Homeless at 24, she no longer wanted to chase the almighty dollar, so she and her dog, Zuzu climbed into their blue pickup truck, named Bubba. She left in order to capture America’s hopes and dreams.
Shay Kelley, a 24-year-old former partner at a marketing firm in Jackson Mississippi, recently rolled into Massachusetts. It’s the 35th state in her 50 state 50 week mission known as Project 50/50. Over the past 35 weeks Kelley has captured the stories of our nation’s homeless using her camera, Facebook, and Twitter to connect the homeless from coast to coast.
While Project 50/50 has already spanned 35 states, including Alaska, and was even featured on CNN, Kelley admits this ambitious project was not exactly what she pictured for herself as a 21 year old graduate of Southern Illinois University.
“I graduated college in 2007 with a degree in photojournalism,” said Kelley. “And I didn’t want to go straight into working for a newspaper because I was 21 and I wanted to make a lot of money.”
Shortly after graduating college, Kelley got a job with a marketing firm in in South Carolina. Less than a year she had become a partner in her firm.
“I had the chase-the-almighty dollar thing going on in my head,” Kelley said. “So I went to work for a marketing firm in South Carolina. I moved from Illinois to South Carolina and I started climbing the corporate ladder of the marketing firm, and I was really good at it. I made it to partner in less than a year.”
Although Kelley was living the American dream, things began to fall apart as quickly as they had come together. Her firm was bought out and relocated to Jackson, Mississippi. Three months later the recession hit and the firm went bankrupt. Less then a month later, Kelley’s car was stolen, her apartment was robbed, and she was eventually evicted from her apartment. Her three roommates, who had been co-workers, had moved away and she could only afford their half of the rent. Kelley was homeless.
“I was left with a four-bedroom apartment and I was the only one who didn’t have anywhere to go back to,” Kelley said. “My mom and my family are from Illinois, and I was young and dumb and didn’t save my money.”
At the same time, Kelley’s mother was also forced to file bankruptcy and close their family diner in Illinois. Unable to ask her mother for help, Kelley couldn’t even bring herself to tell her mother about her situation.
“When the rescession hit, my mother had to file bankruptcy and had to close the restaurant,” Kelley said. “So about the same time that I am losing my job and my security, my mom is crying over the phone about the phone bill. How do you go, okay, my mom is basically in the same boat I am. She just happens to have a house.”
During her first few days on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, Kelley says she just walked around town with nowhere to go. Eventually, she wound up sitting outside a gas station, until one day she met someone willing to help her get back on her feet.
“I met this kid who came in to get gas. He was 19,” Kelley said. “When he found out I didn’t have a place to stay, he offered to let me sleep on his couch. So, that at least put a roof over my head.”
After she found a place to stay, Kelley was given a skateboard, which she used to travel across town and look for a job. Kelley was eventually able to find a job as a waitress. Shortly after, she also decided to live off of a dollar a day, and save the rest of her income.
Though she was saving all of her money, Kelley says she still didn’t know what she was going to do next. Frustrated by the uncertainty surrounding her life she decided to sit down and make a list of the things she hoped to accomplish. It was then that the idea for Project 50/50 was born.
“On June 26th, I had at that point gotten really angry about my life. America teaches you to follow a specific pattern, graduate high school, go to college, get a degree. I graduated summa cum laude. I did pretty well in college,” Kelley said. “I got the good job, I climbed the corporate ladder. I followed all the rules and still ended up homeless.”
Kelley continued, “A week later I was sitting on Mark’s porch with my dog, Zuzu and I had a stack of paper, and I started writing down all the things that I am good at. I think that our talents are our birthright. So I wrote down all the things I am good at — journalism and photography. I am very adaptable.
“Then I wrote down what I wanted out of my life, like a bucket list. I wrote, go to all 50 states.” Then I wanted to help people. I almost joined the Peace Corps three or four times in my life. So, go to all 50 states, help people, and write a book. And I kept thinking there’s got to be one idea that will encompass all of this stuff, that will make everything that has happened to me make sense. And on June 26th, it was like someone had cracked my head open and dropped this idea in my head.”
Kelley had decided that she would travel to all 50 states in 50 weeks, write a book, and give all the proceeds to charity. However, she still needed a vehicle and funds with which to pay for her project.
