The Real Change Portrait Project


Robert Heath

"Robert Heath" Colored Pencil by Katrina Martin
Two words reoccur when Robert Heath talks about his life: bicycles and fire. Robert grew up in the small town of Marion, Va., not far from the Great Smoky Mountains that unfurl along Tennessee’s eastern border. There wasn’t a lot to occupy a kid so he sat at home, staring at the TV playing video games. His dad also taught him to repair bikes in the family shop, Heath Bicycle Sales and Services. It was a paying gig, which pleased Robert. “It was either learn or not get no allowance and not have any money,” he explains in a voice buoyed by a Southern lilt. “So I learned real fast how to fix ‘em.” But Robert wanted to see the world outside Marion (current population 5,892), so he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Boot camp took him to Fort Gordon, in Augusta, Ga., and when he graduated, his whole family showed up. After two weeks back home, he was stationed at Fort Hunter, in Savannah, but only stayed six months: The Army deployed him to Southeastern Iraq. When he took a vow for this country, he says, it meant he’d do whatever it took. Even combat. But he hated the experience in the Middle East. “It was hot and dry. And there was killing people — and getting away with it and not having to go to prison,” he says. Most of the time Robert worked as a firefighter, helping to control mechanical blazes. The majority were caused by error or malfunction, but about 10 percent, he says, were due to bombs. His stint lasted 18 months. On his return, he was stationed in Texas, and when his service ended, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. History repeated itself and, just like in the Army, he was deployed to Iraq. This time, along with fighting fires, he drove trucks. He stayed there 28 months. When his naval service ended in 2004, he moved to West Seattle and got a job at a security firm in Tacoma. He also served a year in the naval reserves in Bremerton, receiving an honorable discharge in 2005. But serving two Middle East tours exacted a price. “It does a toll on you,” Robert says. “After the second tour, they put me in the state hospital because of my depression.” By state hospital, he means the psychiatric ward at Harborview Medical Center.

It took time to perfect his dosage of meds, so he sat around watching TV, kind of like in Marion. But this time, as an adult, Robert had a girlfriend. He called her every day, which helped him stay sane, he says. He was released after a month and three days. “I felt good to be out, my meds were working great,” he says. So great, Robert went and applied for a job as a police officer in Tacoma. Everything went well in the interview, he says, until he mentioned his depression. He didn’t get the job. He applied for other work. None of it panned out, so he continued at the Tacoma security firm, while he and his girlfriend raised two boys. Last December, he took his girlfriend and the boys, ages 4 and 6 to visit his father in Marion. On Christmas Day, Robert got a phone call from a neighbor, who told him, “There ain’t no use in you coming back. Your house went up in flames.” Robert did come back, but the house was gone. Faulty wiring. “We lost everything.” All that was left was an RV, which he lives in now with his family. He says they park wherever they can, trying to elude parking enforcement. Oh, and three months ago, the Tacoma security firm fired him. It’s a tough story, but Robert relays it with a clear-eyed realism and a belief that things can improve. After all, they already have. First, he says, earlier this year he became a Real Change vendor. He’d heard about it from friends and researched it on the Internet. He sells at First and Marion, at the entrance to the ferry terminal, in the early mornings and afternoons. From 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., he sells at First and Virginia. “I love it,” he says of being a vendor. “It gets me out where I can actually do what I was doing in Virginia. I’ve gotten three jobs working on bikes by selling Real Change.” He repaired them with tools from his father, who bestowed them on Robert after selling the family business. Robert is taking an online course on how to fix electric bikes because he hopes to one day open his own shop. He also works part-time as a Seattle firefighter. Last week, he proposed to his girlfriend. They’re getting married in June. And he says another kid is on the way. As he awaits more improvements, he says he wants people to know how to reach him in case they need a bike repairman. “Cause I’ve had a lot of people walk by and say, ‘I hear you work on bikes. Can you give us your number?’” So if your bike needs work, Robert says he and his tools are ready: 206.934.9559.

Artist: Katrina Martin

Katrina Martin is an artist and student at Northwest College of Art & Design. You can find her coloring coffee shops or at the Dancing Brush in Poulsbo. More of her artwork can be seen at

Click here to go back to the Portrait Gallery.