It was the worst two weeks of Natalie Hampton’s life.
She was finishing seventh grade at a new middle school, an all-girls academy where her mother had studied. Unlike elementary school, where she'd been happy and had lots of friends, Natalie had a hard time connecting with others at her new school — the girls there had already formed strong cliques and weren't looking for new members. Natalie was isolated, making her a prime target for bullies.
Three times in two weeks, groups of girls physically attacked her. A few days later, she started receiving threatening emails. Eventually, Natalie became completely ostracized.
"I felt horrible about myself because I assumed I was the only person in the world this was happening to," Natalie revealed. "I didn't understand what I'd done wrong to deserve being treated like this."
Natalie’s experience with bullying is extra galling because of how common it is.
According to a national survey, 28% of American students in grades 6-12 have reported being bullied in some way. It is alienating, stressful, and traumatic.
For Natalie, transferring schools again was what she needed. Now she has a strong cohort of friends and actively reaches out to include other students.
"At my old school, sitting alone eating lunch was one of the worst parts of my day," she said. "It was embarrassing and I wished all the time that one person would come by and ask if I was OK and would sit with me."
So at her new school, Natalie started inviting others to sit with her.
One of the girls she welcomed to her table for lunch is now among her best friends. It got Natalie thinking: How could she help connect even more students to new social groups?
Last February, it came to her: She needed to build an app. For the next few months, she worked side-by-side with a coder, designing a mobile app called Sit With Us to help students meet new potential friends at lunchtime.
Sit With Us is based on a very simple concept: Your next best friend might be in the same room, and you just don’t know it yet.
Users who download the app only need to sign up and identify their location. Sit With Us does the rest, connecting them to other users nearby who’d happily welcome them at their lunch tables.
Natalie figured the app would be a fun little school project. Instead, it’s become a worldwide phenomenon, with more than 52,000 downloads and more than 132 million impressions in the iTunes App Store.
"We’ve been receiving messages on our social media about kids starting Sit With Us clubs at their school across the world, from as far away as New Zealand and Italy," Natalie said. "We haven’t heard any long-term stories since it’s so new, but we have heard of kids starting at their school and already meeting people."
Sit With Us is also finding fans among adults.
Natalie has received Facebook messages from nurses at UCLA hospital, conference attendees — even churches looking to connect lonely parishioners with new friends to sit with during services.
"Honestly, if this helps change one life or make things a little bit easier for one person, then all of this would be worth it," said Natalie. "Ultimately, I want to help people find other people who'll help them feel safe. That's what it's all about."