The COVID-19 pandemic hit rural communities hard: isolation and financial strain have been major challenges for people living in rural areas. Through participating in a story tree, residents of Craig County, Virginia, reflected on their experiences and told the story of how their community has persevered. 

Craig County is a rural county of approximately 5,000 people, located just northwest of Blacksburg. During the Craig County Fall Festival in October 2022, Sophie Wenzel, assistant professor of practice and associate director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Research facilitated the creation of a community story tree alongside master of public health (MPH) students Natalie Martin, Molly Kwitny, and Alison Toler. The project was part of the Extension Collaboration on Immunization Teaching and Engagement (EXCITE) project, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and United States Department of Agriculture through the Extension Foundation.

“It was a chance to let people stop and talk and reflect about the COVID pandemic, because life just resumed so quickly once there were no more mask mandates, once people were vaccinated, and we never just stopped to talk about what happened,” said Wenzel.

“Some people just wanted to talk. They wanted to share stories of their community, they wanted to share their personal stories of how the pandemic affected them."


-Sophie Wenzel

The story tree was created using note cards, pens, string, and tree branches. Craig County residents reflected on their experiences during the pandemic by sharing their thoughts on note cards, which were then placed on the branches, representing the leaves of the tree. There, Craig County residents could read and learn from their neighbors’ stories. 

Over 100 people participated in the story tree, sharing a range of experiences from stories of loss of loved ones to community resilience to children’s stories of the pandemic’s impact on education. As more stories were added to the tree, more people became interested in sharing their perspectives.

“Some people just wanted to talk. They wanted to share stories of their community, they wanted to share their personal stories of how the pandemic affected them. I remember one person sharing a story about their community coming together and really helping each other out — lots of stories of hope like that,” said Wenzel. 

Wenzel stressed the importance of slowing down to reflect. By taking a pause, the residents of Craig County acknowledged the way the pandemic affected their lives and highlighted what they learned from the experience.

A story tree is a simple, accessible way to hear a community’s stories, gather information, and start a dialogue. 

“It’s a way for people to feel connected, and it ends up looking beautiful in the end.” 

members of the public interact with students at an outdoor event, stnading under a ten with a story tree
Close up of a hand written sign on a tree.

Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


Andrew Mann
Director of Communications and Marketing