These folks are transforming the future of New Orleans, one child at a time

Reckon is collaborating with KMSG and Candid, two groups that consult with non-profits, to profile some of the challenges facing philanthropic organizations across the country. Read more about this series here.

Since Son of a Saint’s founding, Bivian “Sonny” Lee III and his team have been on a mission to make a positive impact in the lives of fatherless boys in New Orleans. In 1984, when Sonny was three, his father, Bivian Lee II, died of a heart attack. Prior to his death, he had played for the New Orleans Saints football team from 1971 to 1975. Sonny’s experience growing up without a father inspired him to establish a nonprofit organization that provides mentorship, support and an array of resources to young boys in the New Orleans community. As the organization celebrates its 12th anniversary, Reckon and KMSG spoke with Sonny, Creative Director Elliot Hutchinson, and Grants Manager Bekah Cossaboom to hear their reflections and vision for the future of the organization and the young boys and men they serve.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: What inspired you to start Son of a Saint?

Sonny: I was inspired to start Son of a Saint because I was like one of the boys that we have in our program. I lost my father at an early age. So did a lot of our boys. When I say lost, I mean a loss to death or violence, but some [lose their fathers] to long term incarceration. I think the difference was that I had a very loving family that [came] with all the resources I needed to be successful. I wasn’t necessarily worried about my safety, and education was preached to me as an expectation. I had a ton of recreational opportunities. I got to travel. And mental health services were available to me. In my twenties, I did a lot of traveling and worked for the Saints and also in the jazz space. When I turned 29, I was like, “Well, I want to be able to help support some boys that were in similar situations,” and I felt [Son of a Saint] could be the bridge between folks who wanted to give and provide support to boys in need [but] didn’t have connections to kids in the community. Interestingly enough, I didn’t have connections to boys at the time. I went to the park and tapped the coach on the shoulder and I said, “Hey, do you have some boys that need mentors?” He grabbed five kids and that’s how we started the program.

Reckon: What were some challenges faced when creating the organization in terms of development and scaling?

Sonny: I didn’t have a clear vision as far as how to operationalize all of this; I just knew I wanted to help and support kids. I remember at our first board meeting, I thought it was going to be us providing recreational equipment to boys who didn’t have their fathers [in order] to relieve some of the financial burden from the mom or guardian. When I went into the first board meeting, [a board member] said, “Sonny, you’ve got to do much more than this. This is great, but your story is larger than this.” They explained that I had to identify the logic model of the mentorship, the travel, the education and all the resources and touch points. I knew it was going to be life-changing for me, because I was going to have to actually do all this stuff as opposed to [just] going to people and asking them to write a check for cleats or an instrument.

Reckon: What were some of the obstacles you faced when trying to get your foot in the door to work with corporate partners or philanthropic funders? What challenges do you still encounter today?

Sonny: Initially, it was about reaching out to the people I knew for funding. [Then,] I saw what other organizations were doing or who they were connected to, and I swung for the fences and tried to get funding from them, too. Now, the challenge is educating and correcting pre-existing assumptions from partners who mean well and want to help. I’ve had partners call after meeting one of our mentees who showed up on time, were well-dressed and have good presentation or conversational skills, and they’ll say to me, “I thought your boys were troubled!” I then have to explain to them that we’ve done a lot of work with these boys and young men, and just because he may look like he’s put together, there are other challenges that he and others face, from mental health issues to other barriers we have to work through. A boy that may look like he’s put together could shift and hang out with the wrong crowd and do the wrong thing. So early on in our partnerships, there’s a lot of education and explanation of the process. If someone is expecting the stereotypical “troubled boy,” they may not connect with the boys that we serve.

Bekah: This rings true in a lot of ways, especially in terms of applying for grants. To qualify for some grants, it’s almost as though we’re asked to typecast our boys. A program like ours is a holistic and long term approach to help guide youth. But we’re expected to give a dollar amount for each mentee, which is hard to do because we’re offering 24/7 wrap-around case management and mental health services. If a boy has a meeting at school, his case manager, his education specialist and his mental health specialist are going to that meeting to advocate for him and understand what issues are at hand. And sometimes the support needed is a long term care mentor, which is the lifeblood, and the crux of what we do, and this type of work is hard to put neatly in a box.

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Reckon: Expanding on what you just shared, which I think is a really interesting and important element within your approach, can you speak more about the assumptions made about Son of a Saint?

Bekah: Grant reporting for our program doesn’t always fit into [a foundation or donor’s] parameters. People want quantifiable numbers, such as the number of meals given out during our after school program, and they assume the problem is solved if boys were in the building from 5-7 PM, after school and off the street. In reality, the boys still have very complex lives that require comprehensive support, and that can’t be simplified or reduced down to a single number in a grant progress report or annual impact document.

