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Jobless woman finds generosity on the streets

By Jim Spellman, CNN
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Woman chronicles America's homeless
  • Jobless and unemployed, Shay Kelley decides to embark on a new mission
  • Starting on New Year's Day, she began helping the homeless
  • She collected canned goods, then decided she wanted to do more
  • Kelley is traveling to all 50 states with her camera, photographing America's homeless people

Denver, Colorado (CNN) -- When Shay Kelley lost her marketing job she got worried. When she lost her home and her car she got mad.

"I went off into the woods and I started yelling at God," she says. "I didn't know why God would lead me up to this point in my life just to have me left with nothing."

"I was like, 'Just tell me what my purpose is, tell me why I'm here and if you'll just tell me I'll work harder than for anything I have ever worked for anything else in my entire life.' "

Within weeks she had her answer: Travel to all 50 states in 50 weeks. Collect canned goods for charities along the way and take a ton of pictures. She has dubbed it Project 50/50.

Gallery: Project 50/50

She stayed with friends while she waited tables and got together enough money to buy "Bubba," her 1984 Ford pickup truck. She packed her camera, which she calls "Roxy," and her dog, Zu Zu, and hit the road.

She began on New Year's Day in South Carolina, randomly going door to door to collect canned goods.

"I set a goal of 200 cans a week, which doesn't sound like a lot, but the premise is [that] doing a little bit adds up to a lot," Kelley says. "After a year, [that's] 10,000 canned food items."

She began to meet homeless people as she dropped off the canned goods, and she says they have surprised her with their generosity.

She met Donald, a retired Navy sailor, at a library in South Carolina.

3 ways to help the homeless in your community
- Bring Food: Take some crackers when you go out to give to someone who asks for change.
- Volunteer: Help out at a local shelter or soup kitchen, or tutor homeless children.
- Recruit local businesses: Ask local stores if you can set up containers on their premises where people can drop off donations.

"He invited me to go to lunch to buy me a hot meal because I had been eating PowerBars for three days," Kelley says. "I found out after he left -- after he paid the tab and paid my meter -- that Donald was homeless, that he was actually living in the shelter."

"That was the first week when I learned the people with the least tend to give the most."

Donald was one of the first people she photographed. She posts her pictures on her website and Facebook page as she goes. She has more than 1,000 Facebook fans following her travels.

See more of Kelley's photos

One of those Facebook followers is Laurie Holleman Sherrod, who contacted Kelley with an unusual request:

She asked Kelley if she could find her son, Trey. The last time she heard, he was living on the streets in Santa Cruz, California.

"I thought that's crazy, how do you find one homeless person in an entire city?" Kelley recalled.

But she agreed to try and sure enough a few weeks later she happened upon a nice young man on the streets of Santa Cruz.

"And then here I am sitting around the table with Trey shooting a video for his mother who lives in South Carolina."

I learned the people with the least tend to give the most.
--Shay Kelley, Project 50/50

As with everything that has happened to her so far, she credits her faith with guiding her.

"It is so important to me that God remains in the forefront of my life," she says. "He leads me. He tells me to go right or go left. I can't really explain that to people, but I don't do anything, God does it all. I'm just standing here."

iReporter tells the story of one homeless man

Through her photos she captures people down on their luck, but not ready to give up. She says it has made her own uncertain future easier to deal with.

"I just hope that people who are in really rough situations will realize that God didn't forget about them. God is just trying to prepare them for something even bigger, even greater and even more blessed than they can even imagine."