Keith Roberts

Despite a rough start in life with lingering obstacles,  has kept on track after discovering a love for all things automotive.

He suffers from tics and has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). “For some reason, because of the way my brain ticks, I like to hear motors crank. I get kind of geeky on it,” Roberts describes his enthusiasm for cars.

“I just started pursuing that passion because it helped me. It was something that I could hold onto that nobody else could take away from me.”

And from early on, he’s had a lot taken from him. The Washington native openly describes a childhood of physical abuse and neglect. He and four siblings often had to fend for themselves while living in motels or camping outside, eating little more than ramen and canned chili, he says. As the oldest, Roberts recalls picking berries, collecting cans and mowing lawns to help feed himself and the other kids.

Someone finally called child protective services, he adds, after the children went rollerblading at 1 a.m. in the Spokane Community College parking lot, wearing only their underwear. An emotional roller coaster of foster care followed.

Roberts eventually filed to be legally emancipated from his parents, and he became the caregiver for his younger siblings. Then Roberts had an unfortunate brief segue into drug abuse. He spent time in prison and was charged with, but not convicted of, armed robbery. After being released, he violated his probation.

By that point, Roberts says, he had learned his lesson. “I was like, ‘no more.’ Then I met my wife and decided I wanted to go to work.”

An employer takes a chance

With little time spent in school while growing up, Roberts had to test to earn a GED (General Educational Development) diploma. He got it on the first try and started working in various automotive positions. One employer pointed out he had potential but needed college training.

“So, they kept me part time, and I went to college,” Roberts explains, adding that his studies gradually became a main priority. His wife agreed to work while he went to school full-time. At Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash., Roberts met automotive service technology professor Monty Prather, who he says has been like a father to him.

His ADHD and OCD made school challenging, as well as simple things.

“I’m lock-checking all the time. I can’t leave the house,” he explains. “I’ve got to wash dishes a certain way, in a certain manner. And then, my alarm clock is my biggest one. I sit there with my alarm clock — it drives me bonkers. And, I know that I’m doing it, and I can’t stop it.

“It’s really hard to manage,” Roberts adds, but now he has support at home. “My wife knew that it was going to be tough on us, and so she worked these last two years while I went to college, because I have homework afterwards and I’ve got to really stay focused.” With his schedule open for school, he made the dean’s honor roll every quarter except one.

Roberts says people in the industry noticed how he is able to think outside the box and apply that ability to automotive service. Working on cars, he admits, was originally “my kryptonite, I was so scared of it. And now I excel at it.”

Through school and SkillsUSA, Roberts attended the 2016 SEMA car show in Las Vegas, where he connected with K&N Engineering for an internship. He earned his associate degree in automotive service technology and has started his own shop in Kennewick, Wash. He refurbishes muscle cars and sells them at auction.

One income, two children and being a full-time college student meant things were tough for the Roberts family. But they made it work. “When you are down on yourself, and you don’t have that self-esteem because it’s been taken away from you, sometimes you have to believe in somebody,” he says. “You have to take that leap of faith — as hard as it is, you have to. I trusted the right people at the right time, and it worked.

“There were times I wanted to quit. I’m telling you, Monty had to practically drag me back to college, because I was like, ‘We can’t pay our bills. We’re not making ends meet.’ He was like, ‘Uh-uh. Now. Get back to college.’

In SkillsUSA, Roberts competed twice in the national Job Skill Demonstration event. Being a member “saved my life,” he asserts. “The leadership skills have groomed me to be the person that I am today. … I wouldn’t have the confidence that I have today if it wasn’t for SkillsUSA.” He emphasizes that the friendship and support he’s gained is like no other. “I can’t find that anywhere else except for here at SkillsUSA.”

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