Meet the Lawyer and Former Teen Mom Who Never Said the Words “I Can’t”
On the outside, it looked as if Amanda Ray Jelks had nothing going for her. Raised in an impoverished East Chattanooga, Tennessee neighborhood by a single mom, Amanda was kicked out of her house when she became pregnant at age fourteen. Most members of her family wrote her off.
“I remember one family member, in particular, who said I was going to end up being one of ‘those girls,’ with three more children by the time I was 18 and living on welfare. That would be the extent of my life,” Jelks said in a 2011 interview with Chattanooga’s Times Free Press.
But Jelks had two things going for her that weren’t visible from the outside: an extremely intelligent brain, and a work ethic that literally would not quit. She also had the support of an aunt whom she moved in with. She had her son, Desmond, got a full-time job, and worked hard at school, graduating as the valedictorian of her class at age seventeen. Because she attended Middle College High School, she also got college credit for many of her high school classes, so after graduation, she was able to enter college as a junior.
Her hard work at school earned her several scholarships to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She also worked full time in addition to school to provide for herself and her son. “I had a HOPE Scholarship [in addition to working],” she told the Free Press about how she made it through those years on her own. “I also was given a scholarship by the Executive Women International, the Jean Bradford Memorial Scholarship. It was special. It was an extra dollar amount to pay rent, light bills, books or whatever I needed.”
Because of the college credit Amanda earned in high school and her strong work ethic, she graduated from UTC in just two-and-a-half years with her bachelor’s degree. She dreamed of going to law school, but says she wasn’t sure she could do it.
“The people in my family were still saying the same thing: ‘You’re smart but not that smart.’ Growing up in my household, it was a given you’d graduate from high school, but college was never discussed,” Jelks said. “I didn’t know a lawyer, I couldn’t afford to go to law school. I didn’t know they had scholarships for law school.”
Since she had lost so much time with her young son while pursuing her education, Jelks says she decided to take a year off school after her undergrad work was completed, and just work and be with her son.
“That year was solely Desmond’s time. He got to play football, I got him through kindergarten. But at some point it hit me that I wanted to go to law school. I started studying for the LSAT and filling out applications,” she recalled.
Once again Jelks’ hard work paid off: she was accepted to law school at the University of Memphis. She was awarded a full scholarship. After law school, she quickly got a job with Chattanooga firm Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, where she spent the first five years of her career. In 2015, she opened Jelks Law, her very own law firm in Chattanooga.
Not bad for a girl who was told she would never amount to anything.
Jelks says she knows that because she had to work so hard both at her jobs and in school when her son was young, she missed out on valuable time with him. But, she says, she hopes that he will look back at that time and see that she did it all for him, and use her as an example.
“Hopefully” she says, “when he grows up, he’ll never think about saying, ‘I can’t.’ “
Amanda certainly is glad that she never gave up and said “I can’t.” With hard work and community support, she rose above her circumstances, and now she inspires other to do the same as a motivational speaker. “Since 2001, I have given motivational talks to diverse audiences at schools, colleges, churches, and nonprofits to help individuals overcome tremendous odds to reach their maximum potential,” she says on her website. She’s also gives back to her community by serving on the Board of Directors for the City of Chattanooga’s Health, Educational and Housing Facility Board, Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute and the board for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, and well as on the advisory boards for the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of theChattanooga Chamber of Commerce, the MOMentum Network and the Educational Opportunity Center.
What Teen Moms Want You to Know
By Jenny Rapson for the Mustard Seed Foundation
Here at the Mustard Seed Foundation, supporting teen moms in foster care and their babies is our number one priority. Living with these remarkable young women day in and day out, we are regularly confronted with just how strong, amazing, and determined they are to raise their children and succeed in life. Yet, in our society, teenage mothers are often marginalized and looked down upon. Communicating the strengths of these young women while still maintaining their privacy can be a real struggle for those of us who know and love the Mustard Seed Foundation and the young women within its walls, and yet it’s vital that we do so.
