Riley Novak has been involved in the arts since she was very young, and has always had a love for music. She attended a performing arts school for eight years where she studied piano, French horn, and choir. She is passionate about advocating for arts education for all students because she has seen how beneficial music and the arts have been in her own life. Over the past five years, she attended the annual Arts Congress to talk to legislators and encourage them to include arts funding in the state budget. She also attended a leadership institute junior year where she took a course on immigration and refugee policy.
Riley also enjoys working with refugee families in the greater Phoenix area and seeks to help eliminate anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment. Her favorite place to volunteer is with The Welcome to America Project (WTAP), a local organization which welcomes families with furniture, household goods, and, most importantly, warm welcomes. She first started working with WTAP in eighth grade when she hosted a children's book drive to provide books for refugee families. Since then she has participated in WTAP deliveries, helped in the warehouse, fixed and cleaned bicycles with Phantom Cyclist to be given to new refugees, participated in WTAP fundraisers and events, collected over 230 pairs of shoes for refugee children, and raised more than $3600 by hosting a virtual benefit concert that included both refugee and local musicians.
The inspiration for HeartBEATS came one day in early 2019. Riley had been welcoming refugees for several years with the WTAP on Welcome Deliveries, but was frustrated by the language barrier that made it challenging to connect with refugee families. She started brainstorming at her desk, trying to think of ways that she could connect with the families without speaking. One idea that she kept coming back to was music. Since her first choir rehearsal at age 5, she had seen the way music connected people of all ages, backgrounds, and personalities. Music and singing had helped her connect with new people in classes, at summer camp, and after school programs. She recalled happily dancing with kids she'd never met before at outdoor concerts in the park when she was little. What if she could employ the power of music with her new refugee neighbors as well? What if music could help volunteers make connections with children and families during these Welcome Deliveries? In what other ways could music be used to foster cross-cultural connections among communities? These questions helped lay the foundation for what has now become HeartBEATS. Riley hoped that the joy, healing, and connections that shared music provides could help make a difference to the newly arriving refugee families and open the minds and hearts of their Phoenix neighbors.
Riley currently attends Washington University in St. Louis where she is majoring in Global Studies, minoring in Spanish, and playing French horn in the pep band and wind ensemble. She is also a part of the Global Citizenship Program (GCP), where she will participate in specialized classes, workshops, and events to continue to expand her knowledge of the immigrant journey. As part of the GCP, Riley will be volunteering with the refugee community in St. Louis and spending time at the US-Mexico border, learning about the history, politics, and legality of immigration policy in the United States.
In addition to her work with the refugee community, Riley is also co-program director of GOALS (Giving Opportunities to All who Love Soccer), a nonprofit unified soccer program for kids with and without special needs. GOALS partners youth athletes who have intellectual disabilities with neurotypical peer buddies in fun, low pressure soccer scrimmages. Riley started as a Volunteer/Team Leader in 2015 and took over running the program with her twin sister, Claire, in early 2018. Her experience with GOALS taught her how communities can be brought together through a common interest which eventually led to the creation of HeartBEATS.
In her free time, Riley loves playing ping pong ambidextrously and learning her favorite songs by ear on the piano.
Riley Novak, founder of HeartBEATS, playing
ukulele with a new friend at one of our outreach events.
Riley's first instrument was a toy drum. Now
she plays piano, French horn, and ukulele.