Editor’s Note: This interview is the first of a new series that will appear in The Front Porch every other month to highlight people in NE Denver who have taken on interesting and/or unusual projects, jobs, or causes—stories we don’t hear or think about in our everyday lives. If you have a story, or know of a NE Denver neighbor involved in interesting or surprising endeavors, please send a brief note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What were YOU doing when you were in 7th grade? If you’re Abby Jones, a student at McAuliffe International School, you’re fresh off the Today Show after delivering a powerful, local TEDx talk about disconnecting.
The freedom of disconnecting from your phone and social media, that is.
A critical message, to be sure. But when so many adults shy away from sticking their necks out for something they believe in, what motivates this spunky teenager?
What led you to where you are today?
My grandmother gives me $25 on my birthday every year, and the only rule is that I can’t use it on myself. I remember learning about the Haiti tsunami when I was four. I asked what we could do to help, and we decided to fundraise for ShelterBox.
Since then, I’ve done an annual Pay It Forward project around my birthday. It’s a lot of work but it feels good to see positive change. Once, we bought $25 worth of supplies to make coasters, sold them, and donated the money to help save red pandas. Another time, we bought groceries to make meals for police officers, and I got to see them smile.
The ideas come from whatever I find most troubling about the world that year. Then, my family helps me make it happen—like matching funds or getting the word out.
So you’ve been raised to see the power of helping those around you. Then, suddenly, you’re giving a TEDx talk. How did that come about?
I feel like they’re related, because you can help people by giving them a thing, or giving them more understanding.
For the talk, I was getting caught up on my phone—obsessed with Instagram in particular. So when my mom saw a text she didn’t think was appropriate, she took away my phone for a month.
I hated my parents at first, but over a few weeks, I realized I was a much better person for it. My mom and I talk a lot, but even she didn’t know some of what I was experiencing with my phone.
Sometimes I think parents forget to be parents first, and want to be their kid’s friend—but I don’t think I could have stopped my phone obsession for myself. I ended up really grateful, and when the opportunity came up to reach other parents, I went for it.
What was it like becoming the person who gives a talk and goes on national TV?
It was stressful, because I had less than a month to prepare. And on the day of the TEDx event, I was terrified of going on stage. But my mom was awesome and told me it was all my choice—and I’m really glad I did it.
Going through that kind of fear, and coming out the other side—I feel like I can do anything.
What difference would you most want to see in our community, if people embodied your message?
For people to put their phones down to think, have a conversation, and even be bored. That’s when your creative juices flow and your imagination kicks in.
It feels so great to have real relationships in your community. Bake cookies and take them to new neighbors. Check in with the friends you have.
I’d love to see kids playing together with no screens. Playing board games, swimming at the pool, walking dogs, going to the playground, playing hockey in the street.
How do you decide when a project is successful—and what’s next for you?
I know something is successful when it feels successful, making a positive change.
It helps that I have my annual project—the routine of dreaming, planning, and doing one big intentional act of kindness. And in between, all year, I get to feel good doing little kindnesses with my family. [Abby’s mother, Brooke Jones, is Vice President of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.]
As for what’s next, I may write a fiction novel for teenagers, and speak to more audiences. I want to keep pushing and spreading my message.
A link to Jones’ TEDx talk is included with this story at FrontPorchNE.com
What We Can Learn from Abby
- There is always time to put down your phone and have a real conversation.
- Accept compliments with a sincere smile and a simple “thank you.”
- Don’t let fear stop you.
- Use your own barometer for motivation—trust success when it feels good.