Jenell Theobald isn't your average 13-year-old.
In a time when most people talk the talk, the rising eighth-grader at Whitford Middle School in Beaverton is walking the walk when it comes to helping people living with disabilities.
"Although it's still challenging for me to kind of build relationships with others, I think that's part of what eventually inspired me to try to help other kids like me," Jenell says. "I've always had a passion for helping others, although it didn't really come out until Camp Meadowood."
Camp Meadowood is a nonprofit camp in Eastern Oregon for kids ages 6 through 14 with communication or social learning challenges.
After Jenell's experience there, she decided it wasn't enough to merely attend — she wanted to be part of the aiding process as well. She started by creating a Wikipedia page, explaining the history and functionality of the 56-year-old camp. She also promoted Meadowood in five separate Portland-area school districts and recruited more than 30 volunteers to work at the camp a year ago over Memorial Day weekend.
"We cleaned up and repainted some of the cabins, along with some other projects," Jenell says.
Her good deed, while admirable, proved to be a jumping-off point for a much bigger project: Let's Peer Up.
Theobald says Let's Peer Up, a registered Oregon nonprofit that she started, was a natural progression from her work at Camp Meadowood. It aims to help neurodiverse students who struggle to communicate.
Jenell is on the autism spectrum, and she has firsthand experience with how difficult that can be in a social setting.
"Certainly it was difficult for me to make friends, and in elementary school, I was picked on a lot," Jenell says. "But there are a lot of factors that motivate me, and mostly it's just knowing that I can improve the lives of other people. Even in a small way, that's what really makes me want to keep doing it."
Janell and her Let's Peer Up team won first place at the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs Youth Conference in August 2019.
Let's Peer Up also was the first-ever project run by middle-school students to be chosen for participation in the PSU Capstone Program — normally, only adults are selected.
Jenell has spoken at the Oregon Elks state convention, public meetings in Beaverton, and at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. She currently is working with city government, including Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, trying to revive her city's disabilities advisory board.
"I'm trying to get helping people with disabilities added to the meeting agenda," Jenell says. "It's a very reasonable request, because one in five people have a disability. But if we don't keep pestering them, they're just not going to do it."
And is now the right time? She believes so.
"When the disabilities advisory board was dissolved, mostly it was because in those days people thought of people with disabilities as mostly having physical disabilities, so they just installed new sidewalks or other projects and then thought their work was done," Jenell says. "But now there's more knowledge and awareness about disabilities, including developmental and mental disabilities, so now feels like a better time."
In addition, Jenell works with the Oregon Chinese Coalition. Last year, she was honored by the coalition for completing more than 100 hours of volunteer service.
Jenell excels in the classroom as well, and she does find time between school and her many volunteer activities to read, listen to music, and catch a movie or two. But it's helping others that drives this Beaverton teen, and she doesn't see that ending any time soon.
"Hopefully, Let's Peer Up will spread across the state or maybe even the country, and that's what I hope to keep working at," Jenell says. "Helping people with disabilities is my passion."
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