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A little slice of heaven: The pizza restaurant making sure picketers are fed

Since the John Deere strike began, Maria's Pizza in Colona has donated hundreds of dollars worth of food to picketers, despite the restaurant's own tough year.

COLONA, Ill. — As the John Deere strike passes the 'one month' mark, Maria's Pizza in Colona says they'll continue to step up and donate to those on the picket lines, no matter how long it lasts, or how much it costs the restaurant. 

Co-owners Vlora and Urim Ajre have been donating hundreds of dollars worth of food every Thursday night since the strike began. Most recently, the family-owned business sent 20 boxes of pizza and 10 boxes of chicken and french fries to Harvester Works on Nov. 11. 

Vlora Ajre says even if the strike lasts for six more months, her restaurant will continue to give. 

"We've been there. We know how it is. So I want to help out as much as I can," she said. "It's my way of thanking everybody. Thank you, and give you a hot meal." 

Ajre says as the weather gets colder, and the strike continues, her work becomes even more important. 

"They have kids, wives, some can't work, some can. If they have little kids, daycare costs money," she noted. 

Family friend, Stephanie Genova, makes the trip out to Harvester Works, to drop off all the food. She says at first, union members didn't believe her when she said Maria's would be back every single week. 

"Some of the guys were like, 'You're the only restaurant that came when it was pouring rain,'" said Genova. "So that was very exciting and heartwarming to know that it is being appreciated." 

According to her, once the Ajre's saw workers on picket lines, back on the first day of the strike, they immediately asked what they could do to help. 

And the generosity comes at a price.

It hasn't been an easy year for Maria's. Following pandemic lockdowns, mandates forcing the Ajre's to close their indoor dining spaces, and now supply shortages in everything from food to cardboard, Vlora says it's been a little tough. 

"Times are tough right now for restaurant owners due to the food demand," she said. "A lot of restaurants are out of product. For instance, wings and onion rings and french fries - we just can't get it." 

But there was another costly shock waiting for the couple this past spring. 

During the lockdowns of 2020, the Ajre's decided to completely remodel the inside of their establishment. Then, just weeks before Maria's was set to reopen indoor dining in 2021, water damage from above caused the entire ceiling to cave in. 

"At the end of February, our ceiling came down due to water damages from the apartment upstairs. We were closed for about two and a half months," she said. "It's been a year. But, we'll get through it." 

Through it all, Ajre said she never once considered taking a week off of donating, instead saying she'd find a way through her own financial hardships as long as she kept doing good. 

It's why many of her employees had nothing but compliments for the business. 

"It's truly a family," said Margo Bowman. "Very much a family-centered job where, if you mess something up, she's still going to love you at the end of the night. Everyone's fun, it's pretty laid back and relaxed." 

Even newer employees, like waitress Rylie Golightly, agree. 

"(Ajre) is very much 'Mama Bear' of the whole kitchen," she said. "It's wonderful." 

Golightly began her job just three weeks before we spoke with her, after friends told her about what a fun work environment it was. 

"That turned out to be true," said Golightly. "We're so fortunate to have them as our bosses. Like, they're wonderful people and I love working with them." 

To Ajre, all of her employees are like her children. 

"We're all a family. They have a problem, you're there to help them out. They get a flat tire, you go out there and fix that car. They don't have money for gas, here's $30, go fill up your gas tank," she said. 

Even when the Ajre's leave to go visit family, and close Maria's down for a few weeks, they make sure their employees are still paid. 

"We take care of them. It's not a one-woman team or one-man team," said Ajre. "We're a family here." 

When asked how she can stay so generous, after all of the curveballs she's been dealt over the last two years, Ajre had a very simple answer: 

"Hope. Hope. There's always light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "It's never closed. You keep going. You keep going and you fight, and you'll get through."