By Kelsey Givens
Kayla Ball, an 18-year-old office assistant at the Nye County District Attorney’s Office, has a lot to be thankful for.
She’s young, hardworking, driven and has as bright a future in front of her as any vibrant young woman.
She graduated a year early from Pahrump Valley High School with a perfect grade point average. She has a good job. She’s pretty.
But Ball’s bright demeanor belies a struggle all too common in Pahrump.
At just 17 years old, Ball’s family left her — no support, no parents, just alone and fending for herself.
She became what is called an “unaccompanied youth,” a euphemism for abandoned teenagers living in that gray area between childhood and adulthood.
From trying to keep the power on to having to find innovative ways to feed herself and her two dogs, Ball has faced more than some adults do just to survive.
Linda Fitzgibbons, Nye County School District’s homeless and children in transition liaison, said one of the biggest hurdles in identifying youth living unaccompanied is that they are too scared to tell someone for fear of getting into trouble.
“Our goal from the school district’s point of view and from the law, is to make sure they stay in school, and do whatever we have to do to make sure they stay in school. Now as an unaccompanied youth, it’s scary, but that’s how Kayla and I got together was the fact that it came out,” she said.
If it had been up to Ball in those early days, no one would have found out that she was staying in her home by herself. She was determined to make it on her own.
“There had been an anonymous report that there may be a runaway student staying at her home. And there wasn’t, but there was an anonymous tip by somebody and so we, of course, have to report anything like that when there’s been a runaway. So a sheriff’s deputy went out and that’s when everything was found out. She then came in so upset and was like, ‘I’m trying to do this all on my own … and nobody knew,’” said Jen Shockley, Pahrump Valley High School’s registrar.
“And that’s how they found out I was on my own in my house,” Ball said. “When I went back to school, the school knew. I think they always had it in the back of their minds, but then that happened. It was one of those things where one thing led to the next and it all blew up.”
Ball said her mother left to help another family member in another state, believing Ball was old enough and independent enough to take care of herself.
“We get our 17- or 18-year-old students who the parents think can take care of themselves and so they leave,” Fitzgibbons said.
“And that’s exactly what my mom thought. I have an 18-year-old sister, and my mom went off to California to help her and she left me here, because she thought I’ve always been the independent one who could live on her own, so she left,” Ball said.
“I mean she helped my sister out and everything, and I’m not saying she’s a bad mom, but my whole family is addiction. I live in a family of addiction, and I guess my mom had to get out and she had to do what was best for her to move on with her life. … I mean if that was what she had to do, I just don’t agree with some of her decisions on how she had to leave her kids to be happy,” she added.
The school’s intervention couldn’t have come at a better time for Ball.
Even though she had been on her own for several months already, Ball was becoming angrier and angrier about her dire situation.
“I mean my car, I was driving around in an unregistered, uninsured car for about five months. Because I had no way to get to work, I had no way to do anything. And it was just so hard, like I was basically going through a phase where I didn’t want to go to school, everything was so hard to keep going,” she said.
And to add to the stresses of having to deal with her situation at home, Ball was diagnosed with a heart condition in 2008. Coupled with her family stress, this caused her to have to quit playing sports early in her high school career.
“I tried playing, and I had physicals done and stuff, and they said you can go out there and try, and I always tried, but it just got to be too much stress, and I think honestly, I could have continued playing, but they say stress is one of the biggest things on my condition. With the home issues and stuff, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.
But just when things seemed to be at their worst, Fitzgibbons and other members of the school district and community were able to step in and help Ball began to put the pieces of her life back together. A federal grant known as the McKinney-Vento Act helped them do it.
The grant helps schools like PVHS keep homeless or needy children not only in school, but to give them the ability to provide necessities they need to thrive.
“When she found out there were people out there who could help her, then it started making a really big difference. Every school has a homeless liaison, and in her particular case, in her case Jen Shockley, the registrar at the high school, she’s the one who was really able to get Kayla to sit down and tell her what was going on,” Fitzgibbons said.
The school district was able to provide Ball with not only supplies, but other things a senior in high school needs socially and emotionally, like tickets to the prom and her senior year book.
From there they got Ball set up on food stamps to help her get a steady source of food and Medicaid to help cover medical costs of her heart condition, which had been uninsured for some time.
“She was passing out in school,” Fitzgibbons said. “So we got that lined up and then Jen, she got her in touch with the resource officers and they made connections for her to help her with her power bill and car.”
It was a combination of many people all willing to find some way to help the young teen that helped Ball to get back on her feet.
“We always say it takes a village, and it took a village to get Kayla graduated,” Shockley said.
Even through all of the stress and having the school district and community find out about her secret, Ball continued to do well in the classroom, maintaining a 4.0 GPA.
She said her motivation to keep pushing came from not wanting to let anyone tell her she couldn’t accomplish something or have something she wanted.
“I relied on that motivation my whole life,” she said. “I’ve watched my whole family go through addiction, and I’ve seen what it does to people’s lives and I just knew I didn’t want to be like that. I cant. I just learned I don’t want to be like that. … there are decent people that will help you, especially if you’re young and you’re willing to be successful, you can find it; you’ve just got to keep going.”
Ball was eventually introduced to the NyE Communities Coalition’s Youth Workforce Program, where she was set up at the district attorney’s office with an internship-like position.
Kaylee Harker, a youth case manager with NyECC, said the grant-funded program, which helps youth get employment, said Ball excelled.
“She came in and told us about her situation and then we got her set up with an internship over at the District Attorney’s Office. … And she actually did really well, we lost her for a little bit because she was going through a lot of complications with her home situation, but she excelled greatly through the program,” she said. “She just kind of jumped on the train and took anything that came her way, any opportunity.”
Once her grant had run out, however, Ball, now more stable on her feet, decided to leave Pahrump and try to go to college in California with her sister.
But not even a week after moving, Ball was faced with more hardship when her car was stolen and she was forced to return to Pahrump.
“It was my sister’s roommate, who actually stole my car, and it overheated and he blew up the entire engine. … I had no car and I told her I can’t live there. I had to come back because this was the only place I could fix things, so I had a friend that towed my car back down here.”
Thanks to the connections she had made here in Pahrump, however, when a position opened up for an office assistant in the DA’s office, they asked for her to apply.
“The DA’s office contacted me and they said you know your work was awesome when you worked here, the minute you left we noticed a change and they wanted me to apply for the position, and that’s how I got my position back,” she said.
Though she still faces hard times, Ball said she knows that she is where she is today thanks to her perseverance and all of the wonderful help she received from her community.
“At first I didn’t want help. I didn’t want help, I was stubborn, I didn’t want people to know, and I was just hurting myself by doing that,” she said. “And then after asking for help, it really just helped me, it opened my eyes to something and helped me keep going. If I hadn’t asked for help I wouldn’t be where I am today… there really are people out there who want to help.”
For more information about the homeless and children in transition program or how to help, call the school district at 727-1875.