There’s a quote stamped on Jenell Theobald’s contact cards, which she hands out to new connections: “We are all unique, and have our own special place in the puzzle of the universe,” it says, a nugget of wisdom attributed to the musician Rod Williams.
Theobald, 15, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when she was 5, always felt “different” from her peers. But she has gradually realized there’s nothing wrong with that. “Everybody kind of has their place,” says the ninth-grader from Beaverton, Oregon. “If you’re different from someone else, then you have a role to fulfill that no one else can fulfill.”
Theobald has many roles: She’s a budding graphic designer; a Potterhead; an older sister—and a staunch advocate for people with developmental and physical disabilities. “When people say diversity, they often think of racial diversity, because that’s what gets talked about the most,” she says. “But there are other kinds of diversity, and one I focus on in particular is neurodiversity and the diversity of different mental conditions. I think that in a way they make people unique, and I would consider that an important part of diversity.”
When she was younger, Theobald bounced from school to school in search of the right fit. She had tried out seven options by the time she reached fifth grade, which made bonding with one group of friends impossible. Throughout her childhood, she went to Camp Meadowood Springs in Weston, Oregon, an outdoor summer camp for kids with social and communication difficulties. It was the best week of her year. “I often struggled socially when I was a kid, and I kind of still do to an extent,” she says. “Camp Meadowood was a very unique place because the girls felt like kids who were like me, and I felt like they could understand me.”
There, Theobald met members of the Oregon State Elks Association, a fraternal organization that sponsors the camp. She realized the Elks lacked the resources to sufficiently promote it. Determined to help spread the word about the program, she created a Wikipedia page and made flyers that were posted in school districts throughout the state. In 2019, she organized 35 volunteers to travel to eastern Oregon and help prepare the facility for its summer sessions. Theobald noticed that the Elks she was working alongside received a ring for every year of their volunteer service. “I saw some older members with chains of dozens of rings,” she says. “Their commitment really inspired me to want to give back.”
Two years ago, eager to expand her volunteer efforts, Theobald founded Let’s Peer Up, a non-profit that advocates for equal representation for people with physical and developmental disabilities. It was the first-ever project run by middle school students to be chosen for the Portland State University Capstone Program. The experience helped Theobald figure out how to structure her non-profit to maximize success.
The group is currently researching ways to build a community support system that relieves some of the stress on local mental health providers. “We all know someone who’s struggling with mental illness,” she says. “There’s still a stigma—but if any other part of your body broke down, you wouldn’t be telling someone they were crazy; you’d be trying to help them. So why can’t your brain break down?”
Last year, Theobald and Let’s Peer Up convinced Beaverton to revive an Americans with Disabilities Act Technical Advisory Committee that will give the city’s disabled residents a voice. “In the entire state of Oregon, only Portland had a board that serves people with disabilities, which I think is a missed opportunity and a gap that should be filled,” she says. Theobald campaigned hard for the committee: She met with the mayor (which was “cool, but scary”) and reached out to the Massachusetts Office on Disability, which offered guidance. She spoke passionately in its support at a city council meeting in June 2020. “One in five people has some sort of disability—usually a mental disability,” she told council members. “Beaverton has no one representing the interests of people with disabilities. This is a huge problem, as it means one-fifth of the population is not being served.”
The speech was slightly nerve-wracking, she acknowledges, but she’s getting more accustomed to public speaking, and the payoff was worth it. Thanks to her tireless efforts, Beaverton’s new disabilities advisory board will begin work in January 2022. Theobald has already researched how to set it up, helped promote it and recruited potential members.
Beyond her work with Let’s Peer Up, Theobald—who logged more than 600 hours of volunteer work in the past year—helped create a cultural heritage garden in the historic Chinese section of an Oregon cemetery. She continues to brainstorm ways to add new cultural elements to it. She’s also a regular at volunteer sites around the state, like canned food drives. On a cold, rainy Saturday morning in December, she spent hours planting Wapato bulbs at Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.
Advocacy work occupies much of Theobald’s brain space. “I’m always thinking about it,” she says. “But maybe not constantly working on it because I’m pretty busy.” Indeed: Theobald has a full schedule of classes, most notably art (she used to doodle on her math homework) and science (a recent highlight: measuring the effect of moonlight on stars). “School is basically my only place for socializing,” she says. “You meet a lot of people every day. It’s a good place to try to make friends and practice my social skills.”
Looking ahead, Theobald envisions an art career, and she’s confident she’ll continue her volunteer and advocacy efforts. “It’s my passion,” she says. “I try to work [on my various projects] for at least a few hours every week, because with even just a little bit of effort, if I’m persistent about it, I will be able to get far.”
Read about more of the 2021 TIME Kid of the Year finalists here.
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