Community Gathering Space

Aime Sommerfeld-Lillard teaches a gardening class organized by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service on Monday at the Family Health Center’s Community Gathering Space on Colcord Avenue.

Waco resident Emery Cruz is closer to having a garden of her own with help from free gardening classes at the Community Gathering Space, a shared green space on Colcord Avenue developed by the Family Health Center.

Cruz loves to cook with vegetables, but the soil in her yard lacks adequate nutrients to grow the herbs, vegetables and flowers she wants. She started making her own compost with her husband after attending gardening classes Monday evenings this month at the Community Gathering Space.

Formerly a vacant property at 16th Street and Colcord Avenue, between the Family Health Center and the Brook Oaks Senior Residences, the Community Gathering Space grew out of a grant from the Episcopal Health Foundation and input from the community, said Wendy Cox, Community-Centered Health Homes manager for the Family Health Center.

Community Gathering Space

An artist’s rendering shows a concept for the Community Gathering Space at full build-out.

The Family Health Center is a nonprofit, federally qualified community health center with 15 clinics in McLennan County. It provides physical, dental and behavioral services to residents with little or no other access to health care.

The health center received the $450,000 grant from the Episcopal Health Foundation in fall 2017 and set aside some of that money for the garden space, Cox said. A groundbreaking was held in January.

“The grant allows us to form partnerships that didn’t exist before so we can address some of the root causes of illnesses and disabilities that we can’t get to inside the exam room,” she said.

Cox said the center conducted community surveys in the time between the grant award and the groundbreaking to see what neighbors and staff wanted in the space. Residents of the Brook Oaks Senior Residences wanted easier access to the adjacent health center, so a sidewalk was built between the two buildings.

The next addition was raised beds, which the Texas AgriLife Extension Service uses during its evening gardening classes. At a class Monday, 14 people sat in folding chairs near the raised beds, learning gardening tips from husband-wife duo Patrick Lillard of World Hunger Relief Inc. and Aime Sommerfeld-Lillard, a gardening consultant for the health center.

Community Gathering Space

Patrick Lillard, director of local education and strategic initiatives for World Hunger Relief, has helped lead gardening classes this month at the Community Gathering Space.

Community Gathering Space

Raised garden beds are one of the first features of the Community Gathering Space on Colcord Avenue.

As funding provides, the space soon will see a walking path built around the park, Cox said. The health center is building out the space in phases, as money for the project and ideas from the community roll in. There is no deadline for developing the space.

“Part of what we’re doing is education on behaviors that promote health and reduce incidences of our biggest health problems, like cardiovascular disease, while at the same time working with our local food producers,” Cox said.

The plants in the raised beds mirror the vegetables and herbs provided to patients participating in the Family Health Center’s Produce Prescriptions Program. World Hunger Relief, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger, provides the produce for the program.

Sommerfeld-Lillard said the classes provide ongoing education about gardening and the nutritional value of vegetables, while also promoting the “restorative value” of working in a garden. As a society, we are extremely removed from nature in our day-to-day lives, and the class and Community Gathering Space offer opportunities to connect with nature, which benefits physical and mental health, she said.

Community Gathering Space

Patrick Lillard, director of local education and strategic initiatives for World Hunger Relief, discusses raised garden beds during a class at the Family Health Center’s Community Gathering Space.

People in the class are also having conversations about gardening across cultural and societal boundaries they would not have otherwise, Sommerfeld-Lillard said.

Rob Bravo heard about the gardening classes from the Brook Oaks Neighborhood Association and has been attending every week of the five-week class. Bravo said he wanted to go to the classes because he meets new people and contributes to a positive aspect of the community.

“Gardening really has a calming effect,” he said.

That is the idea behind the Community Gathering Space. Cox said the space is meant to improve the health of residents by promoting preventive care, including proper nutrition and exercise, in a community-oriented environment. She said most of the trillions of dollars spent on health care in the United States do not go toward preventive care, but the health center wanted to demonstrate ways to protect people’s health.

“The environment where we live, work and play in influences our behaviors,” she said. “It’s really cool to see what a clinic can do when a funder allows you to do things outside the clinic walls.”

To donate to the Community Gathering Space or offer ideas for the space, contact Carlos Hinojosa with Family Health Center at 753-4392, ext. 12, or

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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