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—A strong advocate for individuals with disabilities, including those with developmental or 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.”
Theobald moved around from school to school when she was younger in search of the right match. Before she was fifth grade, Theobald had been to seven schools. This made it impossible for her to form a bond with just one set of friends. She went to school throughout her life. Camp Meadowood SpringsAn outdoor camp in Weston Oregon for children with communication and social difficulties. She said it was her most memorable week. “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.”
Theobald also met with members of Oregon State Elks Association. This fraternal group sponsors the camp. It was clear to her that the Elks were not able to adequately promote the program. She created an online community to spread word about the program. Wikipedia pageShe created flyers and placed them in all the school districts. She organized the participation of 35 volunteers in 2019 to help with preparations for summer session at the facility in eastern Oregon. Theobald was struck by the fact that each year they served as a volunteer for Elks, she noticed. “I saw some older members with chains of dozens of rings,” she says. “Their commitment really inspired me to want to give back.”
Theobald was eager to increase her volunteering efforts two years ago. Let’s Peer UpThe non-profit advocacy group promoting equal representation of people with developmental and physical disabilities, is referred to as. The project was run by middle-school students and it was chosen to participate in the Portland State University Capstone Program. Theobald gained valuable experience that helped her structure her non profit to achieve maximum success.
This group is looking into ways to establish a local support system for mental health care providers that can relieve some of their stress. “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. In June 2020, Theobald passionately advocated for the committee’s support during a meeting of city council. “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 helped to promote the board and has researched its setup.
Beyond her work with Let’s Peer Up, Theobald—Who volunteered more than 600 hours in the last year—A cultural heritage garden was created in the Oregon Chinese cemetery’s historic Chinese section. Her ideas for adding cultural aspects to the garden are constantly being explored. She’s also a regular at volunteer sites around the state, like canned food drives. One cold and rainy December Saturday, she spent hours helping to plant Wapato flowers at the Wapato Gardens. Tualatin River National Wilderness 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.”
You can read more about the TIME Kid Award finalists for 2021 here.