Broadening the Circle of Voices at the Table: Ryan Young’s Journey from Ukrainian Orphan to Arizona Activist

Thursday, March 3, 2022
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Phoenix College student Ryan Young was born in Mariupol, Ukraine, into extreme poverty. 
Today, he's a local activist who's working to illuminate the plight of his homeland.



Ryan Young and his older brother were placed in an orphanage when they were very young, where he dreamed of someday having a family. His dreams were vivid, and he recalls envisioning a single woman adopting him. When Ryan was six years old, he got word that his dream had come true; he and his brother were to be adopted by a young woman who had traveled to Ukraine many times between 2000 and 2008, trying to adopt. They were among the last children to be adopted before president Viktor Yushchenko changed Ukrainian international adoption laws.  Ryan and his brother were adopted by a Argentinian-American woman in Illinois, flying to the United States on Mother’s Day, 2008. The family eventually moved to California, and then to Arizona.

While his childhood in the US was better than it would have been in the Ukraine, it was not without hardships. The family struggled with housing and food security, and his mother struggled with mental health issues  Eventually, Ryan and his brother were sent to a boarding school back in Illinois. But, Ryan wanted to be in Arizona with his mother, and he ran away from the boarding school multiple times – attempting to reunite with his mom. Ryan was eager to reconnect with his adoptive mother, but her circumstances prevented Ryan from staying with her.  Ryan entered foster care in Arizona when he was 16 years old, and was in and out of various group and foster homes until he aged-out of foster care when he was 18.

In 2020, Ryan received his General Education Diploma (GED), and he signed up for a federally funded – state administered Voluntary Extended Foster Care Program with the Arizona Department of Child Safety – to receive support with educational and career goals. The program provides a monthly subsidy to secure housing and attend college. He is also supported by many mentors who helped him navigate complicated federal and state bureaucratic processes  His mentors from Arizona Friends of Foster Care Foundation helped him choose a school and apply for financial aid, and in 2020, Ryan enrolled at Phoenix College (PC) and received the prestigious Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholarship. He loves the campus, the professors, and the engagement with his fellow students. When the pandemic shifted all learning online, Ryan worried he would lose the sense of belonging and engagement that he found at PC. But, to his surprise, he enjoys learning online, and finds it freeing.

Now, he prefers taking classes online, and is currently enrolled in biology, victimology and crisis management, and introduction to social work. Ryan is on track to complete an associate of arts in political science at PC in 2023.



When he’s not doing school work, Ryan advocates fiercely to give children, youth, and families in foster care a voice. He is the co-chair of the Arizona Department of Child Safety's Citizens Review Panel aimed at improving outcomes for youth from foster care into successful transitions into adulthood, in addition to becoming the President to Arizona DCS Youth Empowerment Council where he hopes to increase youth and family participation in policies and practices impacting foster care in Arizona.  During the start of the pandemic, Ryan helped to mobilize a team of advocates across the country to prevent 18,000 older foster youth from being kicked out of the systems’ supports through advocacy efforts to extend the expiration of provisions in the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act, Division X of the Consolidated Appropriations Act; where Ryan was later awarded the Civic Leadership Medallion for his efforts from the Maricopa County Community Colleges District, in May 2021.

Later in 2021, Ryan was honored to receive the Angel’s in Adoption Award by the U.S. Senator Mark Kelly from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, for tirelessly advocating for foster youth across the country in need of safe, loving and nurturing families. Ryan will be recognized as a Champion for Child Well-Being, by the Arizona State University (ASU) Center for Child Well-Being, at the 4th annual national Children of Incarcerated Parents Conference.


Phoenix College Interim President Dr. Clyne Namuo with Ryan Young, 2021.



The crisis in Ukraine has brought a flood of emotions, and Ryan is hopeful that a peaceful resolution will be negotiated. Last week, as Ryan watched the invasion in Ukraine escalate, he felt compelled to put his advocacy skills to work supporting fellow Ukrainians. He joined hundreds of Arizonans in a march from the north Phoenix Ukrainian Cultural Center to Colter Park, showing solidarity with Ukraine, and support for its independence. Ryan worries for Ukrainians, because he knows too well how it feels to be voiceless, and to not have a seat at the table. Ryan is more committed than ever to his path, completing his degrees, and continuing to advocate for broadening the circle of voices at the table.


Ryan Young speaking to fellow activists at a Stand for Ukraine Rally.  Feb. 27; Ukrainian Cultural Center, North Phoenix.


Ryan plans to transfer to ASU to pursue a bachelor’s degree in public service and public policy, with an emphasis in social service delivery. One day, he hopes to run for elected office to help ensure young people, their families and marginalized communities have opportunities to speak about their lived-experiences at all levels of the decision-planning and making processes.


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