My35 Central Texas News
  Contact: Jodi Wheatley   Phone: (254) 867-2836

Bell County Provides an Unexpected Thanksgiving to I-35 Travelers

It may be the only roadside safety rest area in the country where a free, full-course Thanksgiving Day meal is offered to anyone who stops in. Without much fanfare, Salado church volunteers have been serving homemade turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, and pies galore to surprised—and often thrilled—travelers visiting the southbound I-35, Bell County Safety Rest Area.

“It began with our desire to do something extra for the community during Thanksgiving,” says Rolly Correa, director of outreach and missions for the Salado United Methodist Church. He’s also the Bell County Precinct 2 Constable. “We don’t really have a homeless community, and we kept running into privacy issues when we sought out families who were in need. So we had a brainstorming session at the church, and this was the idea we rallied around.”

  Signs like this one will greet weary travelers along I-35 in Bell County on Thanskgiving Day. Hundreds of people will stop for a warm meal at the safety rest area this year.  

But some had doubts that the idea would work. After all, who would stop and eat at a rest area on a holiday, especially on Thanksgiving?

As it turns out, hundreds of people—truckers who have to work on Thanksgiving, families traveling long distances, individuals without family, college football fans. They all stop for a warm meal at the safety rest area each year.

“The idea has been a huge success and has grown every year since our first event in 2010,” says Sherry Sewell, who came up with the idea during that church brainstorming session six years ago. “I-35 kept coming into my mind. It’s an unusual idea, but it has united our church.”

Serving a full-course meal has required a lot of volunteers. The meals are served from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., but it’s a day-long event with set up and cleaning up afterward—not to mention the planning and scores of cooks needed to pull it off. But the church has had more than enough volunteers. And many of the church members forego their own Thanksgiving Day festivities, making the act of volunteering to serve so many others their own version of a family celebration.

“The church has rallied behind this event. In fact, one recently widowed member donated money and asked us to open the northbound safety rest area for Thanksgiving,” Sewell says. “So this year, we are doubling our efforts.”

  Serving a full-course meal requires a lot of volunteers, who work from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. providing hot meals to I-35 travelers.  

Instead of the 300 meals they usually plan, church members are preparing enough for 600 this year. Two Salado restaurants (Johnny’s Outback and The Range at Barton House) will smoke 30 turkeys for the event. Walmart is donating money for ingredients for the feast, and James Construction Group will supply four portable, electronic message signs to alert travelers of the free Thanksgiving meal available on both sides of the interstate.

“It’s a real leap of faith opening the northbound side, but we will be prepared,” says Dan Nixon, who’s coordinating this year’s meal. “Over the years, other members of the community have gotten involved, and we appreciate all the help.”

The church receives letters of appreciation from travelers from all walks of life, thanking them for the free, homemade and pleasantly surprising meals.

“Sometimes, when people walk into the building and see all the food and all the volunteers, it brings them to tears,” Sewell says. “I know that lives are being touched by this, and our lives are being touched, too.”

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