Monday, July 1, 2013

Welcoming Heroes Home with a very special garden

In honor of the Fourth of July holiday I am providing a view into the gardens of the Warrior and Family Support Center (WFSC) at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio.  The WFSC is part of a complex serving those soldiers seriously wounded in combat and provides support for their families. 

Built with funds raised by the local non-profit group Returning Heroes Home, the WFSC provides wounded soldiers and their families with a home away from home during the extended treatment program required for these seriously injured soldiers.  As you will see, these gardens are designed with therapy, not just beauty, in mind. 

A few weeks ago when Pam Penick spoke to the Gardening Volunteers of South Texas (GVST) two garden volunteers I met after the meeting invited me over for a tour.  I had seen the gardens from the road but had not had an opportunity to tour these beautifully planned and maintained therapeutic gardens.  The gardens, which opened in 2008 along with the WFSC building, were designed by Brian Bainnson of Quatrefoil Design in Portland, Oregon.

There are two phases to the gardens, each with many interesting elements to cover, so we'll tour them in two separate posts.  In this post we'll tour the gardens nearest the main WFSC building.  My next post will cover the surrounding park containing fitness trails and other amenities.

The gardens nearest the buildings were designed to be smaller in scale and more homelike than a typical public landscape.  The overall feel is very full and lush with plant selections similar to a home garden in San Antonio.

Shade structures with seating are provided for relaxation in the gardens.  While the gardens are designed to be fully accessible there are also built-in challenges like elevation and surface changes along with different edges like this low wall which help develop real-world maneuverability skills.  So the gardens are designed to be accessible but also help train the soldiers to tackle variations in their environment.

To gain a better understanding of the therapeutic design of the gardens I consulted the Therapeutic Landscapes Network for more information and found a blog entry on the WFSC gardens which sums up the ideas for the gardens below:

Though more research is needed on what specific design elements are best for people returning from combat with polytraumas (multiple physical and/or emotional traumas), what we do know has been well incorporated into the landscape design: Plenty of shade; a sense of safety and security; a homelike environment; easily navigable walking surfaces, but also some walkways that provide more of a challenge; colored concrete to reduce glare; lush plantings; positive distractions such as water, plants that attract butterflies, and a wide variety of flora; a plethora of seating, including covered areas with fans and heaters that allow people to be outside in inclement weather and that help regulate people’s body temperatures; children’s play areas; plenty of different spaces that allow for quiet contemplation, one-on-one conversation, or group interaction; and opportunities for light and more strenuous exercise. 

The varying surfaces are incorporated naturally into the garden

Mature shrubs provide a sense of enclosure and also create privacy so several groups or individuals can enjoy different areas of the gardens at the same time.

During my tour I was impressed not only by the beauty and design of the gardens but with the work the volunteers do.  Volunteer work in these gardens involves much more than planting seasonal annuals and dead-heading flowers once a week; the gardening volunteers create real gardens and work in them as if they were their own.  Over time and as the gardens have grown and changed, the volunteers have removed and added plants, often from their own gardens.

A group of volunteers is pulling out most of a perennial bed that was past its prime.  Soon it will be replanted in memory of a gardening volunteer who passed away recently.

Just like a home garden, there are several different types of garden areas.  This sunny perennial garden attracts butterflies and other small wildlife for the families to enjoy.

There are several relaxing water features in the gardens like this natural rock fountain.  The pavilion holds a large outdoor commercial kitchen and multi-purpose dining area.

 A waterfall and pond at the far end of the gardens provides a destination

Touches like this old tiller and wire against the oaks help make the gardens comfortable and familiar like a home garden.

There's even a veggie garden and the produce is used for salads which are served at lunch inside the center.

The Purple Heart Pavilion is where patients are awarded their Purple Heart medals (for those wounded in combat) in ceremonies held here.

A Purple Heart Mosaic is set in the center of the patio

Gorgeous grapevines, both red and white varieties, grow up the arbor.

