By KATIE EUBANKS
Clay & Amanda Mansell
Spinning plates and fostering faith
Clay Mansell has never performed in a circus, but he’s used to juggling.
From the late ’90s to the late 2000s, he owned about 10 businesses at any given time. Over the past few years, he and his wife, Amanda, have fostered 10 different children, in addition to raising their daughter, AnnaBelle, 12. (They took a break while pregnant with their son, Grayson, born late last year, but now their home is open again.)
Currently, Clay owns several businesses, including The Clinton Courier and seven other Mississippi newspapers; Mansell Media, Brick Street Pops, and Lyla Grace Children’s Consignment, all in Clinton; and Twisted Pretzel, with locations at Northpark Mall in Ridgeland and Jackson State University.
“I’m wired to juggle a lot of plates,” Clay says. “I get bored so easily.”
Before he even graduated from Mississippi College or met Amanda, the Canton native was a business owner.
“One of my friends described me as a serial entrepreneur,” he says, sitting in his office at the Clinton Courier/Mansell Media. “I would open up businesses and sell them.”
It all started with a little SnoBiz treat center, which he opened at Metrocenter Mall in Jackson while still a student at MC, he says. “I had a SnoBiz on the lower level (and) an ice cream place on the upper level.”
Northpark noticed him, and because he admittedly “can’t say no,” he opened four eateries there: a Hot Diggity Dog, a SnoBiz, another ice cream place, and eventually Northpark Deli.
“We had Cock of the Walk Express at a gas station, Baskin Robbins at a gas station,” he says. “I opened up probably 20 different small restaurants (and sold them). Some were no bigger than this office. They were all counter service.”
During that time, if he saw a SnoBiz for sale, he bought it. If somebody had a small space to lease, they knew to call Clay. He tried to keep 10 stores at once, “till it got to be too much, and then I would sell (one or more),” he says. “With food, you can’t just have one store. You can’t depend on that for your livelihood.”
A few years into these ventures, he and Amanda got married. They both ran the stores, and she helped with some of the accounting. (Amanda, who hails from Brentwood, Tennessee, also came to Clinton to attend MC, and the two of them have been in Clinton ever since.)
Then one of their regular customers at Mansell’s Deli in downtown Jackson connected Amanda with an accounting job at APAC-Mississippi, an asphalt company. So “Amanda got a real job, and I was self-employed,” Clay says.
Then the Clinton News stopped printing. Clay saw both a need and an opportunity. One thing led to another …
“I have eight newspapers now,” he says. “And I’m done. I’m not doing any more.”
To be clear, “they’re all small,” he says. “We have a paper in Wesson, Mississippi. It has a very part-time editor who is my staff (there).”
Two years after starting The Clinton Courier in 2010, Clay founded Mansell Media, which allows him to work directly with advertisers on their marketing needs. “Ninety percent of what I do every day is The Clinton Courier and Mansell Media,” he says.
He’s no longer operating a revolving door of counter-service eateries, and he doesn’t miss it. Amanda says that, many times, “I’d have to bring AnnaBelle in an infant carrier (and fill in for someone).”
The Mansells still own a couple of food-related establishments: Brick Street Pops, located inside Winstead Clothing Store in Clinton, and Twisted Pretzel, for which “I don’t even have a key to the store,” Clay says. Now he mostly takes care of the behind-the-scenes work for those businesses.
In addition, the Mansells own Lyla Grace Children’s Consignment, which opened just weeks before this interview.
Where’d they get the name for the shop? That’s a whole other story.
Nudges from God and ripping off Band-Aids
“We thought we’d have a baby and then adopt, but we never did,” Clay says. “It’s very complicated to adopt.”
“We didn’t know whether to do international or local (adoption),” Amanda adds. “And then you have to go to the country (if you adopt internationally). We couldn’t just up and leave at that time.”
“We were listening to KLOVE one day, and Steven Curtis Chapman has an adoption and foster care nonprofit,” Clay recalls. “They were doing an adoption seminar at a church in Ridgeland.”
But after attending the seminar, they were soon looking at another way to care for children in need. The Mansells found themselves bombarded with examples of not adoption, but foster care, on TV. Clay felt God nudging him and Amanda.
“Then Rescue 100 (a streamlined foster care training and licensing program) ran a full-page ad with me. So God’s knocking on the door, giving me money, speaking my language through ads.”
He and Amanda went through the training, “but we didn’t tell anybody,” Clay says. They had completed the licensing process — but hadn’t heard anything official yet — when they got their first call.
“That’s how we found out we were licensed,” Amanda says.
“It was two very young babies, and we said no,” Clay says. “It caught us so off guard. One kid was like six days old.”
But the calls didn’t stop there. Over the past three and a half years, the Mansells have taken care of 10 different kids — some for just a couple days, some for months at a time.
“There’s not (a typical timeframe for a foster child to stay with you). It is the definition of not typical,” Clay says. “One time we had (two siblings), and the social workers said, ‘We know y’all are going to have them six months.’”
“They came on a Friday and left (two days later) on a Monday,” Amanda says.
