In her 11 years with Pizza Hut, Maria Alston has experienced moments she’ll remember for the rest of her life. She started as a server and worked her way up to Area Coach. Her husband proposed to her at Pizza Hut. They started a family, and she’s come to think of her children as Pizza Hut kids. And now, as the nation grapples with issues of injustice and racism across the country, Maria has witnessed her community come together in an unforgettable way at a time when it’s needed most.

La Mesa is about nine miles outside of downtown San Diego. It has one Pizza Hut, located in La Mesa Springs Shopping Center, less than half a mile from the La Mesa Police Department. As is happening in cities across the country, the La Mesa community is grappling with racism, most notably the arrest of a black resident who was waiting for friends outside an apartment building in late May. Given the public backlash over the incident and her store’s proximity to the police department, Maria knew there was a good chance protests would be happening in the area. She also understood why they needed to happen.

“For us as a community we need to understand that people are angry. They’re upset. They want justice. They want a change, and rightly so,” she said.

Still, Maria and her team at the store weren’t sure what to expect as the protests intensified on Saturday night, May 30. With the store closed, they watched on a live feed on Instagram and stayed glued to the news coverage, following along as protesters continued to gather in the area. The next morning, Maria woke up and wasn’t sure if the store would still be there.

The store was damaged, and so were other businesses in the shopping center. But it wasn’t long before members of the community showed up to help. Public Square Coffee House, located a couple of blocks away, put out a message on Facebook to organize a cleanup. When Maria went back to the store for the first time, she was in awe: hundreds of people were there cleaning up. Construction workers had donated plywood to cover windows. Although they couldn’t be open for business, Maria and her team quickly fired up their ovens and started giving pizzas to people who were there to help.

The shopping center clean-up, though, was about much more than cleaning up. Sally Beauty, one of the businesses in the shopping center, had a sign outside the store to memorialize George Floyd. On Monday, what started as a small memorial to a man who ignited a long-overdue national dialogue about hatred, violence, and oppression, began to turn into a rallying point for the community, as artists arrived to paint the plywood now covering damaged storefronts. A giant portrait of George Floyd was painted outside of Sally.

“To see the community didn’t just want to clean up, they wanted to rally around the protestors, say this happened because Black Lives Matter – there was an outpouring of togetherness… to see all the volunteers and turn it into something positive was the most overwhelming thing that could have happened,” Alston said.

Pizza-themed art was painted outside of Maria’s store, and even though the store’s damaged window was quickly replaced, Maria and her team decided to keep the artwork up and displayed for now as the shopping center continues to attract community members there to see the George Floyd memorial and paintings.

As for the impact of the events of the last couple of weeks on her team, Maria says they’ve brought everyone closer together. “My team at La Mesa has handled it very well. We’re a very diverse group in there. It’s all about supporting each other and making sure all our voices are heard and making sure we’re there for each other,” she said. “They’re so proud of the artwork and how the community has come together.”

This story is part of an ongoing series celebrating Pizza Hut’s diverse team members serving customers across the country

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