Reckon: The thing about a lot of philanthropy, and its metrics, is that it reinforces that classic Victorian idea of poverty and charity. It makes people who work in these areas want to be like, “This isn’t Oliver Twist,” right? But that’s what a lot of early-stage funders imagine. Even in classic philanthropy, the ask is for a one-page infographic showing what X dollars will buy the organization. But for Son of a Saint, someone’s individual story will never be condensable into an infographic. How do you convey to people what you’re really addressing and working to achieve?

Sonny: There’s a formula to what we do, and I don’t think people always see it or they don’t fully understand all of the sweat and time that goes into realizing our vision. And sure, not everybody will get the big picture, but in response to that, we ask that people trust our process and long-term value instead of just saying, “Everything looks good and y’all are getting results, but the cost of this program is just too high.”

Elliot: People don’t fully relate to or understand the issues faced by our young boys and their communities. In 2020, with the murder of George Floyd and the conversation on racial reckoning, it didn’t resonate with people until it hit them in their backyard. Once it did, they couldn’t look away – and they have a vested interest in finding a solution. At that point, Son of a Saint was going into our 10th year, so it was kind of like, “Thank you for stepping into our house, but we have been here doing the work that goes into solving these problems for quite a while now.” I think the same thing is happening now in New Orleans; we’re having this perceived rise in crime, so everyone’s focus is on what crime prevention looks like. They’ll look at us and say our model is great because it’s working to prevent the school to prison pipeline and giving kids a positive outlet at the same time. And even though that’s great, we’ve been doing this for more than a decade.

Reckon: You’re all clearly tapped into the needs of the people you serve and how to provide appropriate services in order to deliver for the community. I’m wondering what you hear from either the boys in your programs and their moms or guardians, as being the most beneficial aspect of Son of a Saint?

Bekah: I think that it’s the network of support that exists in everything we do and it works like a web. And this web consists of a range of people that interact with each mentee and boy in our programs during different parts of the day and in different settings. So there is a continuous presence of support and communication between success coaches, mental health professionals, case managers, the recreation enrichment team and the moms or guardians. A mom can go to the case manager and say, “He’s coming home from school, and he’s really sullen,” or if this is brought up in a school meeting and the success coach shares this concern the clinical social worker can step in and assist, there’s a ripple effect within the web of support that keeps everyone in the loop.

Sonny: Exactly. Moms and guardians know they can call us. If they have an issue, I feel like they trust us with it. It’s times like during Hurricane Ida, we support them with relief and we’re able to give them a check to support them get what they need. During the holidays, we have toys here when a mom needs support picking out a gift. Or, if there’s an internship opportunity that they see as a good avenue for their son to apply for, we will support them in that process. One of our recent graduates was here on a Saturday and was talking with one of the recreational team members about getting a real estate license. To know that this staff member was here on a Saturday morning, when he didn’t have to be, and hearing them explain the steps for obtaining this license and talking with the graduate about this opportunity and career path and how it could change his life and his family’s life, it was amazing. I wish everybody could see it. Whether this mentee ends up in real estate or not, who knows, but the fact that he wants to be there and is interested in talking about this is what matters. It’s hard to pinpoint one benefit, but generally it’s the mentorship and overall support system.

Reckon: From your experience, what do you think makes a good mentor?

Sonny: I think somebody that comes in understanding that it’s not about what he has to just give the child, but also comes in and asks, “What can we learn from each other?” I also think that consistency is important. Somebody who is available and that follows through. Mentors can’t tell the kids they’re going to do something and then not follow through with that; it can do more harm than good.

Elliot: To Sonny’s point, being a blank canvas and being willing to learn. The kids and mentors may have very different ways of life, backgrounds, upbringings and they may differ culturally. By understanding differences through listening and not steering all of your beliefs on the mentee there’s the opportunity where both can be learning from each other. It’s just about being good humans. So, a mentor needs to be able to come in and almost be as wide eyed and open minded as the kid.

Reckon: If you were to provide readers with a call to action, or if they were interested in getting involved, what would you share with them?

Bekah: We’ve struggled after the pandemic to recruit mentors. This January, we celebrated our 12th anniversary and now a large cohort of our first group of mentees are 18+ and not in our direct programming any more. They could be starting careers or going through new life stages that require new forms of mentorship. So, if people are interested in mentoring and sharing their career paths and connecting with mentees, the opportunity to do so is available. You don’t need to live in New Orleans; virtual connections can be made through phone calls, video, Zoom, and a bunch of other mediums now.

Sonny: Come learn about us, come to an event, reach out and come see if this is something you can see yourself being part of. There’s space for everyone at Son of a Saint. Because it’s a male mentor model, people assume women can’t be involved but there are so many avenues for volunteerism and other ways to join. There really is space for everyone, so that investment in New Orleans is investment in the future. That investment looks as creative as you need it to look, we would welcome you and we’ll find space for you.

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