Alumni networks can make the world feel very small, especially when the network stems from a world-renowned university such as UW–Madison. Badgers Will Jones ’06 and Jesse Weber ’07 discovered this when they both ended up working at the New Orleans nonprofit Son of a Saint. Founded in 2011, Son of a Saint provides stable, holistic support to 170 boys in New Orleans who have lost their fathers. Ranging in age from about 10 to 18, boys in the program receive mental health counseling, educational guidance, 24/7 mentorship, fun new experiences, and lasting relationships. “If we’re not looking out for the next generation after us to have better experiences and be healthier,” Weber asks, “what are we doing?”
When Weber applied to be a volunteer with the organization, Jones – Son of a Saint’s community outreach and volunteer coordinator – ran a background check and saw right away that he had something in common with the new recruit. While Jones was earning his degree in journalism and mass communication at the UW, Weber was working on his education degree.
“I found out that he was a Badger, and I was happy because I’ve lived a lot of places, and I very rarely come across anybody that went to Wisconsin,” Jones says. “It’s never just someone randomly that I meet that went to Wisconsin, let alone being there the same time as me.”
Weber and Jones share a sense of adventure that helped lead them to New Orleans, despite both men being Midwesterners. Jones grew up in Milwaukee, attended UW–Madison, and lived in Washington, DC; Texas; and New York before settling in New Orleans. Throughout his travels, he further developed his love of sports and working with kids. In New York, he earned his master’s degree at St. John’s College and then embarked on a career in higher education and athletics.
Jones first encountered Son of a Saint while working as the assistant athletic director at Dillard University in New Orleans, when a representative came to speak with his student-athletes about volunteering and mentoring boys in the program. This interaction ultimately led Jones to join the organization as an employee because he was so passionate about the mission.
Weber is originally from Owatonna, Minnesota. Like Jones, he chose to venture out of the Midwest after graduating from the UW. Inspired by an undergraduate service trip to Biloxi, Mississippi, Weber returned south to work with Hands On Gulf Coast as a youth outreach coordinator. Weber didn’t want to head back home before living in nearby New Orleans, so he took a teaching position in the Big Easy. One of his former coworkers reached out to ask him if he could tutor a boy in the Son of a Saint program.
Weber took on the extra responsibilities, adding to his full-time teaching position throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. After a year of juggling difficult teaching circumstances and one-on-one tutoring, he felt he could be more effective working full time at Son of a Saint. He is now the education career coordinator, supporting and shepherding young men through the New Orleans education system and helping them prepare for college and the workforce.
At Son of a Saint, Jones doesn’t just recruit and vet new mentors and volunteers. He also works with community members, leaders, and businesses in New Orleans to give the boys in the Son of a Saint program the best resources possible, whether it’s counseling, new experiences, or mentors willing to give their time and attention to boys facing serious challenges. These obstacles include homelife issues and also broader community challenges, including socioeconomic inequities, the COVID-19 pandemic, and natural disasters. Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans hard in late August, displacing many of the Son of a Saint boys, as well as its workers and volunteers. The organization did not stop serving the community, however, and it continues to raise Hurricane Ida relief funds and use whatever resources it has to provide emergency support to participants and their families.
Both Jones and Weber cite the UW as influential in their desire to serve others. As an undergrad, Weber was a Big Brother, house fellow, and hurricane relief volunteer. One of his professors helped him conclude that actions say something. “I knew the type of life I wanted to have,” he says, “one that was going to be a life of service.”
Jones was a counselor for the UW’s Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) and a member of the UW track team, while also taking part in many other campus clubs. He believes those extracurricular activities helped shape his career. “Being in the athletic department was like its own family, and I feel like I developed some leadership qualities there,” he says. “And I knew I just wanted to help people in some form or fashion.”
If you want to share in the philanthropic Badger spirit, Son of a Saint has a variety of ways to support the organization, whether through financial donations, partnerships, or even volunteering your expertise for a lecture.
This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Badger Vibes. Learn more about this monthly email newsletter from WAA, and sign up for the mailing list.