East Brainerd resident Amanda Ray Jelks, 26, is starting her third year as an attorney at Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel P.C. in downtown Chattanooga.
It has been a long road to get to where she is today, but she said it was all worth it.
"Nothing about it was easy," said Jelks. "There was a lot of sacrifice made."
At age 14 she found out she was pregnant with her son Desmond. She gave birth to him at age 15 and later enrolled at Middle College High School at Chattanooga State. They were living with her aunt at the time.
Jelks said enrolling at Middle College made her life easier because Desmond could be on campus with her and classes were only from 8 a.m. to noon. She remembers interviewing with staff there and telling them she did not have the money for tuition.
"Middle College teacher Janice Newman told me to try one semester and we would find scholarship money," said Jelks, adding that Newman encouraged her to take the ACT. "Janice inspired me. She was the first person to ever really believe in me and push me to do something, and it paid off. I'm a huge Middle College advocate."
Despite the odds being stacked against her, Jelks graduated from Middle College High School in 2003 as the class valedictorian with 60 college credits already under her belt to transfer to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She enrolled at UTC as a junior at age 17. She said UTC Director of the Educational Opportunity Center Cindy Wallace Long helped her find scholarships, like the Susan Bradford Memorial Scholarship given by the Chattanooga Chapter of Executive Women International. Jelks graduated with a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice at age 20.
"My son is the most kind-hearted person I know," said Jelks. "I've been in school his whole life and worked to take care of him. He always told me he understood. I always told him to never settle for less and to reach for the stars."
After finishing up at UTC, she took a year off to spend more time with her son. That year he completed kindergarten and began playing football.
"Growing up, going to college was never discussed," said Jelks. "I did not know any college graduates personally as a youth. My mom told me growing up I should be a lawyer because she said I could argue with a stop sign and convince it that it says go."
She said despite her family telling her law school was too difficult, she decided to once again defy the odds and go for it. She began studying for the LSAT and praying about a way to pay for law school. She ended up receiving scholarships to cover tuition.
She graduated from the University of Memphis with a Juris Doctorate degree at age 24. During summers off she interned at Chambliss, Bahner and Stophel P.C., where she now works full-time, concentrating her practice on business and construction litigation as well as automotive law. Since starting her new job, she married DeAngelo Jelks and gave birth to their daughter Tori this year. She said her husband is "awesome" and Tori is "a doll." She also enjoys spending time with her stepson DeAngelo Jr., 8, and Desmond, who is now 11. The family of five likes to take outdoor hikes.
"Looking at where I was 11 years ago I never thought this is where I would be," said Jelks. "I've done work with Chattanooga Housing Authority, Girl's Inc. after-school program, local churches and Bethel Bible Village. I've talked to kids as young as 5 and 6, mostly girls. I tell them I know what your life looks like now. You see poverty. That does not have to be where you always are."
She said it feels really good to be where she is today and it was worth all the late night studying and juggling of jobs.
"The reason I share my experience with people is to give them extra hope," said Jelks. "If I'm where I am, you can be there too. I have to give God credit where it is due and it is definitely due here."