Montgomery Blair High School senior Jake Koch-Gallup will eat lunch with most anyone, and he’s made no secret of it.
The 17-year-old has recently started issuing open invitations to his Silver Spring classmates over a phone application called Sit With Us, and he’s hoping the gatherings help students find new friends. Jake said he downloaded the app last year after noticing some students sitting alone in the hallways during lunch.
“It made me sad, so I wanted to do something about it,” he said.
With the free phone app, students can create a profile, set their location at a certain school and receive notifications about lunch meetups. As a Sit With Us ambassador, Jake organizes the gatherings; so far, he’s held two of them, with the third scheduled for Tuesday.
The first couple of lunches have drawn five to 10 students, but Jake said about 30 to 40 people have signed up for the app at Montgomery Blair.
Betty Samuel, also an ambassador, and said her goal is to make students feel like the lunches are a safe space. She and Jake try to strike up conversations about classes or college applications to encourage other students to get to know one another, she said.
Samuel said she knows what it’s like to be a newcomer. The Blair senior said she attended a private school in 9th grade and didn’t have a group of friends when she arrived.
“It’s very easy to get lost in your own world,” the 18-year-old said.
The app helps break the ice because it removes the awkwardness of walking up to students and randomly asking them to lunch, Jake said. It also gives students an element of privacy, since they can participate anonymously.
The digital-era solution to organizing meetups is perfect for students who are glued to their phones anyway, Samuel added.
The school’s principal, Renay Johnson, said it’s not uncommon for freshmen to arrive without many friends, since Montgomery Blair draws from a number of middle schools. Many students connect with each other through after-school programs, but some find it difficult to enter a new social circle.
“I think … in a large school, you think everyone has a lot of friends, but all too often, students do feel isolated,” she said. “This is a great way to connect students during their lunch period.”
Jake has spread the word about the app by putting up posters, creating a Twitter account and describing it during morning announcements.
He’s encouraging his peers elsewhere in Montgomery County to test it out. High school students at Richard Montgomery in Rockville and Walter Johnson in Bethesda are also using the platform. Jake is setting up a meeting with some school board members to talk about encouraging others to join in.
School board member Rebecca Smondrowski said she’s eager to learn more about Sit With Us.
“I know how hard lunch and free time in school can be for so many of our students, and I just think it sounds like such an amazing way of connecting people and making sure that no one is left feeling like they don’t belong,” Smondrowksi said.
Jake said he’s been corresponding with the app’s creator, a California teenager who created the platform after being bullied in middle school. Natalie Hampton, who designed the app, told the Los Angeles Daily News that she ate alone her entire seventh-grade year. She made friends after moving to a new school, but never forgot the feeling of being excluded.
“I want to use social media, which can be harmful, and use it for a change and to do something good,” she told the Daily News last year just before launching her app.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com.