (2018); Links, Inc. Crescent City Chapter, Champion of Change (2013); and New Orleans Magazine’s People to Watch (2014), to name a few.
How many years have you been with this organization? Ten years in this role and position.
Tell us what your organization does. Son of a Saint exists to transform the lives of fatherless boys through mentorship, emotional support, development of life skills, exposure to constructive experiences and formation of positive, lasting peer-to-peer relationships.
What have been the biggest, or most important, accomplishments while you’ve been with the organization? Son of a Saint’s biggest and most important accomplishment to date is our evolution and our effectiveness. Throughout this year, we’ve been celebrating a decade of impact, service and success for the young men in the program, their families and the community at large. By the end of this anniversary year, Son of a Saint will grow to reach 200 boys in the program, marking the largest membership of our organization to date. We also have measurable results to show that our wraparound approach is working. The real accomplishments are in our program stats and the performance of our young men. Our mentees are performing better than the average student in New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and the U.S. as a whole — from test scores to high school graduation rates, to college enrollment. This also includes 100 percent graduation rate and 80 percent college enrollment rate. One hundred percent of our young men in the program are either employed or attending school. Collectively, this remains our biggest source of pride.
What is something about your organization that people most likely don’t know? I think people may not understand the way in which our organization operations in terms of size, scale and scope relative to the New Orleans market and business community. For example, in the past 10 years, our staff has expanded from two individuals to a collective team of 25 staff and more than 150 volunteer male mentors. We also have an operating budget of $3.4 million to maintain the quality of services we provide to our young men.
Also, I continue to reemphasize how Son of a Saint is more than mentorship and that our organization is based on an eight-pronged logic model, inclusive of mentorship, group activities, mental health, educational support, case work, travel, college exploration and career development.
Is there a person that inspired you? Two people come to mind. Tom Benson: I saw the way he was able to move forward and succeed without seeming to have any barriers. That showed me how things can be done and how to open my mind to “limitless thinking” or envisioning success. Robert Fogarty: He was a young guy who started Evacuteer.org and went on to launch Dear World. He asked me to be among the first board members of his organization, and watching that process and how he approached it inspired me to forge my own path and begin in the moment.
What moments, movies or books have changed your life? Being hired by Tom Benson as chief aide back in 2006. That was pivotal and changed everything for me. Being accepted to St. Augustine High School during my adolescence provided strong role models, guidance, structure, etc. The birth of my son was another strong, impactful moment. The film Gladiator has always been an influential one for me.
What are you reading now? I’m reading a lot of research on astrology. This is because of my son. He’s so into astrology that it’s bringing me to a different space and awareness and level of interest, and how that applies to my life.
Secret ambition? Becoming an art curator.