SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - Shay Kelley may look like she's taking it easy, photographing Tray, a seemingly longtime friend, on the courtyard of the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co. But the truth is far different. Both homeless, Kelley and Tray had never met before.

A year ago, Kelley had no idea she would travel 16,000 miles to take these pictures and send them to Tray's mother in South Carolina.

Driving Bubba, her blue pickup, Kelley began touring the U.S. on Jan. 1. The 24-year-old set an ambitious goal after losing her job last year: visiting the 50 states in 50 weeks to help homeless individuals.

Kelley created a Web site (www.shaykelley.com) to document her 50/50 project. Through the Internet, she was contacted by a South Carolina resident months ago, she said, asking Kelley to find her homeless son living in Santa Cruz. So when Kelley hit the California coastline after 11 weeks of her journey, she stopped in Santa Cruz, found Tray and shot a video.

"Tray is pretty skittish normally. It's hard to keep him in the same place for a long time," said Ronne Curry, an Aptos resident working with homeless people, amazed by how quickly Kelley connected with Tray.

This might be because Kelley had her share of bad luck.

"People don't see me as homeless when they see my face," Kelley said. "But it could be the guy sitting next to us at the restaurant or at the bus station."

Kelley had a job in marketing at AT&T, but her world collapsed in March 2009. She was laid off and got her car stolen the same week, she said. With no money to afford rent, she soon found herself on the streets of Jackson, Miss.

Kelley remembers walking out to the woods and yelling at God: "Tell me what you want me to do!"

The answer came a week later as she was sitting on a bench, writing a bucket list. At the top came her 50/50 project, Kelley said. She was going to meet and help homeless people all over the United States.

Kelley couch-surfed here and there, found a job in a restaurant to afford a pickup and rode a skateboard to work every day.

"Every beer that I served, I was one step closer to my dream," Kelley said, conviction glowing in her eyes. She also received a tremendous support through her Web site, she said. Supporters shipped her camping equipment and a $1,000 camera to document her trip.

With an estimated budget of $10,000 and $83 in her bank account when she left from South Carolina on Jan. 1, the adventurous woman never really worried about finances.

"My philosophy in life is that you get what you give," Kelley said. "People need so little to be happy."

Kelley said she crosses state lines every Monday and collects more than 200 food cans a week, knocking door to door in the cities where she stops. Food and other items collected are donated to local charities and the homeless, she said.

Through her journey, Kelley has learned to look at the bright side in any situation.

"It's not a cushy lifestyle. But it's my perspective that counts," she said. "Gratitude is not an emotion, it's a way of life."

New encounters have fed her spirit, she said, offering some hard-won advice to "break out of the box, get out of your bubble. Say hi to people you never met before. They'll change your life."

The Illinois native, who has a photojournalism degree, intends to write a book about her experience.

"When I was young, I was convinced I was going to work for National Geographic," Kelley said, smiling. "But this is better than any job I could have ever picked for myself."