Natalie Hampton doesn't just have memories of being bullied in middle school; she has actual scars. "I had bruises on my body from being punched with fists or shoved into lockers, I was slapped and had my hair tied in knots, and I still have a scar on my left hand from when a girl clawed me with nails and drew blood," Natalie told TODAY Parents. "I was told by my classmates that I’m 'so ugly it’s scary' and 'Everyone hates you.'"
Now 16 and a high-school junior in Sherman Oaks, California, Natalie said, "Apart from the horrific attacks, the worst thing was being treated as an outcast and having to eat lunch alone every day. I believe that being isolated branded me as a target. All I wanted was to have just one person who had my back."
After switching schools in ninth grade, Natalie found a supportive new friend group, but she never forgot how it felt to be the outcast. "Whenever I saw someone eating alone, I would ask that person to join our table, because I knew exactly how they felt. I saw the look of relief wash over their faces," she said. Her experiences inspired Natalie to create a new app called Sit With Us.
The concept is simple: the app allows students to reach out to others and let them know they are welcome to join them at their tables in the school cafeteria. Kids can look at the list of "open lunches" in the app and know that they have an open invitation to join with no chance of rejection. "Sit With Us ambassadors take a pledge that they will welcome anyone who joins and include them in the conversation. To me, that is far better than sitting alone," said Natalie.
"Even though just about every school has bullies, I believe each school has a larger number of upstanders who want to make their schools more inclusive and kind," she said. "Sit With Us calls upon those people to reach out to students who may feel isolated. Lunch may seem like a small thing, but over time, I think this kind of program can shift the dynamic, so that kids are nicer to other kids in the classroom, or outside of the classroom, and not just at the lunch table. It brings people together with the possibility that they will make new friends."
Natalie said that teachers and parents can be a part of the solution by helping to coordinate Sit With Us programs, facilitate topic discussions during lunch to bring people together, or organize gatherings that can help build friendships between students, but she believes that students are the most important participants. "My high school places a great deal of emphasis on community service and what it means to be a global citizen, and I think that is why it is generally a kind and welcoming place," she said. "However, in terms of fighting against bullying, I believe that student-led initiatives are much more effective than say, an assembly where an adult lectures kids to not bully."
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Natalie is working on an Android version of the app, but for those who don't have access to an iOS device or a smartphone at school, she recommends a “low tech” version of Sit With Us: schools can dedicate a prominent bulletin board where ambassadors can post notices of open lunches, and kids can check the board, find an open table, and join.
"I hope that the message of Sit With Us spreads, so that, at a minimum, kids remember to reach out to other kids with kindness and acceptance," Natalie said. "You never know — that person sitting alone at the next table could become your best friend."