Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy Graduate Ayla Lain

Christopher DeVargas

17-year-old Ayla Lain, who recently graduated top cadet in her class from the Nevada Army National Guard’s Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy, poses for a portrait at her home in Las Vegas Thursday June 27, 2024.

Ayla Lain struggled most of her life with abandonment by her parents, depression and medical issues before attempting suicide last year. She was just 16.

Then she discovered the Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy, a residential program for at-risk teens sponsored by the Nevada National Guard. It was there, in barracks outside of Elko, where she broke through to the other side of adversity, tragedy and pain.

“I was going down a very wrong path,” said Lain, a Las Vegas native who graduated from the program last month with the top Director’s Award for Excellence.

She said she was behind in school, drinking and abusing drugs. She was constantly angry. Last fall, she intentionally overdosed on pills, stopped breathing and nearly died. She was in a coma for days.

Lain said she didn’t know at the time that she loathed herself. But after a five-month stay in a psychiatric facility, then her semester at the academy, she honed her self-awareness.

“Ayla was enraged for years,” said her grandmother and guardian, Joy DePasquale. “Nothing I could do or say could make it any better.”

Lain said her parents were often absent, and when she did live with them, they were unfit. Her father was a violent drug addict and her biological mother and stepfather were abusive, she said. Additionally, she endured several surgeries as a child to correct a limb difference that required removing bone in one leg, which was three and a half inches longer than the other.

Although her grandmother chose to adopt her as an infant, they had a difficult relationship. Lain said she told her she hated her, even though she didn’t, because she needed to take her anger out on someone.

While detoxing in the mental health facility, she worked out a lot of her trauma, she said. When she got to the academy, she evolved into acceptance.

“I had a lot of time to self-reflect, and I realized things,” she said.

Lain and DePasquale share their deeply personal story because they want other people who are hurting to find solutions.

“Something definitely needed me to be here,” Lain said. “I think I found out why.”

That mission is to show that help is possible, she said, and that nobody is alone, even if they feel like it.

DePasquale first heard of the Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy, or BBYCA, during a conversation with a friend.

“I said, that’s for Ayla,” she said. “She will embrace that, or she will die.”

She embraced it.

Lain said she was conflicted when she first got to the academy. She was not used to structure. When staff yelled at her, she yelled back. But she said she didn’t want to go back to her old ways.

Later, a counselor at the program asked Lain to work with two fellow cadets who were struggling. DePasquale said this healthfully channeled her preference to be in control.

“It gave her a sense of herself and it gave her a sense of what she can accomplish,” she said.

DePasquale said her granddaughter was smart and capable, but Lain’s growth went beyond her expectations.

Eventually, Lain was named the cadet company commander and oversaw all her peers.

She also made up several missing high school credits and went from making D’s to A’s. She completed the program on June 14 and is on track to complete high school next year through Delta Online Academy. After that, she wants to travel the world, then attend college to pursue a childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian.

BBYCA Director André Ponder said Lain distinguished herself among this spring’s class, which graduated 45 cadets.

“Cadet Lain displayed the most personal growth this semester despite all of the barriers she had to overcome during her journey to self-improvement,” he said in a statement.

Potential cadets at BBYCA must be 16-18 years of age. They must be behind in academic credits, willing to be drug-free, and not be on parole or probation for, or indicted or charged, with a felony, nor convicted of a felony or any offense that would be a felony if charged as an adult. The program is voluntary.

BBYCA either directly awards a high school diploma or helps cadets return to their hometown schools. The program includes physical training and community service in addition to academics. Such youth academies operate under the auspices of the National Guard in 31 states.

“It’s for the people who are willing to work to change,” Lain said.

She worked for it.

Prospective cadets must attend a program presentation and participate in an interview before being considered for acceptance. For more information, visit

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