Natalie Hampton, the 16-year-old creator of Sit With Us. Photo credit: Carolyn Hampton Photography
Natalie Hampton sat alone nearly every lunch of seventh grade but instead of wallowing in a painful memory, the now 16-year-old is using the experience for good. On Sept. 9, the California teen launched the app Sit With Us. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The app, which helps students find a willing and welcoming group to join in school lunchrooms, has garnered attention from the likes of NPR and The Washington Post and received more than $2,000 in donations including $1,000 from Ryan Seacrest, according to Hampton’s mom, Carolyn.
How it works: Students sign up as “ambassadors” and post about open seats at their table. A student without a place to sit looks at the app to find an ambassador’s table. Anyone who signs up to be an ambassador pledges to follow the app’s mission of “promoting kindness and inclusion” and serves as the welcoming committee for those who join the table.
Sit With Us puts a premium on privacy, Hampton says. “My experience was that if I asked [in person] to join a lunch, I would be rejected and humiliated for trying,” she explains. “If it is done within the app, it is not only completely private, but kids know that once they get to the table they will be welcomed.
Hampton came up with the app idea and storyboarded its specifications, design and various functions. She partnered with a freelance coder to create the final product, which is available for free through the iTunes Store (an Android version is in the works).
Hampton’s plans for Sit With Us extend beyond single lunch table experiences. She hopes students will start Sit With Us chapters at their schools. “[Then students] can hold meetings whenever they like, and try to recruit as any people as possible to be ambassadors,” she says. “More ambassadors means more open lunches!”
To learn more about her hopes for Sit With Us and reaction to its initial success, I chatted with Hampton.
Where did the idea for Sit With Me come from?
In seventh and eighth grade, I was bullied on an almost daily basis. I was treated as an outcast by everyone, shoved into lockers, pushed, verbally bullied and cyber bullied and physically attacked four separate times. However, one of the worst parts about my middle school experience was eating lunch alone every day and the feelings of isolation and embarrassment that went with it.
When I switched schools for ninth grade, I quickly made friends because of how kind and inclusive my new school was. Whenever I saw someone eating alone, I would ask that person to join our table because I knew how awful it felt. Over time, those people became a central part of my friend group and are some of my closest friends. I know that being included has made a difference in their lives, as it made such a huge difference in mine. It was this experience that inspired me to create Sit With Us.
Why an app?
For two years, I have been working with underprivileged and homeless kids ... and I have really enjoyed this work because I love helping other kids. However, I decided I wanted to do something on a larger scale because once those kids go off to school, I can’t help them during their day.
Do you have words of advice for other kids who experience bullying?
For anyone who is being bullied right now, I highly recommend that you seek out help. I know that there are upstanders [a person who “does something to make things right” in a bullying situation] like me at every school who are always willing to help. Speak to your school counselor and see if he or she will start a Sit With Us chapter.
I am quite hopeful that my app will inspire more kids to come together and be kind to one another. Having just one person your own age who has your back can make all the difference. That is what I wished I had at my previous school.
How many people are using the app since you released it?
In the two weeks since it was released, more than 10,000 people have downloaded the app. Not just in the United States, either, but also in [countries including] Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Canada. People in South Korea, Mexico and Morocco have asked us to make the app available in those countries. [Sit With Us is considering this but say the first priority is creating an Android version of the app.]
It is unbelievable to me that I have been able to reach other kids on a global scale in such a short amount of time. I can’t count how many administrators and schools have contacted us! Every day we get more and more people requesting some help in setting up a program, which we are happy to give.