COVID is a word which has haunted homes and minds for three years now. However, a group of people came together to help offer healing in different ways.
On the evening of Nov. 29, the Department of Social Services – TAP, United Way, Virginia Tech, Craig County Public Schools and community members joined together to provide solace, togetherness and assistance to those who had experienced the travesty of COVID in their lives.
When people entered the school, an array of photographs caught their attention.
Sophie Wenzel, with Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practices and Research, offered an opportunity for Craig citizen to tell their stories, through a Photo Voice Project and a Story Tree.
The Photo Voice Project invited students from Craig County High School in the 4-H Club and the photography class to take pictures, and title them of how COVID impacted them.
Wenzel noted that “especially teens are not asked how they feel or how COVID affected them and how they feel,” therefore this gave them that opportunity.
She added, “In October at the Craig County Fall Festival we set up the Story Tree and asked people to share their story of how COVID has impacted them either personally or in the community level and how they see how their community is starting to recover.”
There were approximately 100 varied stories on the tree thus far, written on note cards and tied tightly to the branches.
Leslie Clark, a representative of Family Health Strategies for United Way, both shared with Channel 7 News which was there to cover the story and with the audience.
“We are providing an opportunity for the community to come together and to take a breath, of this post pandemic, to take stock of what we have in this community and to acknowledge the loss of life that has impacted this community,” she said.
“We want to celebrate the resilience of this community and to look forward with hope and beyond this pandemic,” Clark added. “We know that especially in small communities that COVID has greatly impacted these folks. Loss of life here means so much more in a town of 5000 as opposed to a town of 100,000. We know that loss of jobs has a greater impact here. Therefore, we just want to take a moment to celebrate small communities and what they have to offer in their togetherness and closeness.”
She noted that according to VDH there have been 24 fatalities since the COVID pandemic started.
“As United Way, we are conveyers and connectors,” Clark said. “We know that there is strength in community and so to see a community come together and honor people from their past and to honor those who are still here fighting it just means the world to us.”
Superintendent Jeanette Warwick said when she was asked if their school would be willing to participate in this event, she said that she was a bit surprised but understood, as the impact in Craig was very traumatic to many, in various ways.
“I vividly remember when I received the news on Friday March the 13th that the governor had ordered a school closure, starting Monday March 16 through Friday the 27 at a minimum. However, on March 23 he ordered all schools to close for the remainder of the 2019 – 2020 school year,” Warwick shared. “In my 32 years of serving in public education I never thought I would ever hear those words.”
She shared how the Craig County school system then jumped into action to begin a new chapter and making sure their students were taught through a new “virtual” system unknown to CCPS teachers and also fed as the cafeteria staff daily fixed meals for students and the school delivered them.
“It truly took a whole village to navigate this process and none of us could have gotten through that closure without each other,” Warwick added as she thanked the CCPS staff for their perseverance and dedication that began on Friday, March 13 and “has yet to truly end.”
Warwick became superintendent in 2016 and shared that each year she has chosen a theme and this year was the “Wizard of Oz,” “because the pandemic changed so much of how we do business that we truly are not in Kansas anymore; it has changed everything.”
Warwick described how in the classic movie, the lion was searching for courage the tin man was searching for a heart and the scarecrow was searching for knowledge and wisdom.
“Those are the characteristics that we have all had to hold on to in order to continue to navigate this pandemic as we had to be courageous, we had to have a heart and love each other and continually search for knowledge and wisdom,” she said. “Dorothy was trying to get back to Kansas because there was just no place like home.”
Warwick continued, “So tonight I’m glad we are gathered here in our hometown of Newcastle to honor those who have lost loved ones to COVID, share the impact that COVID has had on our community and to celebrate the resilience of our residents, and yes, finally to set our sights on our future.”
Clark shared that they were awarded a COVID equity grant through the Virginia Department of Health that allowed them to create a multimedia campaign that provided outreach to rural areas.
“We wanted to provide something that could create healing to communities, and we knew that with 24 deaths and 34 hospitalizations in your small community of 5000 was a great impact,” she added. “And, since working here I have discovered that you are the most welcoming beautiful people.”
She spoke of the COVID impact to families in loss of life, loss of health, loss of job or income, increased depression, anxiety, substance abuse and vaccination opinions.
“Many of these things have divided people over the last few years,” Clark stated.
She reported that according to VDH, approximately 50% of Craig County has been fully vaccinated.
