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.