Real Change’s Debbie Nichols: “I am the oddball because I am out there!”

By Samira George, Real Change

In 1999, Debbie Nichols held a prominent job and was an active member in her community, but an abusive relationship and a drug addiction set her down a troubling path. Luckily, Nichols found Real Change, which she said made a positive impact in helping her find her way back to her normal routines.

“I go to Sunday services, and then I’ll hit the farmers market. Afterwards, I’ll come home,” Nichols said. This year, Nichols is being recognized as Real Change’s Vendor of the Year for overcoming those life obstacles and showing that it’s never too late to ask for help.

Out of her three sisters and four brothers, Nichols said she has always stood out. “I am the oddball because I am out there!” Nichols said. While marching to the beat of her own drum has sometimes made Nichols feel like an outsider, it has also attracted many positives, like helping Nichols connect with her customers.

Being named Vendor of the Year is important to Nichols because it signals to her that she’s on the right track and encourages her to keep going. Nichols, who has been sober for three years, says awards are important milestones that vendors can physically point to, that aren’t just words of affirmation spoken from Real Change staff or loyal customers.

“It makes me feel great because it lets me know that what I’m doing is making a difference, that how I carry myself and represent Real Change makes a difference. … That tells me that not only am I a good person, they see me as a good person,” Nichols said.

Nichols said her fondest memories always circle back to selling at her post and the conversations she shares with her customers. Everyone has lived experiences, and Nichols said vendors can share their stories with the public and sharing lived experience goes beyond the data and statistics that can sometimes dehumanize a person’s struggles or be brushed off as a number.

Fellow vendors voted Debbie Nichols as one of two 2021 Vendors of the Year. This honor is important to Nichols, she said, because it signals to her that she’s on the right track and encourages her to keep going.

“My favourite part of Real Change is that — my interaction with the public. I get to find out their story, as well as giving my stories. They give me advice, and I give them advice,” Nichols said.

Nichols welcomes the community to ask her questions, especially if it’s about homelessness or poverty. “People love the paper because it gives them insight to things that are going around that they may not have gotten from the news or The Seattle Times or the weekly Stranger,” Nichols said. Nichols also wants the public to know that being a Real Change vendor is a real job with rules and expectations that she and other vendors must follow.

“This is my real job,” Nichols said. “I am a newspaper vendor. I am an independent entrepreneur. … When you come out of homelessness, you’re in transition and you need to have a means to support yourself,” Nichols said. “Real Change allows you to be financially stable. It gives you some incentive. It helps you to keep a goal, and it allows you to interact with people out there who may have a better opportunity for you because they have seen the changes you have brought forth in your life.”

Things you might not know

Nichols was in Washington’s National Spelling Bee when she was 12; she loves to write poems, read romance novels and go on camping trips, and some day she wants to see Les Misérables live on stage. But for now, the audiotape of the musical she found at her local thrift store a few months back will do.

Nichols is happy where she is in life and wants to focus her energy on advancing herself even further and setting more goals. Nichols also wants to become more financially stable, find the time to write either poems or short stories for children’s books and maybe even open a small food business.

“I would start with a cart basically and then the food truck,” Nichols said. “I would do a variety of food for different days and different seasons. Hot cocoa, coffee and biscotti or scones, you know, things like that when it’s cool out and hot soup. Things of that nature.”