Jewish Journal

L.A. Teens Win Diller Tikkun Olam Awards

When 17-year-old Angeleno Natalie Hampton was in middle school, she was physically attacked, verbally bullied, cyberbullied and made to feel excluded. At lunchtime, she sat alone. 

“That isolating experience really stuck with me, so once I was able to switch schools and find my footing in a much kinder community, I wanted to find a way to give back,” Hampton said in an email interview with the Journal. “At my new school, whenever I saw a kid sitting alone, I always invited them to sit with me at my table because I knew how awful that felt. Some of these kids are now my closest friends, whom I would never have met if I hadn’t invited them over. I saw firsthand that that small action made a huge difference in their lives.”

Through these experiences, Hampton was inspired to create Sit With Us, a lunch-planning app for middle and high schoolers. Students can log on, coordinate lunches with their friends and look for open invites to lunch tables. 

The app came out in the fall of 2016 and now has more than 100,000 users around the world. Hampton won a 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for the app, which is a $36,000 award given to 15 Jewish teens across the United States who are dedicated to social good.

“I hope that Sit With Us will help build more inclusive school communities, where nobody ever has to sit alone,” Hampton said. “Also, I hope that it inspires kids to choose kindness, in and out of the cafeteria, and make strides to influence their communities in positive ways.”

A second local teen 17-year-old Emilia Peters, also won a Tikkun Olam award for her work with the homeless. She co-founded KEM Creative Studios, which gives free art lessons to homeless children and youth in need. 

Peters and her co-founder, Kyra Kraft, have taught more than 500 kids in Los Angeles and Guatemala, trained art ambassadors to lead over 40 volunteers, and teamed up with institutions like LA Family Housing, Alexandria House and AFS, an international exchange organization. 

Peters came up with the idea for KEM when she was trying to figure out a service project for her bat mitzvah. She met Kraft and together they decided they wanted to teach art to needy children. Initially, they held weekend classes at shelters around Los Angeles, and then they expanded it to a two-week summer program for 30 students ages 4-14.

“I hope that Sit With Us will help build more inclusive school communities, where nobody ever has to sit alone.” — Natalie Hampton

“My earliest memories are doing art with my sister in the summer in the only room in our home with air conditioning, the bathroom,” Peters said in a phone interview. “Art is an escape from academic stress and social pressure. I wanted to share that with people whose experiences are far more traumatic than what I’ve experienced. Art has been such a relief in my life, so I hoped that it could alleviate the pain that they’re going through.”

Peters said she can see the impact her work is making. “One student brought me artwork she made at school,” she said. “She’d already learned about perspective from our class. It was really amazing to see her point out parts of her painting that were inspired by lessons that we taught.”

Director of Diller Teen Initiatives Adam Weisberg said that Peters and Hampton were chosen because they “show tremendous commitment and impact. The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards seek teens who demonstrate leadership through innovation and direct action, [and] teens who are engaging others in their work to create a better, more just world.”

Peters plans to save some of her $36,000 in award money for college, where she hopes to study design or visual communications, as well as put some of the money back into KEM. 

“I was sitting at school and almost started crying when I got the call [that I won],” she said. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”