Natalie HamptonSit With UsLos Angeles, CAStory & Photography by Lauri LevenfeldStyling by Grace Wethor
Makeup & Hair by Stephanie Baker
1. Who is Natalie Hampton? What were you like as a child?
I was an extrovert as a child – someone who jumped out of bed each morning, excited to go to school. I was the one who remembered everyone’s birthday, and who organized thoughtful gifts from the class to a favorite teacher. I loved all of my classes and learning new things. However, when I was bullied in middle school, I lost that excitement for school. Over two years, as I was verbally bullied, cyber bullied, physically attacked and ostracized, I became a shell of my former self. It took changing schools and working on my own project as a form of therapy to get back to a place where I am comfortable in my own skin.
2. What are you most passionate about and why?
I really enjoy working with younger, underprivileged kids to show them that there is a way out of their cycle of poverty. For years now, I have tutored kids at Children’s Institute, and I am a senior counselor for United in Harmony, which provides a sleepaway camp experience for homeless kids and kids living significantly below the poverty line. I am definitely thinking about a future career that involves helping children, such as a pediatrician.
3. Tell us the story behind Sit With Us and where is the app now? As I mentioned, I faced a painful bullying experience during middle school. When I finally switched schools to a much kinder community, I would always invite anyone who was sitting alone to join my lunch table because I knew how awful they felt. I became close to these kids and saw that this simple act of kindness made a huge difference in their lives. One girl in particular, who is now one of my best friends, said that she had been contemplating suicide, but my act of including her in our friend group made her change her mind. This inspired me to take action to effect change on a much larger scale.
| I created a free mobile app called “Sit With Us” which gives bullied or lonely kids an ally in their schools. Anyone looking for a table to join can check the app and find an open invitation so nobody has to eat alone. I created a storyboard of how the app would flow and function, and worked on the graphic design. I then paired with a freelance coder to make it a reality since the app has many complicated features that I wanted to include. For schools that do not allow cell phone use during the school day, I also created an “analog” version that achieves the same results. To my surprise, Sit With Us has gone viral and is now being used by over 100,000 people (both kids and adults) in eight countries worldwide.
We do not have a team of people (yet) – it is just my mom and me running the app day to day, on top of all of our other responsibilities.
4. Give us a synopsis of the highlights of the past year.
It has been a really exciting year with so much activity that I never really expected. From the day I released the app, until 3 days later when I was a guest on “All Things Considered”, life has never been the same. Some of the greatest highlights were being flown to NYC for an interview by David Muir of World News Tonight. We managed to get tickets to Hamilton, so it was a perfect weekend. Or being selected as a Global Teen Leader and attending the Just Peace Summit with 29 other amazing, young, change makers from around the world – it was the best, most inspiring week of my life. I was treated as a princess for a day on the Radio Disney Music Awards, and I was flown to London to fulfill my dream of giving a TEDx talk. Finally, winning an award from the United Nations Youth Assembly, and then being given the privilege of delivering a speech from the podium in the Great Assembly Hall was terrifying, but the most exciting moment of my life.
5. Do you consider yourself a hero?
I think some people look at me as one because I am a former victim who is taking a stand against bullying. At some point, I had to get over my fear, because even after I left my former school, I started to get threats from the kids who bullied me. Obviously they did not want me speaking out publicly about what happened, even though every attack was in front of witnesses and was well documented. At some point I realized that I no longer care what they think, and I no longer have any fear of telling my story, whether it’s on live national television, or at UN Headquarters. If it helps one kid, if it gives her hope and helps her hold her head high, then it’s worth it to me. I don’t think I see myself as a classic hero, but as someone who can say “it does get better” and “stay strong”. Bullying and exclusion could happen to all of us, but it doesn’t define who you are.
6. What is your take on social media? How has it affected you positively or challenged you in your course for change?
My generation is hooked on social media and so it’s not going anywhere. Sometimes it stings when you see video on Snapchat of a party where you weren’t invited. However, my app uses social media for good. The idea is that the technology brings people together for a meal, but then everyone puts down their phones and has a real conversation.
7. How have you personally grown because of Sit With Us? Have you seen growth in others?
On a personal level, using my story to help heal school communities has helped me work through what happened to me, and become
more at peace with the trauma of my past. Knowing that I have the power to affect change in my community makes me feel courageous and confident—two words I never would have used to describe myself before. Also, by having had the opportunity to meet so many remarkable youth from around the world, it has shown me just how powerful individual voices can be, and I am optimistic about the future of our generation.
8. You are great with the camera, tell us about how you came to model for your mom (a great photographer) and why? What did you gain from this experience?
My mother has been interested in photography for nearly her entire life, and eventually decided to work on a fine art series. It is black and white, surreal and dreamlike photography that is inspired by her childhood dreams and memories, with me acting as a stand-in for my mother as a child. I was somewhat reluctant to pose when we first started (I was around 9 years old) but I grew to love it over time. My mother would borrow amazing costumes from Universal’s Costume Department, and she would find fascinating locations, such as a haunted hospital and an abandoned women’s prison. My father would help with working the reflector and carrying the gear, so this turned into a family project and adventure. It finally culminated in a book and a big show at a gallery at Bergamot Station in Los Angeles. The whole project made us closer as a family, and helped me understand what my mom’s childhood was like. We want to continue to do some more shoots, but it has been hard to find the time lately because of all of the app activity.
9. Your TedXTeen talk is titled All it Takes is One, what does this mean to you? Name five of your fave TED talks.
Sit With Us aims to activate the power of the bystander, to show that all a community really needs is little acts of kindness, something of which we are all capable. If one person can change a life simply by being more inclusive, imagine how little effort it takes to change the world?
I have so many favorite TED talks that it’s hard to narrow them down, but I loved all of my fellow speakers and performers at TEDxTeen London last June. They were all wonderful, but I particularly loved the
talks by Jay Hulme, Abu Qader, and Ben Ferencz, who was the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. I feel so honored to have shared the stage with these people.
10. What’s your plan for after graduation? Where do you see yourself in the five years?
My goals are to go to college, major in Psychology, and pursue a Pre Med track. I will continue to run Sit With Us and continue to do community outreach.