Home People Profile Bham People How Yolanda Clayton Turned Pain of Son’s Death To Purpose For Others

How Yolanda Clayton Turned Pain of Son’s Death To Purpose For Others

By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For The Birmingham Times

Imagine the sorrow felt by a mother working to turn her slain son’s memory into a legacy by creating a foundation designed to combat the violence that claimed his life. It takes fortitude to turn pain into purpose, allowing your grief to become someone else’s saving grace, aid, recovery, or even rehabilitation.

Yolanda Clayton’s 25-year-old son, Ryan Clayton, was murdered a year ago, and she has since formed a foundation to help at-risk youth and young adults across Birmingham and throughout Jefferson County.

“[Gun violence] is a major issue,” said Clayton. “There’s going to be a deficit of males in a few years because young Black men ages 20 to 30 are being murdered [nearly] every day in this area. We’ve got to get a better handle on this, and it starts with the younger generation, making sure they have a better mentality and understand that life is precious and [they] can’t go around killing.”

Clayton, 46, is the founder and executive director of the Ryan’s Hope Foundation, an organization with a mission is to provide supportive services directed toward changing the trajectory of youth disproportionately affected by social and systemic inadequacies that can affect their ability to thrive.

“Our main issue is mental health. We’re going to find mental health services for these kids, [along with] other services. … From what I’ve researched, the Black community is lacking mental health services and resources, and there’s also a stigma [around] seeking out those resources,” said Clayton, adding that she believes it starts early, before children are labeled “bad” or “dysfunctional.”

“Teachers or parents basically put them in a corner and [sometimes] say they’re not going to behave, and that behavior continues to go on until something tragic happens,” Clayton said. “I think that with proper [evaluations] that help identify issues early on and make proper resources [available], we could stop some of these tragedies—and not just with our Black boys but everyone, young women included.”

A Call to Action

May 14, 2021, marks one year since the death of Clayton’s son, and the Ryan’s Hope Foundation will host a Call to Action event that will be livestreamed via Facebook Live; it will feature community leaders, teachers, ministers, and others, who will speak about Ryan and the need to save the lives of young people in Birmingham. The virtual gathering will also provide an opportunity for volunteers to join Ryan’s Hope, which will officially launch in August.

“We’re starting to host [events] now, so other organizations can know that we are here and will be able to start identifying resources for them, asking what they need. … We’ll be working with them as they need things [because] we want to change the outlook of our underserved youth by providing steppingstones to a prosperous future.”

Ryan’s Hope will work with mental health professionals that serve as a resource for other organizations: “I already have people in place for Ryan’s Hope who are ready to work,” said Clayton.

The foundation will also offer character development, mentoring, vocational, housing, and mental and physical health-and-wellness support, as well as Chef Ryan’s Academy for Culinary, a 12-week culinary training program.

Raised To Serve

Giving back was ingrained early in Clayton, who was born in Sumter, South Carolina, and raised on Nörvenich Air Base in Nörvenich, Germany, until age 13. In 1988, her family returned stateside and settled in the city of Sumiton, in Walker County, Alabama.

“I come from a family of service, work-wise and community-wise,” she said. “My father, [Jerry Clayton], was a Vietnam [War] vet, who served two tours as a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force, repairing planes and military vehicles in the motor pool sector. … [On the weekends], he would fix cars for people who couldn’t afford to pay him.”

Jerry Clayton died of heart disease at age 42, two years after the family settled in Alabama. But his wife, Yvette Clayton, never wavered on the principles of giving back that she and her husband shared.

“[My mother] ingrained helping others in my sister, Sotonya, and me. We just come from that type of background,” Yolanda Clayton said. “Whether it was taking food to someone who was less fortunate or donating our toys and clothes to those who needed it, we as a family have always reached out to the community.”

“Couldn’t Give Enough”

Clayton, who works as a nonprofit and government relations specialist, served as a member of student government at Samford University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, in addition to a registered nursing degree. After completing her studies, she embarked on a professional career helping people dealing with homelessness.

“I really saw the homeless community in need, and that’s where I began to do my own giving back. I worked for several nonprofits after that, including Grace House Ministries, which is a home for girls. Even though I worked there and dedicated my time, it felt like I just couldn’t give enough,” Clayton said. “I’d even take both of my children to the facility with me on the weekends. … I’ve been serving the Birmingham community for the last 20 years.”

Clayton, also mother to 16-year-old daughter, Avaya Clayton, who attends Ramsay High School, worked with Bethel Baptist Church in Pratt City as part of a mission group that served sack lunches to homeless people.

Family Activism

The Ryan’s Hope Foundation wouldn’t be the first time the Clayton family turned their pain into purpose.

In 2001, Clayton’s older sister, Sotonya, died of cervical cancer at age 30, and “my family wanted to figure out a way to serve others and the community,” Clayton said.

