Natalie Hampton's experience in middle school left her with painful memories she won't soon forget.
In seventh and eighth grade, she was bullied relentlessly. Often, she came home with multiple bruises and scars from the encounters.
"The worst incident was when a girl held scissors pointed at my throat saying that she felt a desperate urge to slit my throat," writes Natalie in an email. "I don’t know if my memories of that incident will ever fade."
But the bullying didn't stop when she went home at the end of the day. Thanks to social media, she was at the mercy of her attackers 24/7.
"I felt so vulnerable, voiceless, and worthless," she recalls.
As a result, she ate lunch alone everyday, and the lack of a friend base made everything she experienced so much worse.
By ninth grade, Natalie was finally able to switch schools, which helped significantly. However, every time she saw a kid bullied or exiled, it hit her at her core.
So she started inviting these kids to sit with her at lunch.
"I would always invite anyone who was sitting alone to join my lunch table because I knew how awful they felt," Natalie explains. "I became so close to these kids and saw firsthand that this simple act of kindness made a huge difference in their lives."
In fact, one girl confided in Natalie telling her that, after joining Natalie at the lunch table, she overcame suicidal thoughts.
That's when Natalie realized how life-changing small friendship offerings like this could be. It inspired her to take action on a much larger scale.
Natalie turned to social media — the same place she was initially the target of cyberbullying — to help give kids a clearer path to a seat with friends a lunch table.
Natalie Hampton and her campaign. All photos via Natalie Hampton, used with permission.
With the help of a freelance coder, she started developing an app she ended up naming Sit With Us.
It has a super simple functionality: The app allows students to act as ambassadors and let kids know they're welcome to sit with them at lunch. On the other side, kids looking for a friendly table can find the list of "open lunches" in the app, which means anyone can join them.
By becoming a Sit With Us ambassador, a student pledges to welcome anyone and everyone who wants to join their table. It calls upon them to not only be more mindful of the bullying taking place in their school, but also to take action rather than just watch it happen.
"If people are more kind to each other at lunch, then they will be more kind inside the classroom and beyond," Natalie writes. "One small step like this can change the overall dynamic of a school community over time so that everyone feels welcome and included."
Since its inception, the Sit With Us app has garnered over 100,000 users across eight countries and won the 2017 Appy Award for best nonprofit app.
According to Natalie, even adults are using it to coordinate lunches and find people to sit with at church.
Meanwhile, Natalie has become a major anti-bullying advocate, speaking at renowned conferences like TEDxTeen London, Girls Can Do, and Say No to Bullying. Natalie's also been honored with a number of accolades including the Outstanding Youth Delegate Award and the Copper Black Award, and she was recently named one of People Magazine's 25 Women Changing the World.
Natalie at TEDxTeen London.
And she also regularly speaks at schools around the world about the importance of kindness and inclusion.
She knows how bullying can affect students and wants to provide resources for how to cope. Now she's focusing on spreading the word and empowering more students to be leaders like her in the anti-bullying fight.
"I believe that every school has students like me who want to take a leadership role in making their schools more inclusive."
#Repost @csartssgv (@get_repost) ・・・ We spotted some CSArts-SGV students demonstrating postitive attitude and care for others. A student created a sign encouraging others sit with her during lunch! #wearecsarts. Way to go, Cal Arts SGV! #sitwithus #spreadkindness #endbullying
A post shared by Sit With Us (@sit.with.us) on
Natalie says when she goes to college, she plans to continue spreading her message any way she can. She hopes that one day, no kid will have to sit alone at lunch.
"I will visit schools in the area near my college," Natalie writes. "I want my project to continue to grow and help as many people as possible."
However, Natalie believes the key to solving the bullying epidemic lies with the students themselves. Studies have shown that student-led initiatives are far more successful at curtailing bullying than those started by adults. Imagine if all the "cool kids" at every school in America became Sit With Us ambassadors. They could likely eliminate the behavior in no time.
But even without the app, if kids realize they have the power to stop bullying simply by inviting those who're being left out to sit at their proverbial table, it could change everything.
When everyone's on board to make a change, kindness trumps intolerance, every day of the week.