You’re never going to amount to anything. You’re going to drop out of high school. You’re going to live on welfare.
These words, spoken to Amanda Jelks when she became pregnant at the age of 14, could have broken her spirit and condemned her to a life of indigence. But instead of allowing what others said to discourage her, she turned their words into the motivation she needed to build a better tomorrow for herself and the life growing inside of her.
“I couldn’t let those things happen to me,” the woman who was that girl says. “I couldn’t become that statistic.”
The odds seemed to be stacked against Jelks. Her parents were divorced, she was living with relatives, and she was growing up in impoverished East Chattanooga. But instead of allowing the cycle of poverty to swallow her whole, she set a course beyond her circumstances and went to work.
“I was determined to provide for my child, and to give him the things no one had been capable of giving me,” she says. “I wanted him to have a chance at life.”
Jelks took one step at a time, beginning with high school. She attended Middle College High School (now Collegiate High) at Chattanooga State Community College, where she earned both high school and college credit for every class she took. She excelled beyond everyone’s expectations, and in 2003, graduated valedictorian at the age of 17.
“No one I knew had done that while working and raising a three-year-old boy,” she says. “But even though I had graduated with honors, people started telling me, ‘OK, you’re smart, but you probably won’t be able to go to college.’”
More discouragement turned into motivation.
Entirely on the strength of her academic performance, Jelks secured a full scholarship at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She entered the school with 60 college credits (which put her in the junior class) and earned her bachelor’s degree in two years.
Jelks knew what she wanted to do next: go to law school. Her mother had planted the idea in her head when she was a child. “She said I should become a lawyer because I could argue with a stop sign and convince it it says ‘Go,’” she says, laughing.
Jelks also wanted to aim high in her quest to surmount the barriers placed around her, and to her, becoming a lawyer “seemed like the ultimate thing to do.”
“I was told there were things I would never be able to do because of where I was from and who my family was – or rather, who my family was not,” she says. “I was determined to overcome those limitations.”
Jelks had the resolve, but not the means, to go to law school. So when people once again told her she could go no farther, she found herself wondering if they were right.
I don’t know a lawyer. I can’t afford law school. There’s no law school in Chattanooga. How am I going to raise a child out of town?
“I was looking at how much law school cost and feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “And the things people were saying began to intimidate me for the first time.”
As uncertainty settled over Jelks, she put her plans on pause. She also devoted herself fully to her son. “It was a wonderful time,” she says, smiling at the memory. “I would come home from work, and the evening was all about him. If he wanted to play football, then he played football.”
As Jelks slowly rebuilt her faith in herself, she once again set her eyes on law school. She took the LSAT, applied to several institutions, and researched her financial options. Several schools accepted her, but the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis sweetened the pot with an 80 percent scholarship. When Jelks coupled this with a job as a teacher’s research assistant, she was able to attend law school without incurring any debt.
Blessings seemed to follow blessings in Jelks’ life. A year before she graduated, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel offered her a job, allowing her to complete law school without being concerned about whether or not she’d be able to find employment.
Then, at age 24, she graduated with her Juris Doctor.
I didn’t drop out of school. I’m not going to live on welfare. I’m going to be able to provide for my son.
The naysayers silenced, and her momentary fears relieved, Jelks went to work. Chambliss needed help with construction litigation, so that’s what she did, tackling her work with the same fervor she’d applied to every other challenge. She learned her area of the law well, but she didn’t get comfortable. She knew she’d one day strike out on her own.
“I like the freedom of being my own boss,” she says. “You can’t match it.”
When Jelks announced her plans to launch her firm this year, no one told her it couldn’t be done.
Formally known as Jelks Law Firm, and located at the Business Development Center on Cherokee Boulevard, the practice has been open only two months. But even in its infancy, the firm is a fully realized embodiment of Jelks’ life experiences. As a young girl, she was a child of a broken family, and as she raised a son as a single mother, she faced concerns over provision. Rising out of those circumstances are the two distinct areas of the law Jelks practices: family and business.
“I read a quote once that said we should be the person we needed when we were a child,” she says. “That was powerful to me.”
Jelks’ family work encompasses more than divorce and child custody cases; she also places estate planning and conservatorships under that umbrella. Likewise, her business work extends beyond her familiarity with construction law to everything that can touch a company, including the all-important start-up phase.
No matter what Jelks is doing on a given day, though, her work is as much about her clients as it is about her. “I’m here to help people in their most critical time of need,” she says.
Currently, Jelks is the firm. While she has plans to someday hire a small legal staff and bring on additional attorneys, she has no desire to own and run a large firm. “My number one goal in life is not to be rich. Although that would be nice, I merely want to provide for my family,” she says. “Above that, I want my family to know I was always there for them.”
Although Jelks has yet to expand her law firm, her family has already grown. After graduating from law school, she married DeAngelo, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve in Chattanooga. Together, they have a three-year-old-daughter and a one-year-old son. Their children are active in sports, and DeAngelo enjoys the outdoors – something Jelks is warming up to. “That wasn’t me growing up, but I married into it, and I’m coming around,” she says, a smirk crossing her face.
Jelks and her husband also make time for date nights, and enjoy attending Rock Point Church.
Apart from her law practice, Jelks is active in the community. Since the age of 16, she’s regularly given motivational talks to schools, colleges, churches, and nonprofits about overcoming adversity to achieve the seemingly impossible. “I tell my story to whomever will listen,” she says. “What I went through wouldn’t mean anything if I didn’t share it with others.”
Jelks also serves on the executive board for Chattanooga Room in the Inn and the advisory boards for the MOMentum Network and the Educational Opportunity Center.
Jelks hasn’t just inspired the people with whom she speaks; she’s also made believers out of those who once spoke pessimistically about her future. One such person actually helped her move into her new office. “He brought it up. He said he remembered saying those things to me. And he said I showed him,” Jelks says, without a hint of irony in her voice. She’s let the past go, she says, and turned those relationships around.
Jelks’ positive outlook stems from her belief that everything happens for a reason, and that her experiences were not necessarily for her, but for others. “God either allowed me, or directed me, to go through certain things so others wouldn’t have to learn the hard way,” she says.
Despite being an extraordinary voice of hope for people ostensibly trapped behind economic and cultural barriers, Jelks insists she’s not special. Rather, anyone can do what she’s done, she says. “The only limitations you have are the ones you put on yourself,” she says. “There’s nothing you can’t do. It will be hard at times, but despite your circumstances, you can reach your goals if you really want to.”