Restaurant partners with Milford police for 14th annual toy drive

MILFORD — Christmas may not be until the end of the month, but city residents are already hard at work donating and collecting gifts for local families in need.

The Milford Police Department and Take My Hand Ministry, a local, faith-based nonprofit, will be collecting gifts at Benvenuto, an Italian restaurant located at 249 N.E. Front St.

Gifts can be dropped off between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. Friday or between noon and 9 p.m. Saturday.

Lisa Johnson, who owns Benvenuto with her husband, Poncho, is on the board of Take My Hand and started the toy drive 14 years ago when her son, Colby, was 5.

“He had been very blessed, that he had always had toys on Christmas morning,” Ms. Johnson said.

“He was getting at the age where he was saying what he wanted this year and what he expected Santa Claus to bring,” she said. “We wanted somehow to get him to see that not everyone has been as fortunate as he was to have these presents.”

Early on, Ms. Johnson said friends, family and other congregants from Avenue United Methodist Church would gather at her house to collect gifts. Afterward, there would be a long slate of kid-oriented Christmas activities, including a visit from Santa Claus.

“We would go on a hay wagon caroling through the city of Milford, escorted by the police,” said Ms. Johnson’s friend, Karen Stevenson, whose kids are the same age as Colby is.

“The kids loved it because they would get to run all the traffic lights because they would stop all the traffic for the wagon,” Ms. Johnson said.

“We would end up at the Milford police station, and all the gifts were there. They put them under the tree,” Ms. Stevenson said. “Then, we’d go back to Lisa’s and have pizza, cookies and hot chocolate.”

The two women said that as their children got older the event eventually became a brunch, but the tradition of gathering gifts never stopped.

Ms. Johnson had been ready to host this annual brunch at Benvenuto, which opened in 2020, for the first time this year.

However, she and the police department decided it would be better to not hold the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Ms. Johnson decided to do something else to sweeten the deal for those donating.

Those who bring a wrapped gift worth $25 or more labeled with the intended gender and age of the recipient or a Walmart gift card worth $25 or more will receive a $25 Benvenuto gift card.

Those donating do not have to bring a receipt to prove the value of their gift.

“We take their word for it,” Ms. Johnson said. “Take My Hand Ministry is a faith-based nonprofit. That’s probably why we don’t require a receipt.”

Those who plan to donate can walk right into Benvenuto. Ms. Johnson said she will place the wrapped gifts around the trees and other Christmas decorations currently adorning the restaurant.

After the collection is complete, the police department will pick up and distribute the toys.

“The reason why we work with (the police department) is because they come into situations and see different situations in the community that not everybody else sees,” Ms. Johnson said.

“A lot of these toys will be given to children that the resource officers in the schools have identified as children that may not be receiving,” she said. “It may also be a family that is not getting help from somewhere else.”