Sixteen years ago, Poncho and Lisa Johnson wanted to teach their son Colby that Christmas was about more than getting gifts. Colby, only five years old at the time, was like most children, looking forward to the gifts under the tree. The Johnson’s decided that he needed to learn what the true spirit of Christmas was. That year, they started an annual toy drive in partnership with the Milford Police Department. This year, they will celebrate their 16th year helping holding the Milford Police Department Toy Drive at Benvenuto on Friday and Saturday, December 8 and 9.
“We, along with Take My Hand Ministries, work together on this project,” Mrs. Johnson said. “For every $25 gift someone brings in wrapped with gender and gender and age noted or if they bring in a $25 or above Walmart gift card, they will get a $25 Benvenuto gift card in return. It is only for those two days and during our regular hours at the restaurant.”
Teaching their son the true meaning of Christmas at a young age, the toy drive began at the Johnson home. Initially, Milford Police Department did not have a toy drive, so the Johnson’s did all the work themselves. Eventually, they invited friends and family to join and it grew into a huge event with police escorts guiding a wagon full of people to the police station to deliver the toys. Afterward, everyone returned to the Johnson home for pizza and fellowship.
“It grew so big, we ended up having to get school buses to carry people to the police station,” Mrs. Johnsons said. “We had more than 100 people at our house and Santa would make an appearance. We had a bonfire where we roasted marshmallows and had hot chocolate.”
Like most children, Colby and his friends outgrew the wagon rides and fewer people began attending the celebration. Gifts continued, however, and the Johnson’s began offering a free Sunday brunch. Management of the toy drive was handed to Take My Hand Ministries. After opening Benvenuto, the Sunday brunch was held there.
“We were not even open when we held the first brunch at the restaurant,” Mrs. Johnson said. “There were not even booths installed yet. The Bridge radio station set up tables for us the night before and we held a blessing of the restaurant party with the ministry handling the cost of the food.”
After the COVID pandemic cancelled the brunch in 2020, the Johnson’s knew they wanted to continue the event. They decided to begin offering the gift cards in exchange for wrapped gifts and it was a huge success.
“People liked it so much that we figured we might as well keep that going,” Mrs. Johnson said. “For each toy or gift card donated, you receive a $25 gift card that you can save and use yourself or give as a gift.”
Over the years, Mrs. Johnson said that people have donated bicycles, scooters, hoverboards and more. Because so many of the gifts are for younger children, the gift cards are used to take parents shopping for children who are 12 and older.
Benvenuto will celebrate their Kickoff to Christmas starting November 17 when they host an Opera Delaware gala event. The next day, they will hold their “Merriest Sweater Contest,” which will have prizes available for the merriest sweater. Mrs. Johnson explained that they held an ugly sweater contest last year, but she preferred that people wear their merriest sweaters for the event on November 18.
Gifts can be delivered to the restaurant from 11 AM to 9 PM on Friday, December 8 or 12 Noon to 9 PM on Saturday, December 9. Once collected, all gifts are turned over to the Milford Police Department for distribution.
“Our goal is to give gifts to those who may not be able to get them from other sources,” Mrs. Johnson said. “We want to help those who may not be able to afford gifts who might not qualify for other donation services.”
For more information, contact Benvenuto at 302-265-2652.
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