So much for privacy… I’m throwing it all out there.
Hello everyone! Welcome back to ShayKelley.com! It’s been a 10 year hiatus, but I figured with everything going on in the world I should probably dive back in and write you a detailed introduction in case this is your first visit.
Many of you have known me for years. But for those of you who don’t, this will be a place to read short (or long) stories, see photos, and maybe learn some things that you didn’t already know.
I am interested in a lot of things. So I’ll start with some history regarding my public life. I’m originally from the Midwest; specifically a small town along a river in the middle of Illinois. I went to college at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL and studied photojournalism along with sociology, Spanish and criminal justice. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2007, right before the financial crises. I was able to secure a job at a marketing firm in South Carolina in 2008, and eventually relocated to Jackson, Mississippi, but by 2009 I had lost my job, my car and my apartment and found myself far away from anything that felt like home and homeless. I was 23 years old.
I got an idea and decided to wait tables and save money, eventually buying a pickup truck and moving into it. In 2010, I traveled to all 50 states in 50 weeks doing canned food drives and street outreach for houseless and impoverished folks in every major city and many small towns across America. I called it Project 50/50, and I’ll share some of the old interviews here on another page. I had finally joined facebook and started a blog, and I was very open with my life, sharing my journey with all of you.
Along the way I fell in love. We were married in December, 2010 on the beach in Hawaii, on the last state of my 50 state journey. I had lived in my truck, alone the entire year, so our relationship had been long-distance until we married. I wasn’t willing to stop travelling, and the crisis of homelessness and poverty weighed heavily on me, so together we decided to continue the project. He quit his job and we bought a bigger truck, and off we went on round two. In the autumn of that year, my friend Rob joined us in my original truck and we started a caravan. I wanted them both to see all 50 states the way that I had. We joined the Occupy Movement and protested around the New England States, working with the houseless people that gravitated toward the movement, and hoping in general to create a better society for all of us. In December of 2011, a good friend donated his camper trailer and we expanded our work. Now we were a mobile warming center, a mobile home; a mobile community. More people joined us, and we could volunteer in numbers. We could do street outreach more effectively. Our experiences grew.
But our relationships were strained. I was tired. The emotional toll of the street outreach was more than I realized, and I was suffering from PTSD. I didn’t know what to call it, so I instead of getting help, I tried to slow us down. We stayed in places longer. We stayed in Lafayette Lousiana for a month. We stayed in Pine Ridge, South Dakota for 9 months of 2012 doing volunteer work. By the time we left, I knew something wasn’t right with me. My blogs had turned cynical and my anger was overwhelming. I was mad at everyone and everything. I had seen the worst of humanity and far too much of it. I was angry with the way that people hurt each other, hurt themselves, and hurt the planet. I knew I couldn’t continue. I started looking for a way out.
In February of 2013 we arrived on a honeybee farm in New Mexico. My marriage fell apart. I fell in love with a beekeeper. My husband left. I got divorced. I found my home, but I also found failure. I had failed my marriage, and I had failed at my mission. I could no longer live in my truck or my camper and do street outreach all day, every day. I could no longer bear the emotional burden. I needed to heal, but with that realization came more wounds. I stopped publishing blogs. I shut down many websites. I turned to farming, gardening, and my local community to distance myself from my feelings of failure. I started volunteering at a local homeless shelter, despite my cynicism of shelters, because I couldn’t bear to live my life without doing something about the crisis of poverty in this country. It brought much healing. I started a business making skin care as a way to support myself and my “charity habit”. I learned how to keep bees, raise animals, and grow food.
I traveled outside the US for the first time. I fell in love with Mexico, and I keep going back. I went to Costa Rica and Nicaragua and explored a different perspective. But I always came home to the southwest.
It’s been 7 years. I’m still on the farm in New Mexico. I’m still in love with a beekeeper. I’m still raising animals and I still have a skin care company. And now I’m the board chair (and periodically the interim director) of that homeless shelter. I work there every day that I can and then I come home to the farm and play with my dogs and sell honey and study herbalism. Life is different. Along the way I’ve found a lot of healing. My PTSD symptoms have faded into the history of my life…. Only showing themselves under specific conditions. I’m still angry. I’m still working on that.
Which brings me to now. 2020. A decade after I made that first life-changing journey around the US. And for those of you who know me, you’ll still get some new information in this historical review: In November of last year I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I recently completed 5 months of chemotherapy, which I began in December. Then surgery, then radiation. It will be over soon. The doctors are optimistic and so am I. I’ve included a picture of myself here, but I don’t look like that anymore. That photo was taken in November, before all my hair fell out, and my eyebrows. Back when I could still climb the mountain in my backyard and didn’t feel weak all the time. Things have changed for me, yet again. But I’m already beginning to heal, and I’ll be talking about that here. I will get my strength back. I plan to post blogs again. To post photos. To share videos of myself. Because the truth is, whether I die of cancer or a car accident or old age 50 years from now, I want there to be a place where someone can find all the things “Shay Kelley”. Maybe it’s selfish, but I want there to be a place (even a digital one) where I can write on the wall of life that “Shay was Here”. I want my nephews and my friends to be able to look at me long after I’m gone. To read my thoughts. To reach out and touch me. Because I’ve lost a lot of people, and I miss them. Death is hard for the living. And cancer, or disease, or pandemic, makes us confront our inevitable death.
Because yes, this is also the moment in history when the US is facing a new challenge. A virus is sweeping the nation. Today, as I write this, my state has shuttered businesses. We are told to stay home as much as possible. This country is being told to “shelter in place” and we are learning terms like “social distancing” and “epidemiology” and studying the history of pandemics.
Not only that, but we are in the midst of what may be the largest civil rights movement in history. There have been massive protests and even riots brought about by yet another instance of police brutality in Minneapolis. What a strange time to be alive! I must say, I never thought I would find myself battling cancer while running a homeless shelter during civil unrest and a pandemic. But here we are. So as much as I can, I’ll share my journey in this space. And I hope you find it interesting, or helpful, or hopeful. I hope I can conquer cynicism and overcome anger and focus on the sunlight in the dark places. Because that is what will get us through this. We cannot give in to despair… we cannot give in to hopelessness. We must find and be the love in the world. We must look for it. We must cherish it. Thank you for reading about me here, now, and may this moment live on in eternity on this digital cloud. It already lives forever in my heart. Be brave, good people, and Spread the Love.