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April 24, 2014

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Helping the homeless a labor of love for jobless woman on a journey

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Courtesy Shane Patrick

Shay Kelley passes out donations to homeless individuals living on the streets in Anchorage, Alaska, in July 2010.

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Shay Kelley, Shane Patrick and their dog, Zuzu, pose for a picture in Mackinaw, Ill.

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For more information on Shay Kelley, Shane Patrick and Project 50/50, stories of their travels or to find out how you can help visit www.project-5050.com or follow their journey at www.twitter.com/project5050.

A year ago, 24-year-old Shay Kelley was driving through Las Vegas when a road sign caught her attention: Rainbow Boulevard.

She exited the freeway and found a nice-looking neighborhood near North Rainbow, parked her Ford pickup truck (which she called Bubba) and began her regular routine of going door-to-door and collecting items to be distributed to the homeless.

After dancing with homelessness herself, she was a woman on a mission. Walking from house to house, she gave her speech and began collecting donations. After a few hours had passed, she drove her truck, now full of everyday items, to the International Church in Summerlin, an organization she chose at random, and asked them to distribute her donations to the homeless.

A year later, she returned to Las Vegas to continue a project that began through the discourse of screaming into the winds in an open forest. In the meantime, she's traveled to all 50 states with the nonprofit organization she founded and is working her way back again, following a deep-felt desire to help others. Nevada is the 13th state she's been through this year.

Not long ago, Kelley was just like any other 20-something. She was "living the life of luxury" with running water, a roof over her head and a job paying the bills as a sales representative for AT&T.

She moved from Illinois to Jackson, Miss., when the company relocated her job. Not long after moving to Mississippi, the AT&T branch she was working for went belly up. Then her car got stolen. It wasn't long until she found herself sleeping on park benches with nothing but a suitcase in hand, her dog at her side.

“I was furious. I was yelling at God. ‘Why did you do this to me? Tell me what I’m supposed to do and I’ll do it,'” Kelley said.

A few weeks later, she got an idea. From that moment, she says, she knew what she was meant to do.

Her plan: Embark on a grassroots journey, traveling the country and going door-to-door collecting nonperishable food for the homeless. She called it "Project 50/50," with a goal of making it to 50 states in 50 weeks with one purpose: Reach out to as many people as she could who were in her same situation and distribute gathered donations to anyone in need.

“I’m not a religious person, but I am very spiritual,” Kelley said during a recent interview. “This was a divinely inspired idea. I had challenged God and he gave me this idea so I had to keep up my end of the bargain.”

Project 50/50, she said, is more than traveling the country and meeting people. It's an effort to document homelessness across the country -- a problem that for Kelley had hit all too close to home. She also is aiming to put it all together into a yet-to-be-published book.

Kelley documents much of her work on social media sites Twitter and Facebook. Her posts have helped her gain a following and inspired donations from people who otherwise would have been strangers in the cities she visits.

She says that last year, she worked with more than 150 nonprofits across the country and established a nonprofit of her own, Insight Projects Inc., based on the concept of "we get what we give."

Throughout the course of the year she handed out more than 11,000 food items and 4,000 pairs of socks to the homeless in all 50 states, she said.

“I can estimate about $30,000 worth of stuff, including the food and socks,” she said.

Donations range from cosmetics and hygiene supplies to camping gear, clothing and meals, she said. She also helps people with job searches and donates money along the way to various organizations she works with.

"I don't have numbers, I have stories,” she said. Some of her stories have been chronicled in newspapers and television reports across the country, including a report last year on CNN. The Santa Cruz Sentinel has an account of how Kelley helped a South Carolina woman reconnect with her son, who was living on the streets in California.

Kelley ended her 2010 trip in Hawaii (thanks to plane tickets from a generous donor), where she shared a sunset for one special event: Her wedding to college friend Shane Patrick, with whom she reconnected via Facebook at the start of her journey last year.

When the honeymoon was over, the newlyweds packed up and headed back to the mainland, ready for round two of Project 50/50. They recently passed through Las Vegas again, helping those in need.

In Clark County, the needy aren’t hard to find. Recent numbers from the Southern Nevada Homeless Census found an average of 13,000 individuals in Clark County are homeless. The Clark County Homeless Youth Count found that on any given day nearly 400 unaccompanied minors are living on the streets.

By definition, the couple are homeless themselves, living out of their pickup truck. But they don't see it that way.

“I want to leave lasting impressions on people's hearts,” Patrick said. “This is one of the most involved ways of helping others. Every part of our lives networks us with someone or something that can help someone else or we are directly helping someone."

Together, Kelley and Patrick have round two of Project 50/50 well under way, having just wrapped up helping in Nevada.

One local couple that has been following Project 50/50 as it works its way across the country had donations at the ready for Kelley and Patrick when they arrived in Las Vegas.

John Landry, who with his wife has a small organization called "This Way Up," says he finds the work Kelley is doing inspirational.

“Seeing a 24-year-old woman out there doing what she does was very inspiring and one of the reasons we always carry socks and whatever we can think of and afford in our cars,” Landry said. “All of the donations we have for them are from my wife and I.

“Unfortunately we're in the same position as many people throughout the valley: under-employed and doing the best that we can, but we all have something to give even if it's just a few minutes of our time. Socks are 10 for $6 at Walmart and soups are six for $2. Most of us can afford that.”

This trip, Kelley and Patrick are documenting the entire year in photos, blog posts and on social networking sites. As soon as a publisher is interested, the book will be underway, Kelley said. She plans to use the proceeds from the book as a fundraiser for Project 50/50.

"I didn't do this to get rich, and when this project became a nonprofit, I took a step to prove that," she said. "I also ensured that this project wasn't going to end after 2010. There is much more work to do.”

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