Fortunately for us, a recent article from New York-based parental mental health non-profit Seleni features some wonderful quotes from teen moms who have succeeded beyond their teen and early motherhood years. These women sounded off about what teen moms want you and I to know—and their thoughts are pretty revealing. We hope you’ll take their words to heart when you’re thinking about our moms and babies, and what your donations to TMSF enable and empower them to do.
The author of Seleni’s article, Gloria Malone, was a teen mom herself. She says, “The huge focus on preventing teenage pregnancy has turned teen moms into cautionary tales and scapegoats when in reality we are women and mothers who need support and encouragement. We are often spoken about and condescended to, but we are rarely given the chance to speak for ourselves.”
Wanting to give a voice to young women who had walked the teen motherhood path as she had, Malone interviewed several American and British women who became parents in their teenage years. Here, she says, is what teen moms want you to know.
A mother is a mother
“I had kids in my teens, 20s, and 30s and can tell you there’s NO magic time in your life when you suddenly ‘get’ parenting,” says Lucy, now 34 and a mother of three. “It’s a seat-of-your-pants ride, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar.” Another young mom, Krystal Cisneros, adds, “Teen mothers and adult mothers have the same anxiety and nervousness all mothers do.”
Words hurt and help
When asked what she wished people would have said to her whens she was a pregnant teen, Kenya Golden says simply, “Don’t give up. You’re doing fine. To know you have someone in your corner and that they are supportive of you.” Kenya’s thoughts echo what we strive to do at TMSF, but sadly not all people give teen moms this support. When asked the opposite question, about what she wishes had not been said to her, 23-year-old Yumi, a Philadelphia moms, says she was given, “Condescending comments like, ‘It’s not as fun as it looked, huh?’ Or ‘I bet you wish you hadn’t done this.’ That didn’t help or empower me to be a better woman or mother. It just made me feel insecure and lonely.”
Society can help teen moms in simple ways
The moms Malone talked to wanted to emphasize that society can help teen moms first and foremost with their attitudes toward them. “Stop shaming us, “ says Kenya Golden. “All the blame is on [women]. Shaming us does not help anybody. It makes us more depressed and makes us less likely to talk to people about how we feel.”
“Help them instead of bashing them [teen moms],” adds Krystal Cisneros. “We just need a support system.”
Support comes in many forms
The teen moms were also adamant that a support system is vital for their success, but that support doesn’t have to be extravagant. Once again, a little simple action goes a long way.
“Support comes in all forms: non-judgment and empathy from teachers and caretakers. Babysitting and encouragement is a form of support,” says Yasmin McMorrin, who became a mom at age 19.
Mariely Moronta-Santos adds that teen parents who are finishing their education need extra support to do so, and called for local governments to make it happen. “…this means our city setting funding aside for teen parents who are in school or on their way,” she says. Teen parents also want access to higher education. We need institutions to create spaces for us to access tutoring and childcare without judgment.”
Teen moms are capable
Finally, these now-adult teen moms want young women currently parenting in their teens to know that they can succeed. “You got this! Don’t listen to naysayers. Respect your kids as human beings too,” says Kenya Golden.
Teen moms need to take pride in their motherhood status, especially when things are hard, says mother of two Victoria Porto. “Patience is key when things get tough. Take a deep breath and look at your child. Realize you are everything to that child and you mean something.
Young mom Charlie sums it up best with her advice to current teen moms: your life is NOT over. “Being a mom is such a transformative experience. With support, you’re going to figure it out, and you’re going to thrive. You are not a cautionary tale. You are the head of a beautiful family.”
With all this wonderful insight from teen moms about what they want you to know, we hope you will feel equipped to encourage and support the teen moms in your life, as well as the ones we’re empowering here at TMSF. If you know a teen mom who could use an encouraging word or an hour of free babysitting, please reach out and make a difference.
Science Says: Mother-Baby Bonding Is the Best Medicine
By Jenny Rapson for The Mustard Seed Foundation of Dayton
All new moms want to do everything they can to keep their babies healthy, but often we don’t know what to do, so we follow our maternal instincts and baby care books and do, well, everything. We watch them like a hawk for signs of illness, make sure they’re always warm but not hot, and start reading to them before they can even smile. But according to a prominent endocrinologist and mind-body-wellness advocate Dr. Deepak Chopra, the strength of the emotional bond between a mother and a baby is more powerful than any other medical or physical precautions we can take for a baby’s health.