“Where community is working together there is always hope and we want this year to be one of healing and of hope,” she said. “We’re taking this opportunity tonight to take a breath, to honor our loved ones and to honor all that everyone has been through and to feel good about where we are headed as a community.”
TAP representative Jo Nelson shared her viewpoint on COVID in the rural areas, being a rural resident herself.
“We did not take and accept all the rules and guidelines easily,” she shared. “Therefore, when we looked at the pandemic to see how we could be helpful, we seen a need how we could help the rural communities and the number one aid was the ability to access emergency money.”
They have been able to find funding specifically for Craig and Allegheny counties to assist in some areas, such as mortgage, rent, childcare, paying for medications, to give a few examples.
“We just need to know how to help you the best way we can,” Nelson said.
She also noted that there was the potential of helping families in non-COVID crisis as well, including the possibility of tuition being paid at Mountain Empire for specific areas of study.
Nelson added with care, “This community always comes together. Even when there are no family members, their neighbors seem to step in. I appreciate you all for supporting each other through this crisis and beyond.”
The CCPS music teacher Alyssa Shulke and many of her pre-K, kindergarten and 1st grade class sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Their zeal in acting out the song and their smiles, seemed to soften the “COVID-loss” theme.
Craig County native Sheila Hypes spoke about the untimely loss of her husband, Perry, the “love of her life of 42 wonderful years of marriage,” to COVID-19.
She began, “It was November of 2021 that Perry was in the hospital fighting for his life and I will never forget it. This was not a good experience for me and my family.”
Sheila shared that when Perry first had symptoms, he thought it was a minor cold and just took over the counter medications and actually continued to work at his job.
Later, she tested him for COVID, and though it was positive. Perry told her everything was going to be OK. However, he then started sleeping a lot.
Sheila continued her heartbreaking story about Perry having to go to the hospital, her inability to be with or even see her husband during this time due to COVID hospital regulations. Then they put him on the infamous vent and sadly later died after almost a month in the hospital.
When Perry was at his last hours, they called her in.
“The shape my husband was in, will never leave my mind,” she shared with tears. “We had to say our goodbyes and leave.”
A few days later, she had to go to Paitsel Funeral Home where she started making arrangements, and a gentleman was assisting her.
“This is why I love a small town,” Sheila said. “Julie and I had gone to school together and I lost it. I needed help as I couldn’t answer all the questions the man was asking me.”
Julie then helped Sheila through the heartbreaking process, including planning his final ride to his resting place in the back of a pickup truck.
Sheila then shared that the most tragic and difficult part of COVID was the separation.
“There was no communication from the hospital to me and my family,” she stated with the understanding of heart that she knew that they were swamped and short staffed.
“But there is no loss like losing the love of my life,” she said with tears. “I know others had more than one loss in their family due to COVID and I can’t imagine what that would be like because just losing my husband has changed my life forever.”
Sheila also shared that she is grateful for her children and grandchildren who have been her rock and helped her during this time of grief.
Perry and Sheila’s granddaughter, Peyton, wanted to speak, but her heart broke after just a few words. Sheila said she wanted to let them know how much she missed her “Pawpaw Perry” and that she was sad that she couldn’t be there when he left this world.
Pastor Lorraine Taylor of Grace Assembly Church encouraged everyone to continue to support one another and to lean on and trust God.
“Smiles are free, and kindness is contagious,” she shared. “That’s what I heard during the Thanksgiving holiday from one of my nephews.”
She stated that studies have shown that people who are thankful and show gratitude are happier.
“Together we are stronger, happier, and wiser,” Taylor added and quoted many Bible scriptures of encouragement.
“A better world starts with you. Of all the attributes, love is the greatest and by this people will know that we belong to God.”
She spoke of caring for one another, showing love in action while dealing with the unknown paths of the COVID pandemic side effects.
A special song was beautifully sung by Amy Horton and Ashlyn Arthurs. One line said, “The sky is finally open and there’s always been a rainbow hanging over your head.”
Warwick concluded the evening with a special thanks to everyone, with hopes that the togetherness helped the hurt and loss that people have endured.
She gave special thanks and gift cards to several who assisted in making the evening a blessing; Alyssa “Ms. Music” Schulke, Sierra Frazier, Pastor Lorraine Taylor, Jessica Belcher, Access Marketing and Roanoke and Craig County Health Departments and Jo Nelson with TAP.