Diller Family Foundation
The Diller Tikkun Olam Awards recognize 15 Jewish teens each year for their extraordinary community service work. Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the world, is exactly what these teens are doing - showing incredible innovation, creativity, and leadership in their communities and around the world. Kveller is proud to partner with the Diller Foundation to share their amazing stories.
Natalie Hampton was nervous but excited for her first day of seventh grade. She was starting at a new school — her mom’s alma mater — and she was determined to make the halls feel like home.
But in a few short months, she was attacked twice in school. After being threatened a third time, Natalie decided it was time to leave — and to make sure no one else had to endure this kind of isolation and bullying.
So Natalie created a free mobile app called Sit With Us. The idea was simple yet revolutionary: Any student who is looking for someone to sit with at lunch can go on and coordinate. Any student can post an open invitation for a lunch buddy, and by doing it on the phone before their lunch period, students can avoid the awkward dance of trying to find somewhere to sit.
In just two years, Sit With Us has grown to include more than 100,000 users in eight countries, received numerous awards, and was featured at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. She is also a 2018 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards for brave, compassionate work.
Where did you grow up and what’s your favorite memory of being there?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I love it. I love how diverse it is, both in people and the fact that we have mountains and we have the beach. So, you can ski in the morning and go surfing in the afternoon. My favorite hobby is probably photography. L.A. is also great for that.
Who or what is your favorite thing to follow on social media?
I’m super into foodie accounts. I love exploring those accounts about the best restaurants in L.A. and then going to check them out.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I think I’d want the power to influence probability. I know that sounds really weird but what’s the chance that a million dollars will drop down in front of me? One hundred percent! I feel like you can really do anything if you can influence probability.
Do you take a lot of statistics classes?
Yeah, I’m definitely a STEM person. I’m pre-med at Stanford, so I will have to get used to taking a lot of hard math and science classes.
Can you tell me a little about what happened to you in middle school that sparked your Tikkun Olam instincts?
I was starting at a new, all-girls school. It happened to be my mom’s alma mater so there were a lot of expectations for how great it was going to be. I felt like I was destined to go there for my whole life. But as soon as I began there, I had a rough time. People already had friends or were really closed off. I didn’t make any meaningful relationships during my first year, and things really went downhill at the end of that year when I was physically attacked — twice in two days. I came home with bleeding red scratch marks and bruises and my hair in knots. It just completely shattered my sense of safety in school
Oh my goodness, that’s horrible.
And then a week later I was attacked again. The first two times, I didn’t know the kids, but this time, it was by people who I thought were my friends. They surrounded me and one of them stole my computer, another one pinned me to the ground and had her foot on my head, and the rest of them were standing around chanting and laughing at me while I was writhing around and struggling. After I got up, I got my computer back and as I was turning to run away, I was punched to the ground. I felt so betrayed.
Wow. How did you handle this?
Well, I decided to stay another year. And then the next year in 8th grade, I was in sitting in a science class when the girl next to me became enraged because her project had failed. She was standing on the desk with scissors in her hand and she spun around and said, “I’m resisting the urge to slit your throat with these.” And the teacher did nothing, the administration did nothing, and the students did nothing. So, it was a combination of this kind of violence and the isolation of not having a friend group and eating lunch alone every single day – I really had no one.
How did you think of the idea for an app to deal with this situation?
I changed schools after eighth grade. And from the first day, I had friends to sit with. There were random people helping me find my classes. It was like night and day being in a community where kindness was the norm. And I started thinking of ways to give back because every school community has the potential to be kind and inclusive. I started creating an app because I thought that was the best way to reach a big amount of people in a short amount of time, and also to protect people’s privacy.
How did you decide on an app?
I did a lot of research and, from my own experience, once the bullying is happening, it’s so hard to change things. The real change is happening on the preventative side. There are a lot of organizations doing amazing work with bullying victims, but I wanted to put a tool in place so that there was something we could do before the bullying even happens. There are so many people who are willing to invite someone over to a lunch table and make new friends. It’s just hard to take that first step. So, the app kind of takes that first step for you.
What were some of the reactions you got from the app?
I didn’t really expect anything to come from this. I hoped that maybe I would just try to implement it at my school. But as soon as it came out, it just kind of exploded. We were getting about 10,000 new members a week; we were spreading to all these different countries. And we were getting all this worldwide press. I was completely unprepared for the amount of attention it got. It was a ton of work because I was doing interviews and answering thousands of emails, but we kept getting messages from kids telling us it was working and that they were making friends for the first time in their high school careers. So that just made it so rewarding. We were hearing from kids who were implementing it and it was working in their communities.
Where are some of the places you see Sit With Us succeeding?
We’re in eight countries right now. We’ve seen a huge rise recently in Australia — we’ve gotten a ton of new clubs set up there. And just hearing from kids who live so far away but have such similar stories to mine has been really comforting to me. To know that I was not alone in what I went through. And also that there are so many kids who are willing to help.
How do you balance all this work with being a teenager?
I don’t sleep. But I’ve been so grateful for everything this app has given me. It’s opened so many doors for me. I’ve traveled the world with this. I’ve gotten to visit so many different schools and I even got to work with the United Nations. So, the opportunities it’s given me make it all worth it. It’s so rewarding.
If you could sit down and chat with anyone about Sit With Us, who would it be and why?
I’d probably want to sit down and chat with someone who’s head of an extremely successful app, like Mark Zuckerburg or the head of Snapchat, about the best ways to expand and how to take a platform that’s already being used and bring it to the next step.
And what is the next step for this app?
Well, right now we’re working on opening it in new countries and translating it into different languages — the goal is for this to be a tool for anyone. So, any student in any country can just open their phone and access it. We’re working really hard to get there.