The grapes are there to be sampled by families using these gardens.

At the back of the building is a courtyard with large porches and seating.  A volunteer has been sprucing up the planters which hold Texas Mountain Laurel and potato vine.

Functional and beautiful, it's a relaxing place

The courtyard is stained concrete with a star to remind visitors that this is Texas.  Stained concrete helps cut glare, an important feature to those in wheelchairs or with burn injuries during our hot Texas summers.

Large shady porches with seating and fans on both sides of the courtyard provide respite from the Texas heat.  Many of the interior spaces within the building open to this porch.

Near the courtyard is a toddler play area with faux turf which was found to work best in this setting after trying other surfacing materials.  There are several play areas on the grounds suited to various age groups.

Around front a rose covered arbor leads from the parking lot to the building.  The rose on the arbor is 'Peggy Martin'.

The front of the building with its large porches and Texas hill country style.  Everything you see was built by non-profit groups and numerous local businesses which volunteered to help out.

Fourth of July Decorations greet visitors

Inside the building natural light from clerestory windows and skylights illuminate the common spaces.  The central fireplace features this wonderful metal butterfly sculpture designed by a wounded warrior.  The butterfly has special meaning for the soldiers and their families.

The front porch with rocking chairs looks so cozy

 The porch overlooks a rose garden

Bricks with names of those who support the center with donations pave the courtyard

 This paver is dedicated to the volunteer gardeners.

Jon Carter, the full-time staffer in charge of the gardens, and Melody McMahon who leads the team of volunteers discuss what needs to be done next.  Melody has been a volunteer gardener since 2008.

There is always a need for more volunteers.  If you would like to help, the volunteers are there every Tuesday and you will be welcomed.  Contact Melody McMahon at melodym1222atyahoodotcom for more information.  After touring the gardens, meeting the volunteers, and seeing the wonderful work they do, I returned last week and spent the first of hopefully many days helping out.

Click this link to see a short slide show with more information and detail about the WFSC.

In my next post we'll take a tour of the Texas style landscaping at the fitness track, beautiful amphitheater, and family picnic area.


  1. What a wonderful report on the good things people do for one another, which includes in this instance everything about the center, the garden and the volunteers. The garden is especially well designed and you made it easy to see that it's lovingly cared for. I'm sure it helps tremendously in healing for both the physical and emotional body. It warms the heart. There is much appreciation.

  2. Thanks for allowing me the privilege to see something I otherwise wouldn`t have. Beautiful and gratifying to know it exists.

  3. Thanks for doing the research to give us some background for this wonderful tour. It adds meaning to an already fascinating post.

  4. Very nice outdoor spaces, and at least as impressive is there are volunteer caretakers for it. Even a commitment to growing some of the greens / vegetables for use in their!

  5. Shirley, thank you so much for a wonderfully written and photographed report of your tour at the WFSC Gardens! You really captured the heart of what the center was built for and I want to thank you for bringing it to the attention of others. It truly is a labor of love and gratitude to the wounded warriors and their families! I look forward to seeing you and any of your readers there on Tuesdays! We can always use more help weeding and pruning!

  6. What a wonderful post of a wonderful place!

  7. Thanks for sharing this special place and the moving story behind it! What a blessing for the soldiers and their families! It's sad that we, as a species, haven't figured out how to coexist without having to fight with each other.

  8. Thank you all for your wonderful comments! I know they are greatly appreciated by the staff and volunteers at the WFSC.

  9. How truly lovely--the gardens and your acknowledgement. Thank you for the CTG heads up: will certainly follow through.

    1. Wonderful news for the group, I know they will look forward to giving you and the crew a tour of the gardens.

  10. What a wonderful, special place...thank you for show casing it so we can see the beautiful places people have created for our soldiers and families...


Thank you for stopping by. To comment simply open the Name/URL option, put in your name or initials and skip the URL.