So what moms really need to do to keep babies healthy? Is CUDDLE them!
Mother-baby bonding is best.
That’s right: when moms and babies bond, the physical health of the baby is impacted just as much as the emotional health. That’s just one reason why our goal here at the Mustard Seed Foundation is to keep moms and babies together, not only giving babies a great start in life, but also ensuring their life-long health.
An article at Parenting.com adds plentiful scientific evidence to back up Dr. Chopra’s claims. “In one study from Ohio State University, “ says the article, “rabbits that were cuddled by researchers were protected against the artery-clogging effects of a high-cholesterol diet. The love and attention affected the rabbits’ hormone levels, the study authors concluded, helping them withstand heart disease.”
If a stranger cuddling a rabbit can have such a positive health impact, how much more can a mother cuddling her own infant add to her baby’s health? The implications are astounding.
The truth is, the evidence that keeping moms and babies together is best for both of them has been on the books for years. For instance, it’s long been known that when a newborn baby nurses, the “love hormone” oxytocin is released. It hits the ”reward center” of our mama brains and makes us feel good, while also making us crave more of that feeling that bonding brings. And you don’t have to breastfeed to get that “love hormone” goodness. Parenting says, “Simply gazing into your baby’s eyes while bottle-feeding or just snuggling or massaging also unleashes the feel-good hormones in both of you.”
Touch isn’t the only bonding sense our biology uses to cement the bond between mother and baby. Our sense of smell gets involved, too. Pheromones, the chemicals we excrete to attract a partner, are excreted by our babies, too, making moms likely to be enamored of their little ones and encouraging physical bonding via touch. And even though newborns can’t even see clearly when they’re born, they can almost instantly identify their mamas by scent, proving once again that moms and babies are simply meant for one another.
When it comes down to it, Francesca D’Amato, M.D., a behavioral neuroscientist in Rome and a prominent bonding researcher told Parenting, “The mother-child bond assures infant survival in terms of protection, nutrition, and care.”
Did you hear that? “The mother-child bond assures infant survival.”
That’s a pretty important reason to keep moms and babies together and bonding during those first few crucial months of life and beyond. But here’s another: Dr. Chopra says positive bonding experiences with a mother and baby can actually alter a child’s DNA to be more resistant to illness. “Immune cells have memory of experiences,” he says.
According to Parenting, what Dr. Chopra means is, that when a baby is born, he or she is a “disorganized bundle of nerves.” They’ve just been thrust out of the warm womb and don’t know what to do with themselves. Bright lights, hunger, having their diaper changed—everything freaks them out! Newborns are under stress and they need to be cuddled and soothed to alleviate this stress. Science tells us that when we’re stressed, our immunity goes down, and we’re more susceptible to sickness. Babies who are not snuggled, hugged and bonded with physically are constantly stressed. Their immune cells remember this stress and their immunity can be permanently affected, even into adulthood. People who have experienced childhood trauma have a 70 to 100 percent increased risk of developing certain autoimmune maladies like Graves’ disease, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Bottom line? Mother-baby bonding contributes more than any other factor the emotional and physical well-being of children throughout childhood and into adulthood. Let’s do our part to keep young moms and their sweet babies together—and therefore healthy in body and mind.
On behalf of our board of directors, staff and children, The Mustard Seed Foundation would like to give a huge THANK YOU to Parents Advancing Choice in Education for its dedicated commitment to our organization and the kids we serve. WE LOVE PACE & YOUR ANGEL, DARIA DILLARD STONE!!!
A HUGE Mustard Seed Foundation welcome to our newest board members: Dormetria Thompson/Community Activist and Volunteer, Denise Miles-Kitwana/Events Marketing Manager with Cox Media Group Ohio and Elizabeth Beemer/
Interim Director, Office of Students Activities at Wright State University. We thank you for your willingness to serve as an advocate for the young people in our care!