Hallmark’s Benjamin Ayres & Jonathan Bennett Team Up for New Project

Benjamin Ayres, Jonathan Bennett

Heavy/Hallmark/Getty Hallmark stars Benjamin Ayres and Jonathan Bennett

Despite both being longtime Hallmark stars, actors Benjamin Ayres and Jonathan Bennett‘s first time meeting wasn’t until December 2022, when they attended the Christmas Con fan convention in New Jersey.

Six months later the duo is now collaborating on a meaningful fundraiser through Ayres’ flourishing passion project, Romance University, with shirts they designed together for Pride Month to benefit a charity that’s close to Bennett’s heart. Ayres gave Heavy the details on their new partnership — here’s what you need to know:

Benjamin Ayres Thrilled to Partner With Jonathan Bennett on New Romance University Design

After the two met at Christmas Con late last year, Bennett invited his Hallmark colleagues to watch the premiere of “The Holiday Sitter” at the hotel together on December 11.

“He graciously invited and hosted us at the hotel bar during the premiere of his groundbreaking Hallmark Christmas movie ‘The Holiday Sitter,'” Ayres told Heavy. “It was a wonderful moment to share that experience with him amongst all our friends at the network.”

Bennett starred in and executive produced “The Holiday Sitter,” which was Hallmark Channel’s first-ever film centered around the love story of two male leads. The movie was recently nominated for a GLAAD Award and marked an important milestone for the network as it intentionally expands its offerings to reflect a more culturally and racially diverse spectrum of families and love stories.

The Christmas Con event in December was not just a meaningful weekend for Bennett, but also for Ayres, who was surprised to see fans clamoring for the impromptu “Romance University” buttons and hoddies he’d created in advance of the event. Their enthusiasm inspired him to turn Romance University into an actual company — a make-believe school where rom-com lovers are considered alumni and the stars are the pretend staff of professors.

In the first five months of selling merchandise with their tongue-in-cheek Harvardesque logo, Romance University raised over $11,000 for women’s and children’s shelters. At times, he has partnered with fellow Hallmark stars for special designs and fundraisers; in February, the site sold shirts featuring the stars of the smash hit “Three Wise Men and a Baby” — Paul Campbell, Tyler Hynes, and Andrew Walker — to raise money for a Los Angeles women’s shelter that Walker chose and delivered the funds to.

Ayres decided to reach out to Bennett for help with a special promotion to honor Pride Month in June.

“Naturally, as Pride Month approached, I felt there was nobody better to help us create a new Romance University crest than Professor Bennett,” Ayres told Heavy. “The beautiful geometric rainbow along with ‘Love is Love’ inside the heart and the word ‘Pride’ in the banner was the perfect concept.”

Pride Month, according to the Library of Congress, is an annual awareness campaign and celebration with events held across the U.S., initially created to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, seen as a tipping point in the fight for equal rights for those who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Queer (LGBTQ).

‘Love is Love’ Romance University Shirts Will Benefit Jonathan Bennet’s Charity of Choice

Available in multiple colors as tank tops, which Bennett sported for a recent Romance University Instagram photo, as well as v-neck t-shirts and unisex crew-neck t-shirts, each style sells for $35 with proceeds going to The Dru Project, a nonprofit that Ayres said Bennett chose for the campaign.

The Dru Project was launched in memory of Andrew Leinonen, who died tragically in the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016. Leinonen, who lost his life at 32 as one of 49 people killed in the targeted attack, had been an advocate for the LGBTQ community since he was a teenager.

As a high school junior in 2002, Leinonen noticed that many of his gay and straight peers were struggling, feeling hopeless and silenced, so he launched his Seminole, Florida, high school’s first Gay Straigh Alliance — an act that later earned him the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award, according to the Jewish Press of Pinellas County.

Today, the organization created in his memory says it has provided over $150,000 in college scholarships, $15,000 in mini-grants for gay-straight alliances and out-of-work drag entertainers, and published one of the most comprehensive GSA guides on how to create and run successful LGBTQ+ student clubs at schools across the country.

With The Dru Project receiving funds from the ‘Love is Love’ shirts sold through Romance University, Ayres’ initiative continues to give fans the power to make a difference by celebrating their love of romantic comedies and their stars.

“The community just continues to build,” said Ayres, who will soon reunite with Bennett at the next Christmas Con event, to be held in Kansas City from June 9-11. “I couldn’t be happier with the outcome and the continued support.”

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