Tamika Jenkins: A Lawyer with a Big Heart
If you ask Tamika Jenkins to tell you a little bit about her life, you’ll soon discover that her story is anything but typical. She was born in 1978 on the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. As her father rushed towards the hospital in Wilmington, her mother delivered Jenkins right there in the passenger seat of their moving car. At age four, Jenkins and her family moved away from Leland, her father’s military career leading them first to Georgia and then on to Oklahoma. Five years later, Jenkins’s father retired from the military and the family returned back home to Brunswick County, and it was then that Jenkins began to realize she wasn’t quite like everyone else.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Stephanie Savas Photography
“Growing up in a military family made all the difference in the world for me. I was able to be around diverse groups of people, and we were able to go to different places. Everybody looked different, and everybody sounded different. So when I came back home and that diversity was gone, I was more aware of how different I actually was,” remembers Jenkins.
Jenkins’s Brunswick education path took her through Lincoln Elementary, Leland Middle, and North Brunswick High Schools. Along the way, it became apparent to everyone but Jenkins that she was extremely smart.
“I didn’t understand that I had potential for anything. It really took the teachers and guidance counselors for me to figure out that there was something that I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I wanted to make things better for people who were in my community,” says Jenkins.
With the help of grants, her church, and the savings she made from working three jobs, Jenkins was able to put herself through the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. In 2001, she was named Sociology Student of the Year and went on to graduate Cum Laude with a Bachelors in Sociology. Even with her diploma in hand, Jenkins still struggled to find her calling.
“My mom had her first child at age 16, dropped out of high school, and got pregnant again with my other brother when she was 17, so she couldn’t really give me much guidance on what to do with my life. I was looking around Wilmington and I wondered ‘what do black people do?’ I didn’t see or know of that many black professionals. I also knew that I didn’t want to work in the customer service industry. So I applied and was accepted into multiple graduate programs. It was only when I got the acceptance letter from UNC School of Law on my grandmother’s birthday that I believed I was meant to get a law degree.”
Having always had an interest in people’s rights and fair and equal treatment for all, Jenkins took the initiative to create an ACLU chapter when she noticed her law school was lacking one. During her time in school she also clerked for Judge Marion R Warren, now the director of North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts. Jenkins credits her time with Judge Warren as one of the most important influences on her path to becoming a lawyer.
“I passed the Bar Exam in February of 2006. But I quickly realized that nobody was hiring. So Judge Warren encouraged me to go ahead and ‘hang out my shingle’ and start a law firm on my own. I thought he was crazy, but he said the business would come, and he was right.”
Jenkins took her mentor’s advice, and with that she became the first black lawyer in Leland. Working out of her home and the local library, Jenkins soon realized that she had more cases than she knew what to do with. Five months after opening her own firm, she joined on with the Iapalucci Law Firm in Boiling Springs Lake, where she specialized in family law, criminal law, and landlord tenant law. In 2007, she moved on to spend her next three years with the non-profit legal agency Legal Aid of North Carolina. As a landlord tenant attorney, Jenkins represented low-income people who were battling eviction.
Jenkins is now a lead attorney at Boyles Law Firm in Wilmington, where she practices property, probate, business and veteran’s law. She spends much of her free time working pro bono, and her focus remains finding ways to help those in her community achieve their goals.
“I’ve always had to try to come up with unique ways to do things on my own and with a budget. No matter what I’m doing, I always seem to have a community project going, or I’m helping other people with their own community projects for their business. I listen to people tell me what they do with their business or non-profit, and I’m then able to come up with ideas and connect them to the help they need.”
Among Jenkins’s most recent endeavors is last year’s Cinderella Project, a mission she created with her church to collect hundreds of donated prom dresses for underprivileged girls. She also helped connect Brunswick County’s District Attorney office with a service dog through her initiative called Pawsitive Pal Project. Jenkins’s mission is to facilitate the placement of service dogs in other county court systems and the Veteran’s Clinic in Brunswick County.
“A lot of veterans suffer from PTSD, and I think it would feel good for them to just be able to walk in and pet a dog for a little while. And I’m not even a dog person!” she laughs.
Jenkins credits much of her philanthropic ways to her mother.
“Even though she never graduated high school, she was very smart. People in the community knew they could come to her with paperwork, and that she would be able to help them read and understand what needs to be filled out. That’s what I saw my mom do, and so that’s what I do. I just happen to have a law license to support it,” reflects Jenkins.
As for her future, Jenkins plans to continue practicing law for at least the next decade, but she eventually would like to become more involved with community work. Helping people discover their strengths and reach their goals will always remain Jenkins’s passion, and her own struggles and successes in life will remain her daily motivation.
“When I was younger, I always thought that if I ever got to be somebody, I would make a point to help other people understand what they could do in life. I love being a lawyer, working with my community, and trying to figure out ways to make things better without people even knowing I’m involved. This is where I am now, trying to just help others who are where I’m from be more than they ever thought they could be.”