“I felt so vulnerable, voiceless, and worthless”
Remember Mean Girls? That film about the complicated, confusing and often unpleasant hierarchal structure that envelops high school. It had one particular underlying theme… Bullying.
It’s that ever-pravelent topic that just never seems to go away.
It can happen to any one of us, at any point in our lives and for the most trivial of reasons. And for one girl during her middle school years in Sherman Oaks California, it became her life.
Natalie Hampton- a 16 year-old -was bullied to the point that she would return home covered in scars, bruises and was even hospitalised. During 7th and 8th grade she lived out an extremely lonely life, suffering threats daily that would shock many people… “One time, a girl held scissors pointed at my throat saying that she felt a desperate urge to slit my throat”
The menaces behind these kind of verbal attacks were a daily problem and Natalie would spend most lunchtimes sat alone. It didn’t get much better when she went home either. As social media’s rapidly growing influence into our lives continues, it provides a platform for online bullying. This mean that she had no escape from the onslaught of abuse even in the comfort of her own home.
Being at the mercy of her attackers 24/7 meant that Natalie often suffered from nightmares, stress and feelings of depression. Fear not though, as there is a happy end to this story that shows great courage.
Natalie ended up switching schools in 9th grade but rather than just try and blend in to escape any further bullying, she took it upon herself to elicit positive change. It started small- simply inviting other students that looked isolated to sit with her during lunch periods.
“If people are more kind to each other at lunch, then they will be more kind inside the classroom and beyond” Natalie writes. It’s a simple theory but one that could work wonders if applied by the masses.
“I became so close to these kids and saw firsthand that this simple act of kindness made a huge difference in their lives” she explains
This revelation was the inspiration Natalie needed to take things further and with the help of a coder, she created an app that would end up making a real difference to other people’s lives as well as her own. “Sit With Us” was born.
The apps function is pretty straightforward but wonderfully ingenious. It gives students the opportunity to become ambassadors and advertise their willingness to welcome other lonely students to sit with them during lunch. What this means is that students on the app can see a list of ‘open lunches’ and rather than eat alone, they can go and sit at any of these tables as part of a group- helping them to feel wanted and valued.
Once Natalie started inviting people to sit with her and began making new friends, you’d be forgiven for asking the question: “why not stop there?” What is it that drove this teenage girl to want to help others too?
“It’s a universal problem. And it’s not unique to me. And that’s why I wanted to create something like this”. She saw how the impacts of such a small gesture could be life-changing for others and decided to take her approach to counter-acting loneliness and bullying to a much larger scale. One girl even told her that the app helped her out of a spiral of suicidal thoughts.
(promoting the app)
The beauty of the idea is that the whole process is incredibly discreet. There’s no awkward approaches to groups sat at lunch tables where you ask the question if you can sit with them only to be terrified by the likeliness of an impending rejection. The user already knows they’re welcome and can concentrate on enjoying their lunch break.
The great thing about this story is the app not only became popular at her school, it has effectively ‘blown up’ and fast forwarding 2 years, it has now collected over 100,000 users! These people are spread across eight countries:
“We’ve heard from people in Morocco, the Philippines, Australia, England, France, just all over the place. We’ve been getting pictures from all over the United States, as well”.
(the app’s appearance)
They’re are not only restricted to schools either, even adults in churches and other institutions have begun using it.
The progress of the project shows no signs of slowing down and has allowed Natalie to continually voice her honest and inspirational thoughts: “I believe that every school has students like me who want to take a leadership role in making their schools more inclusive”.
The app has been the recipient of the 2017 ‘Appy Award’ and Natalie -who is now looking at the prospect of going to college- has become a huge anti-bullying advocate. To top things off, she has recently been named one of People Magazine’s 25 Women Changing the World. She has also been endowed with the Outstanding Youth Delegate award amongst a handful of others. A worthy winner if ever there was one!
‘Girls Can DO’, ‘Say No To Bullying’ and ‘TEDxTeen have all been graced with speeches from this once shy, oppressed teenager.
It just goes to show that, that old saying ‘a little bit of niceness goes a long way’ really does work when put into practise. It also shows that students acting together and trying to transform their own circumstances can result in much greater change than when adults attempt to initiate schemes to diminish the signs of bullying.
Now into the next chapter of her life, Natalie explains: “My hope is that it really helps people. Because it doesn’t matter if everyone in the world downloads it and it doesn’t do anything. My hope is that, even if it changes the life of one person, that’ll make it all worth it for me” and this shows why today Natalie is hailed as a champion against bullying.
Her future intentions are simple: to carry on. “I will visit schools in the area near my college”, “I want my project to continue to grow and help as many people as possible.”
We can learn a lot from Natalie’s approach to her bullying problem. Kids have the power in themselves to evoke the change they want to see, it’s all down to taking that first step and breaking down those social barriers that have been put up over time.
As for Natalie, I think she’s pretty freekin’ awesome!
Have you ever been on the receiving end of bullying? Remember the app is available to people of all ages. Alternatively if you know someone or someone’s child that is suffering from similar issues they can download the app too!