If you’re driving either north or south on Interstate 35 between Jarrell and Salado this Thanksgiving, keep your eyes open for signs directing you to the Salado United Methodist Church annual Thanksgiving Roadside Dinner at rest stops on both sides of the highway.
Since 2010, an army of volunteers and community business donors have prepared a complete turkey dinner with all the trimmings, desserts and beverages to offer hungry and tired travelers. They come from far-away states on their way to visit family; they are truckers looking for a respite from the road and who find their roadside dining choices limited; and folks driving by who want to share Thanksgiving with others and may not have a family of their own.
The first few years, the church only set up at the southbound rest stop, serving nearly 300 people. A church member whose husband had died, was so touched by the outreach she offered to make a donation if the church would add the rest stop on the other side of the freeway. Two years ago, a second station was set up on the northbound side and SUMC fed more than 600 people, combined, on both sides of I-35.
This year, they are preparing for a larger crowd as word gets around. Arlene Nixon, the feast coordinator, said Sherry Sewell had the original idea of wanting to do something, but wasn’t sure what.
In previous years, Sewell prepared a community Thanksgiving dinner on a smaller scale for residents of an apartment complex she managed. A single mom, she prepared just enough food for 24 people who came in groups of 12.
“I saw first hand the story of where Jesus fed the 5,000 people (with a loaf of bread and two fish),” Sewell said. “I was able to feed all the families and ourselves. With food leftover, we invited the rest of our family to join us.”
She had the thought that they could do something similar at the church and invite people from a local charitable agency. The women met with fellow church members Rolly Correa and Linda Crowley to brainstorm.
“We thought at first we would have it in the church and invite people who were needy, but that wasn’t going to work because we couldn’t get the names to invite the people, who probably wouldn’t come anyway,” Sewell said.
That’s when they started thinking about the I-35 rest stop. Correa, director of outreach for the church, stepped into action and made a call to the Texas Department of Transportation to see if it would be feasible. Officials said yes, but a permit was required.
“I had to fill out an application for a concession permit from TxDOT a few months before the event,” Correa said. “It came with the stipulation that we could not block their concession area, and we could not accept donations. That’s not why we were there.”
After bringing the idea to their pastor, it didn’t take him long to agree with the idea of an I-35 Roadside Thanksgiving.
“He said ‘go for it,’” Sewell recalled.
That first year, the group had no idea how much food to cook. They sent the menu to church members, put out a sign-up sheet and “people began signing up.”
“(Volunteers) brought all the food and set it up. We had no clue how many people would show up. We fed over 300 people that day,” Sewell said.
By 2 p.m. all the food was gone except for a little bit of the sides. People were still stopping in, and even after being told all was gone except the green beans, they stayed and ate.”
This year, Nixon is coordinating more than 125 volunteers, gathering the menu, making sure they have all the equipment needed, and being there to direct volunteers as they prepare to feed the travelers. “Four weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we have sign-up sheets at the church so people can indicate where they can help — maybe bake a pie, a casserole, clean up, there are different lists,” she said.
The day starts early for the volunteers. By 7 a.m., all the cooked turkeys are carved, at least 33, and stored in the refrigerator at the church commissary. Soon people arrive with casserole dishes, sides and desserts. With all the food ready to go, volunteers retrieve the turkeys, load the warming oven, supplies, plates, napkins and cups onto trucks and begin the trek to the two rest stops. Serving lines are open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., or until the food runs out.
Nixon said she is so focused on making sure everything is coordinated, that it’s not until people start coming in to eat that she sees the impact this day brings to strangers. “Folks come in and you hear their stories, about why they are stopping at the rest stop,” she said. “They have compelling stories to hear, and they are so grateful for turkey and dressing. Last year, we had folks coming from the Eastern states, trying to get to Texas to celebrate the day, or folks who were moving down and saw the signs on the road for a free Thanksgiving meal.”
Sewell said people who drove into the rest stop were “awed to find a meal.”
“People were coming through who may not make it home in time for the family meal, so they have their meal there,” she said. “Truck drivers with no place to go, except a fast-food restaurant, stop for a meal; people stop by who wouldn’t have Thanksgiving because they have no family to be with.”
Everyone is welcome at this rest stop miracle. It doesn’t matter what part of the country you are from, what your ethnicity is, socio-economic standing, or religious beliefs. “We are feeding God’s people,” Sewell said. “It was amazing for us.”