In cases like that, “we were babysitters,” Clay says. “But if we hadn’t answered, would they go to a shelter, or sleep on the floor of the CPS (Child Protective Services) office?”
On the other hand, a little girl named Lyla stayed for 10 months. She was the Mansells’ longest foster, and half of the inspiration behind the name of the Lyla Grace store. (The other half, Grace, is AnnaBelle’s middle name.)
“You get attached immediately,” Clay says, despite the fact that he and Amanda are “only on the reunification side.” In other words, they only foster children who are going to be returned to their birth family. “(The parents) have to work a plan. Their case worker makes them stay on track.”
Once the parents reunite with their children, the Mansells don’t see them again. The mother of their most recent foster child still sends them pictures — but that’s because they got close to her when the CPS office was closed due to COVID-19, and the Mansells would FaceTime her so the child could see her. Normally, CPS would have facilitated in-person visits between mother and child, without the foster parents present.
The Mansells have gotten somewhat used to ripping off the Band-Aid when they have to give a child back. But the first time wasn’t pretty.
As part of formally ending their relationship with their very first foster child, Justin, Clay went to Justin’s daycare to meet his social worker.
“He had a bigger social worker guy,” Clay says. “But I cried, in front of this big guy, and he’s probably thinking, ‘You’re a moron.’”
Despite the tears, the Mansells are happy to know their foster children are returning to their families. Many times, the trauma of being permanently separated from one’s birth family is worse than living in poverty or lack, Clay says.
“They deserve to be with their parents (once they’re in a good place). It always feels too soon, but that is just the emotion.”
‘You just don’t know what they’re going through.’
Many foster children have experienced some kind of abuse or neglect, whether at the hands of family or others, when they reach the Mansell home.
“You learn stuff that’s not in your knowledge base. You hear about drugs, but you just don’t know (until it affects a child you’re fostering),” Clay says.
For instance, one birth mother went to rehab while her child was with the Mansells. Eventually, the child was able to live with her mother at the treatment center — but the mother wanted drugs so badly, she ditched the facility and left her child, who then went back to the Mansells for a time.
“(Once) the mom came back, she was in rehab (again), so we knew (the child) was safe,” Clay says.
Then there are the positive stories — like getting to take a foster child to a beach or an amusement park, or shopping for clothes. Many foster kids have never had those experiences.
“I took (one boy) to Walmart, and he was just draping the clothes over himself,” Clay says. “He didn’t want to take the shoes off (to check out). He was walking around the store with the shoes still connected by that zip tie that’s so impossible to get off.”
The Mansells have mostly fostered babies or toddlers. The oldest so far has been 5 years old, Amanda says.
One night at midnight, she answered the phone, and “all she said was, ‘No,’” Clay recalls. She’d been asked if they’d foster an 18-year-old. “They told us in training to stay a couple of years younger than AnnaBelle (with our foster kids),” Clay says.
Taking in 10 different children — most under the age of 5 — in only a few years’ time has certainly been a whirlwind. Clay admits, “I do get their names mixed up. I only just now stopped calling Grayson (by our most recent foster child’s name).”
But the Mansells know they’re not alone on the journey.
“One of our strengths as foster parents is that everyone knows we do it. People see these kids (with us), and they just love them,” Clay says. “We were at church, and our pastor’s wife, Susan Belser, dropped everything to come talk to (our most recent foster child). We had a birthday party for Lyla, and everybody came. It was the biggest birthday party ever.”
It’s not only adults reaching out, either.
“It’s neat to watch all of AnnaBelle’s friends just come and accept the (foster) kids,” Amanda says. “They just want to come and play with them.”
As business owners and foster parents, it was natural for the Mansells to open Lyla Grace Children’s Consignment, located on Clinton Boulevard. Net profits from Lyla Grace will go to organizations supporting foster care. The shop’s mission is summed up by Matthew 18:5, in which Christ says, “whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me.”
Even if you don’t have clothes to consign, or the ability to be a foster parent yourself, “pray for foster kiddos,” Clay says. “You just don’t know what they’re going through.”
One helpful reminder
These days, Clay isn’t spinning quite as many plates as an entrepreneur.
While he says he’s enjoyed learning different businesses “and figuring out how to make them function better” over the years, he now focuses mostly on The Clinton Courier, which allows him to invest in the community; and Mansell Media, which lets him live vicariously through his 70-something business clients “instead of opening every business under the sun” himself, he says.
In addition, he intentionally leaves work at work — for a few hours in the evenings. “AnnaBelle will never know how much I work,” Clay says. “(She goes) to bed, and that’s when I’ll pull out my laptop. I get more done from 9 to midnight than I do from 8 to 5.”
Between office hours, church activities, extracurriculars and diaper changes, the Mansells are still pretty busy. And they never know when they’ll get their next call about welcoming a foster child in the name of Jesus. Good thing they have a handy reminder of Whom to rely on for all of the above.
“My favorite Bible verse is probably the one hanging in our house,” Amanda says. That verse would be Philippians 4:13 — I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.