Mercy Home Alum Soars to Successful Future 

Mercy Home Alum Soars to Successful Future 

The Launch 

It is a cloudless July morning at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Pleasantries and anticipation hover like plumes of dust from the onlooking crowd at the launch site. The rising sun bathes the distant mountains in a warm, orange glow. Careful not to miss even a second, the murmuring crowd of engineers, technicians, media, spouses, and friends shield their eyes from the dawning light. 

On the runway before them, Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 spacecraft roars to life, echoing the voice of the future all the way to the nearby Rio Grande. 

Sidney Lee

Sidney Lee, Director of Quality at Virgin Galactic, feels the weight of this moment intensely. The quality and safety of the Unity was managed under his watchful eye for months. Out of habit, Sidney reaches up to adjust his glasses. But they are not there. His glasses are tucked safely in Unity’s cabin and are now ascending into the heavens. 

 “It’s crazy that a kid from the South Side of Chicago, who had no one to talk to about aerospace, would have the opportunity to send something to space and get it back,” Sidney said. 

Coming from a struggling community on Chicago’s South Side where opportunity was low and the threat of violence was high, Sidney knew that one bad decision could end his dreams, and even more grimly, his life. 

“There are very few that actually make it out. You could have 30 friends and look up and only five of them are left, and three of them are in jail. It’s rough. It only takes one wrong decision, one wrong move to end up in jail or killed,” he said. 

Still, it was the place where he nurtured his childhood dreams. Sidney often stood outside at night with his eyes fixated on the open, black sky. From worlds away, the bright, burning stars seemed to radiate awe and possibility. 

“Some nights I used to sit in the backyard and look up and wonder about the hidden questions,” he recalled. “Why am I here? Why was I chosen to be here at this moment?” 

At the launch site in New Mexico last year, Sidney had a feeling of thankfulness that soared like the Unity aircraft as it lifted off the runway, penetrated the clouds, and suspended briefly in space. 

 “It’s crazy that a kid from the South Side of Chicago, who had no one to talk to about aerospace, would have the opportunity to send something to space and get it back,”

The Lottery Ticket 

At 13, Sidney witnessed the murder of his brother’s best friend. The memory of that 15-year-old boy stays with him to this day. From that moment on, he knew the risks that existed just from living in his neighborhood. Routes home were carefully calculated. Certain areas were skirted altogether.  

At school, Sidney eyed the clock and perfected the art of leaving late enough to avoid trouble from his teachers but early enough to steer clear of trouble from kids who may be waiting for him after the final bell. 

At 17, Sidney found himself at a crossroads. The first road led to more of the same—a frightening yet predictable course that Sidney had spent his entire life navigating. But that road would only go so far. 

There was a second road with a far different destination. A social worker friend of Sidney’s father told the family about Mercy Home. And, after visiting, Sidney followed this road to Mercy Home’s front door. 

Though grateful for his new environment at Mercy Home, the transition was an uncomfortable adjustment. Sidney wasn’t used to the stability and safety that Mercy Home provided and was unsure of whether it would be the right fit for him. 

“When you’re from the South Side of Chicago, you don’t realize that anything is wrong because that is your normal habitat. So, it was hard to adjust at first,” Sidney said. “What really helped me was seeing other people like me that were having the same struggles and being able to talk about them.” 

By working hard with his therapist, counselors, and tutors, Sidney was able to develop key interpersonal and communication skills, become comfortable with vulnerability, and establish time management habits that helped him achieve his goals. At Mercy Home, Sidney harnessed an inner sense of courage that the South Side had given him to step up as a leader amongst his peers. 

“I knew how powerful it was to be able to lead people. And I saw that as a privilege with my brothers at Mercy Home.” 

Sidney recalled encouraging his found family to take full advantage of Mercy Home’s therapeutic and education programs and urging others to follow curfew and safety rules that he knew would benefit them in the long run. Sidney’s was motivated to use his time at our Home well by a deep awareness of the difficult realities of life in his old neighborhood. 

“At Mercy Home I was able to have a place where I could be clear-headed and not worry about the day-today struggles of living,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry about whether my route home would cost me my life. It was like I was finally able to take a breath and think about my future.” 

While Mercy Home is a comfortable and safe place, there is still work to be done. This takes place in one-on-one therapy sessions, intensive tutoring, and after-school programs before the night’s homework has even begun. Sidney and the young men living with him often found themselves in a sanctuary where the day’s responsibilities could be briefly forgotten on the basketball court. 

“For a kid like me, coming to Mercy Home is like holding a winning lottery ticket,”

Jim Marrese recalled working with Sidney years ago. 

“We’d spend hours in the gym playing basketball,” he said. “It helped to foster and build relationships. It was fantastic and it was positive.” 

Today, Jim works as the Director of Business Development and Strategic Initiatives at Mercy Home, but he fondly remembers his days working directly with our youth and the impact Sidney had on his peers. 

“Sidney was one of those kids to tell another kid to knock it off when things got too heated [on the court],” Jim said. 

Outside of basketball, Jim remembers the guidance Sidney offered the other young men in his program, particularly those who faced seemingly insurmountable difficulties. These ranged from those involved in drug use or gang activity to those wrestling with their identity as wards of the state. 

“There was a complex dynamic, but Sidney was able to navigate that and use his role as a leader to step up as a peer mentor,” Jim recalls. “But he also took care of what he needed to for himself.” 

“For a kid like me, coming to Mercy Home is like holding a winning lottery ticket,” Sidney said. 

The Hope of Tomorrow 

After leaving Mercy Home, Sidney used what he learned within our walls to grow as a student and as a leader. His education began with an associate degree, and his hunger to learn has continued to this day, as he is now pursuing his master’s degree in management. 

He is also now a proud father. With his wife and 12-year-old daughter, Sidney lives in Southern California—over 2,000 miles from Chicago’s skyline that once shimmered like a distant galaxy. Decades later, Sidney credits Mercy Home for his continued success. 

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without Mercy Home,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be in aerospace, and I was just so determined to reach my goals. And through Mercy Home, I was able to understand that anything is possible…I’m very proud to represent Mercy Home.” 

Beyond his professional responsibilities, Sidney is working to develop a podcast and mentorship program to expose underrepresented minority groups to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), especially aerospace. 

“People ask me all the time to do interviews, but I want to tell my story through mentorship,” Sidney explained. “We need to pass on knowledge to the next generation in order to be successful.” 

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without Mercy Home …I was just so determined to reach my goals. And through Mercy Home, I was able to understand that anything is possible…I’m very proud to represent Mercy Home.”

Tentatively calling his program Aerospace after Dark, Sidney hopes it will encourage diversity at the intersections of race and gender in the field of aerospace, allowing for greater confidence, resources, and opportunities for underrepresented minority groups. 

Despite his passion for distant worlds that exist between the stars, Sidney would like for his legacy to be visible here on the ground, not soaring 30,000 feet above it. 

“Giving back is my main purpose on this earth, as I have come to find out over the years.” Sidney said. “I want to tell people that it can be done.” 

The night the Unity aircraft returned to Earth, stars pierced through the twilight sky and hung delicately over the distant mountain ranges. 

Relieved and overjoyed, Sidney was able to retrieve his glasses and slip them over his nose before a company-wide celebration in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Quite literally, his vision and his ambition had broken the final frontier. 

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