Articles, Blog

Warrior and Family Support Center healing gardens | Central Texas Gardener

December 2, 2019

At the Warrior and Family Support Center in
San Antonio another kind of healing is going on at the San Antonio Military
Medical Center. Along with its home-like hill country ranch style activity center
and dining room, acres of gardens assist soldiers and
their families through physical and emotional recovery. In 2015 the American
Horticultural Therapy Association presented them the therapeutic garden
design award. The Warrior and Family Support Center was originally begun
twelve years ago, moved into this site seven years ago and purpose of it is to
encourage warriors and their families, help them interact back into society to
an- overused expression but a- whole new normal because their lives were changed
forever. We provide activities, classes anything that will allow them to be back
part of the community that they live in. My son was injured in Afghanistan and
he came to the finest center for treatment, which is here and that’s how I
came here. I came to see him obviously. They sent for me and I started walking
around the track. I would notice a rose that needed pruning or something that
I thought could use a little bit of work so I said, “Do you need volunteers?” and they
said, “We sure do in the garden.” That’s how I started. To finance the building
and the garden design Steve Huffman founded the nonprofit Returning Heroes
Home, raising start-up funds from over 8 thousand donors. In 2007 we first met Judith Markelz. At the
time she was in a room in a hotel and didn’t have the space that she needed to
really serve the wounded warriors and their families. They raised all the money
and they did all the work and we moved in. We have a lot of very severely
injured and wounded soldiers here. Burn patients, people with prosthetics,
threatened amputations and they tend to be here for a very long time. When we
started looking into the idea of therapeutic gardens on site we started
doing some research and found Brian Bainnson with Quatrefoil in Portland
Oregon. Brian’s main role was to lay out the architectural design, the raised
planters, the walking surfaces, the berming activity. Dallas designer Jennifer
Golden laid out the initial Texas tough plantings financed by Returning
Heroes Home. Since then local nurseries and gardeners jump in to add plants and
materials. The people in San Antonio have been phenomenal; we get fertilizer donated we get
plants donated. Everybody that I invite to come here and take a tour they are
just blown away with what has been done for our wounded warrior so they’re just
willing to help out. But it’s volunteers that keep the garden at its best in
every season. Melody McMahon has nurtured it since
day one. It was my neighbors the Huffmans who built the place and I was at their house
and they were talking about building a facility for the wounded warriors and I
asked if they needed help and I came out here the next week and I’ve been here
ever since. A Bexar County Master Gardener, Melody eventually enlisted their help
along with the garden volunteers of South Texas. Almost every week someone
will stop and thank us for being here which is something that I’m just so
amazed by since I thank them for everything that they do and I just being
here. Some of the volunteers are actually moms that are here with their sons. I had absolutely nothing but an injured child, my one and only and I’ve watched the seasons. I’ve
watched things growing and planting and cutting back and dying and renewing and it’s the best remedy in the
world for anybody. John Carter was hired as our staff gardener two and a half
years ago and what a blessing he has been. They all want soldiers and families
to experience Texas hospitality through its plants and wildlife. They do avoid
plants to remind soldiers where they receive their injuries. The butterfly garden was one of my
favorite pieces having understood the patient population. The symbol of the
butterfly is very important to the caregivers and the people in the burn
unit because they see it as a symbol of hope. Just like a caterpillar is cocooned and
then turns into a butterfly, it’s the same thing that happens in the burn unit.
These patients are cocooned in bandages and it takes them months to even be able to go
outdoors; and for them once they get here it’s an amazing therapeutic
situation that we can’t even comprehend. We plant things on purpose to bring in,
especially the monarchs. They wanted to have a variety and show what can grow in
this area but what was so cool is the other day a soldier was here and he was
from Chicago originally and he wanted a picture of him holding an apple so he
could send it to his mom in Chicago. It was so cute. The variety of surfaces does more than
create unique journeys from one space to another. They want to be able to walk on some
soft grass and they want something that’s not desert, especially if they’ve
come back from war. They want something that’s green and lush and soothing. When they are fitted with their prosthetic limbs
sometimes they need to learn how to walk on them on different surfaces so they on
purpose did concrete, different bricks, the crushed granite. We even have a
bridge in the back that they can walk over and it’s a little wobbly
so it’s just to help them learn on different surfaces how to walk again. There’s also an artificial turf field that’s used by the physical therapist, so
there’s regularly scheduled group therapy sessions out on the turf field.
Since families can spend months or years here playgrounds let children run around and
have fun like they did at home; important therapy for their parents too.
Families often gather in the covered pavilion where sponsors provide
barbecues, breakfasts and other events. We have breakfast here every Saturday
morning for 200 and some odd people. Everything is free here, no money exchanges hands between
warriors, staff. Everything is free and everything is sponsored by donated money. It adjoins the
Purple Heart patio enjoyed not only on ceremonial occasions. It’s grapevine
covered Pergola framed by fragrance and color invites daily
reflection on service and honor. Everywhere there’s soothing water to
induce emotional calm and temper the Texas heat. There’s also water from above. Misters along porches pathways and the
kitchen pavilion cool soldiers who can’t regulate their body heat. An additional
consideration for the burn patients in particular, there are shade structures that
are located relatively close to the building out in the garden areas. He has a light sensitivity from his injury and so it’s hard for him
to come out in sunlight, but he comes out. I bring out. I talked to one of the burn
patients and he said for a couple months he couldn’t even see out a window. He couldn’t sit in a wheelchair. He said as soon as he could sit in the wheelchair he said, “Just push me to a
window I have to see outside,” and this place was the first place he came to
when they let him out of the hospital because he said, “I heard there’s this
great place on campus.” I just feel like if I can help the wounded warriors and
their families you know come back to life and just feel better for a one day
that’s what I’m here for. I have hundreds of friends here., they all stop to hug me. They’re walking on one leg or two legs or you know missing arms, burns whatever it is and
they are walking the track and stopping to chat and it is wonderful. Smelling
the flowers because I make sure they know which ones up are perfumed. For a moment in time, you’re where you used to be and you will never be again. On the front
door it says life is all about how you handle plan B here because plan A is gone. So part of our job
and all of the community’s job is to help them find and succeed at plan B.


  • Reply Converse Access Television October 17, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    Great video. Can we use this video on Converse Access Television, our YouTube channel? Our most popular program, the San Antonio Steel Guitar Association, raises money each year to support the Warrior and Family Support Center. This year the steel guitar group raised $10,000 for the Warrior and Family Support Center. -Steve Bissell, videographer

  • Reply Converse Access Television October 17, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    Here's the video of this year's $10,000 donation to the Warrior and Family Support Center. -Steve Bissell (click the link)

  • Reply Converse Access Television October 17, 2019 at 8:28 pm

    Converse Access Television

    2 days ago

    A BIG Texas-sized check for $10,000 was donated to the Warrior and Family Support Center, Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas at the October Jam last Sunday at American Legion Post 593, Converse, Texas which was raised at the 2019 Family Fest by the San Antonio Steel Guitar Association. The San Antonio Steel Guitar Association recorded October Steel Jam at the American Legion Hall, the last jam of the year. Monthly jams will resume after the Super Bowl game, 2020.

  • Leave a Reply