“I had no means by which to accomplish it,” Kelley said. “I had no truck, no camera, no laptop, no money, nothing. I had just started a little waitressing job. I had nothing, and it seemed so overwhelming.”
However, after she had come up with the idea for Project 50/50, she received a call from an executive from another marketing firm and was offered a job in Texas. Kelley was suddenly faced with the decision of pursuing her dream, or going back to chasing the almighty dollar.
“After our firm closed, and after I had this idea, he called me and said I want you to come work for me at my firm in Texas. He basically promised me a position that was higher and earned much more money than the one that I had already had,” Kelley said. “But, if I could explain what it was like to get this idea. I knew that I had been chasing money the entire time I was in marketing, and I had wound up on the street, and because I believed in karma I had to believe that the two had something to do with each other.”
So Kelley saved the money she earned as a waitress and eventually decided that in order to accomplish her goal of 50 states in 50 weeks she would need something that would be durable enough to make the trip without breaking down. That’s when she met Bubba, a blue 1994 Ford F150 pickup truck with over 150,000 miles on it.
“I was in a church parking lot about seven miles away from the guy who was selling it, and I said, if this guy will take $2,000 for this truck, it’s ‘the truck.’ And I offered him $2,000 and he took it,” said Kelley, who named the truck Bubba after its previous owner. “It’s been 35 weeks later, no problems.”
Once she bought Bubba, Kelley moved into it and continued working her job as a waitress. On October 26th, Kelley left for Green Bay, Wisconsin in order to attend her uncle’s funeral. With only $83 in her pocket, Kelley left and never looked back.
Shortly after Kelley left Wisconsin, her aunt sent her a camera. Kelley had also decided she was going to go door to door and collect 200 canned good items a week and give them to various non-profit organizations.
“I knew that if I wanted to get something from my life, that I was going to have to give something first,” Kelley said. “It just works that way, and I wanted to prove it.”
When this article was written, Kelley had already donated 7,685 canned food items, close to her goal of 10,000. Ten weeks into her trip, Kelley decided that she had to share her stories with the world, and ShayKelley.com was born. Along with a website, Kelley also got her own Facebook page, and a Twitter account. However, Kelley wasn’t happy with just using these forms of social media to connect with people. She had more ambitious plans.
“I started a side project called Happy Feet, where I collect socks, and I used Facebook,” Kelley said. “This is a really good example of using social media to actually do something. Kelly also said,
“The people on my Facebook don’t just talk, they actually do something,” Kelley said. “They actually gather up socks and they ship them to three volunteers around the country that distribute them — one in Detroit, one in California, and one in Illinois.”
Along with using social media to deliver socks to the homeless (Kelley is now also delivering shoes) she was also able to use Twitter to deliver groceries to a family on the other side of the country.
“I read his bio on Twitter and realized that he was homeless. He was living with his wife and 13-year-old son in a pop-up camper in a friend of the family’s backyard,” Kelley said. “He said that he was from Reno, Nevada, and all these bells started going off.
“When I was in Reno, I found this fantastic food bank called Hands of Hope. They are a co-pay program that requires you to pay $5. But it’s for veterans, and every Tuesday night, they have veterans come into the food bank.”
After making a few phone calls, Kelley was able to convince someone working at Hands of Hope to deliver groceries every week to the veteran living in the
camper and his family.
“I sent a Facebook message to Hands of Hope, when I found out he was in Reno Nevada,” Kelley said. I told them the entire story about what was going on in their lives, and just gave them this veterans address, and just said let me know what happens. I got a Facebook message from Hands of Hope saying they had a guy named Herb who comes in to volunteer every Tuesday night and who coincidentally lives a block away from this guy’s family, and that he would pick up the food and take it to them. That night, they posted pictures of food on their Facebook page.”
Over the past 35 weeks Kelley has had many more experiences similar to this one, including giving an entire truckload of socks away in inner-city Detroit, and meeting two homeless teenagers who travel the country on train cars. Unfortunately, there is not enough space in this article to tell them. However, Kelley has generously agreed to regularly contribute her experiences to Spare Change. She also has a photo gallery on our website, http://sparechangenews.net/