“After my sister passed away, we started serving meals to homeless people on the weekends,” she said. “My mother would do the cooking, and we would always try to serve something hearty: greens, corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, rice—a staple in my family because we’re from South Carolina. … We wanted to give them something that would stick to their ribs. We also gave them snacks to take with them for later, like cookies, juice, and chips.”

The family-led effort would go on for 13 years, until the city started requiring a $500 permit to feed people without housing.

“So, we changed to buying supplies, like blankets, socks, and things like that,” Clayton said. “We still do that now. [For] Easter, we gave COVID-19 supplies to homeless people. We also try to provide soap, socks, personal hygiene necessities, and blankets in the winter.”

Remembering Ryan

Reminiscing about those early years, Clayton recalls that Ryan was like a ray of sunshine and would tag along to do his share of the work.

“He brought joy to those that he came in contact with. He would help pass out the plates and silverware, and [people] always loved talking to Ryan. He did not meet a stranger,” Clayton said. “For some of those people who were down on their luck at the time, talking to a child who didn’t point and laugh or look down on them in judgement made them feel good.”

Like his mother and grandparents, the late Ryan was service-oriented and wanted the family to continue doing their part to help others through a nonprofit.

“My son, my mother, and I had talked about doing something more official with specific services for the community, as well continuing to feed [those dealing with homelessness]. We had identified a building with a restaurant inside, and Ryan had a vision for a culinary school,” said Clayton.

“He was going to get certified to teach, and those who came into the program and learned under him would also learn to serve [the homeless population],” she added. “It [would’ve been] a functioning restaurant, but in the back there would be a service where [homeless people] would be able to come to the restaurant and dine. … [He also planned] to deliver food to [homeless citizens].”

Ryan’s love for food and interest in the kitchen was a byproduct of his grandmothers, both of whom were great cooks. At the time of his death, he worked as a sous-chef at The Club, Birmingham’s premiere members-only supper club, and wanted his culinary program to be geared toward young men, ages 20 to 30.

“Chef Ryan’s Academy for Culinary is an apprenticeship that is 12 weeks long. … Once everything is approved, [participants] will finish the program fully certified,” Clayton said. “We’re working to partner with local restaurants and chefs who will be responsible for [teaching] these young folks. … We want to get our partners approved, so we can provide that certification. That was Ryan’s dream.”

The family was working to formalize the nonprofit on May 13, 2020, Clayton said: “I had sent an email to Ryan and my mother to finalize the plans for everything, and my son was killed the next day. He never got a chance to open the email. So, [we chose] the name Ryan’s Hope.”

Ryan’s Legacy

Ryan was a kid genius and academically gifted. In grade school, he tested on a collegiate reading level.

“Ryan was reading at age 2, [while he] was potty training. He was reading simple things at age 2 and 3. … By age 4, he had learned technical language because he wanted to be able to read his video games,” Clayton said.

Speaking of video games, Ryan had created one.

“He knew coding since the fifth grade. He took [a class for high school students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)] and created a video game called ‘Little Billie,’ which won the peer competition.”

Ryan attended both Tuskegee University, in Tuskegee, Alabama, and UAB, where he took general education courses before finding his way into a kitchen working at local restaurants—where he discovered that his passion for cooking went beyond the electric grill in his college dorm room.

Ryan was a lover of music, too.

“He actually made beats for people during high school, and he made music himself,” Clayton said. “He helped so many people that he knew learn how to create beats. … He had an acoustic guitar, a drum set, and an electric keyboard that he would use to create some of his beats.”

Ryan, who leaves behind a wife and stepdaughter, was beloved by his family and shared a special bond with his little sister, Avaya.

“He and his sister were very close; she looked up to him. … He took her to her fifth-grade dance. She loved hanging out with her big brother,” Clayton said. “Their last day together was four days before he was murdered. They had a whole day together. They went out and bought my Mother’s Day gift and spent time hanging out. He didn’t bring her back home until midnight, and I was about to fuss at him [but decided not to]. … Something in my spirit just said, ‘Let it go,’ and I was glad that I did.”

Ryan’s loss has left a void in the family, Clayton said.

“He lived with the purpose that God had actually put inside him. If God put it on his heart, he knew exactly what it was, he wasn’t going to fuss about it, and he was going to do it—the right way,” she said. “He lived every day as though it was his last, but he wasn’t a partier, he [preferred entertaining at home].”

Asked if Ryan would be proud of the re-envisioning of his family’s foundation, Clayton said with a laugh, “He would be proud of the purpose, but he probably wouldn’t like that it was named after him. He was shy and didn’t like the limelight on him, but he’d definitely appreciate the purpose of it.”

The Ryan’s Hope Foundation Call to Action event will be livestreamed via Facebook @Ryan’s Hope Foundation 205 at 6:30 p.m. on May 14. All are invited to visit the page and participate.