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A customer walked into Publix looking downtrodden, and cashier Deborah Roberts immediately noticed. Roberts strives to make a connection with each person who comes through her line. She may not know them by name, but she remembers the faces - and she loves to brighten those that seem troubled. She knew this customer had been caring for her ill husband, but she didn't know the husband had died. "When she told me, I gave her a hug," said Roberts, 41. "I love people. I'll ask what's going on. People might say I'm nosy, but I just want them to leave feeling good."

Roberts' personal approach helped her earn the Brandon Rotary '86 club's Most Valuable Employee award.

The service organization chooses a winner from nominees submitted by club members.

Jeff Miltner, a frequent customer at the Publix at 939 W Brandon Blvd., nominated Roberts not only because of her appealing friendliness, but because her ever-present smile masks the fact she conducts a daily battle with the debilitating disease lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder that attacks the body and its organs.

"The disease causes her to have terrible arthritis, joint pains and general discomfort," Miltner wrote in his nomination letter. "Deborah has maintained her courageous attitude throughout and has even been empowered by this to be even more generous."

Roberts, who often has customers wait to go through her line, didn't always possess a sunny disposition. When first diagnosed with lupus in 2003, she concedes, she was mad at the world.

And why not? Doctors spent three months just trying to come up with the correct diagnosis while she lay in a hospital bed. They first thought she had a stroke, then tested for multiple sclerosis and even feared she had AIDS.

Roberts spent so much time in bed that her joints had grown sore and she had to learn to walk again, going from a wheelchair to a walker to occasionally using a cane.

Along the way, she also learned to count her blessings.

"Now I feel special because I have lupus," Roberts said. "I'm special because I can tolerate the pain. I'm special because I can share my story about lupus. I feel God picked me, and I'm not going to be down or mad at the world.

"I still can get out each day and go to work. I just don't want people to give up because with lupus you can give up on yourself. I want to show people I have lupus and I'm not giving up."

Roberts credits the relationship with her 19-year-old son, Patrique Peters, for sustaining her outlook. She said Patrique had the opportunity to play baseball in college in Texas and Oklahoma, but he opted to stay here and help her.

He now works at the same Publix while enrolled at Hillsborough Community College.

To hear Publix employees tell it, Patrique isn't the only child Roberts has working at the store. She serves as a surrogate parent to many of the young employees, and some even call her "mom."

"A lot of them, if they're having trouble with their parents, will come ask my point of view," Roberts said. "A lot of them graduated last year and I say, 'You need to go to college.' I'm concerned.

"I just want them to realize they need to better themselves."

As for her on-going battle with lupus, which has no cure, Roberts says if the disease doesn't kill her, the medicines she takes will. It's a harsh assessment, but one she's come to accept.

"That's why I won't waste a day being sad. I want to be happy and I want the people around me to be happy."

Ernest Hooper can be reached at or (813) 226-3405.