Billings woman wanders the city streets to give homeless food & clothing
Shay Reiser was 18 and pregnant with her first child when the seats inside her 1982 Buick LeSabre became the place she rested her head at night. Her partner had run afoul of the law, she didn’t have enough money to pay rent, and she was estranged from her parents. She lived in her car for four months straight.
“It wasn’t for long and I was fortunate enough to have a car,” Shay says, showing her glass-half-full attitude.
When she moved to Billings from Nebraska a year and a half ago, she became keenly aware of the people she saw out on the streets. Unlike some of us who might not notice a person stuffed into a vacant building stairwell or crouched beneath the branches of a pine tree, Shay saw them.
“We grew up pretty poor,” she says. “We did the best with what we had always. I am trying to instill that in my kiddo now. We are grateful for every single thing we have because you don’t know if you will have it tomorrow.”
In October of 2021, Shay decided on a whim to cook up a hearty meal. She loaded a giant cooler and, with the help of her teenage foster son, they hit the streets of Billings to hand out food. They didn’t target the homeless population. They just wanted to perform a random act of kindness to anyone and everyone. They only planned to do this once.
“The first time I went out,” Shay says, “I walked up to a woman who clearly had significant mental health issues. I asked her, ‘Can I give you some lunch?’ She screamed, ‘Get away from me!’ I said, ‘OK, but I really want you to have some lunch, so I am going to set it down here and I am going to walk away.”
After the woman opened the box and dug in, she called out to Shay. “She had something in her hand that she had clearly been carrying with her for a long time,” Shay says. “It was well loved. She put it in my hand, gave me a hug and walked away. I haven’t seen her since.”
The well-worn piece of paper that the woman handed Shay was the Serenity Prayer printed on a bookmark. “It was clearly something that was near and dear to her. The fact that she thought to give it to me was overwhelming. It made me emotional. I have it framed in my house to remind me of why I do this.”
What started as a one-time act turned into an operation, one where Shay wakes up at the crack of dawn every other Sunday to make a large-scale meal. She’s learned to watch for grocery sales and has gotten really good at stretching her dollars. On today’s menu was Taco Pasta. “It’s hamburger, fire-roasted corn, onions and peppers with pasta and beans,” Shay says with a smile. “I cook food I would like to eat.” When all was boxed up and ready to go, she says, “We made 65 meals and it cost me $55. I’m really good at cooking for a crowd because I raised three teenage boys and fed all of their friends.”
Since those first meals, Shay has added a trailer to the mix. She calls it her mobile closet. In it, tubs full of clothes, backpacks, sleeping bags, blankets, gloves, hand warmers and more sit at the ready. The trailer is emblazoned with the words “Wander Woman.” She says she adopted the name after wandering the streets looking for people to help.
As Shay stands next to her trailer, one of the women she often serves shouts excitedly from across the parking lot, “Look at me! No one has seen me in jeans before. Thank you.” At the same time, a man walks up with a bewildered look on his face. Asked how he found out about the Wander Woman, he says, “I just stumbled upon this when I was coming up the sidewalk. I actually had all of my stuff stolen recently. I pretty much have just the clothes on my back. This really helps out a lot.”
As people start to form a line for help, one woman makes a beeline, running across the traffic-filled North 27th Street. The woman whispers in Shay’s ear and hands her a few bucks.
“She told me to go get some coffee,” Shay says with a laugh. “It’s so funny because I always have a huge cup of coffee out here with me.” It was a woman Shay has helped in the past.
Those who live on the streets find out when Shay will perch her trailer on the corner of Sixth Avenue North and North 27th when she announces it on Facebook. Somehow, they find her.
“People will ask, ‘What organization are you with?’ I tell them, just Wander Woman, that’s me. This is my church. This is what motivates me and keeps me going, being able to help other people,” Shay says.
Shay has built up a small army of followers who will help her in her mission. Nikki Lamb is one of them. The 37-year-old works by day as an EMT with Big Horn County Ambulance Service. Every other Sunday, she’s here helping Shay.
“I can’t imagine being in need and on the street,” she says. “It’s given me a new outlook. Sometimes you need a reality check. You get too focused on your own things. It’s very humbling.” She calls herself “Shay’s sidekick” and speaks with admiration when she says, “She is the most kind-hearted person that I have ever met. She’s just a great human.”
Shay says its very rare that she comes home from her day job without donations piled up on her front porch. She’s the day center assistant with Family Promise of Yellowstone County, a nonprofit aimed at helping end homelessness for families. She says it’s hard not to let the issues she deals with rule her emotions.
“We don’t cry,” Shay says. “We are here to show them love and joy. If you cry when you get home, that’s OK, and I usually do.”
On this day, Shay sports a black T-shirt with the words, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” It’s a testament to what she does as the city’s Wander Woman.
“I get my energy from doing this,” she says. “I have a big squishy heart and I just want to give love to everyone.”
WANDER WOMAN is always looking for donations to help in her mission. You can find her by searching Wander Woman Monthly Meals and Mobile Closet on Facebook.