Tunes for Kidz: Empathy is a Superpower
By Jonathan Mota, Riley’s Way Intern
In a world filled with screens and digital distractions, the importance of nurturing creativity and self-expression in children cannot be understated. Riley’s Way alumni and 2022 Call For Kindness Fellow, Manavi Bajpai, gives children the opportunity to discover the joy of music through her organization, Tunes for Kidz. Manavi and her team work towards improving lives by providing children with musical instruments.
Can you tell me about yourself? Where are you from? What are some of your hobbies?
My name is Manavi Bajpai, I am from Nashville, Tennessee, where I was born and raised. I just graduated from high school at Ravenwood High School and I am now attending the University of Southern California, studying business administration and pre-law. I run a non-profit organization called Tunes for Kidz which is fiscally sponsored by the Arts and Business Council of Nashville. I love doing non-profit and charity work; Tunes for Kidz is my main endeavor, my passion project. I love music as well. I play the cello classically, guitar, piano, clarinet, and I sing. I am a singer-songwriter, which is really fun being in Nashville, since it is a music city. Lastly, I really love animals. I love raccoons, I love dogs and other animals like that. A fun little thing about me is that I am a camp counselor. I work with little kids every single day at a Christian gymnastics place. I am neither of those things but I really love the job. I love kids, I love music, I love animals, that’s me.
How did you find out about the Riley’s Way Call For Kindness? What inspired you to apply?
Instruments in the Clouds really helped me out when I was like 15 and I was getting started. I didn’t know what 501(c)(3) even meant. I didn’t know what a tax exemption was or insurance. And so after they helped me set everything up, they emailed me out of the blue to recommend the Call For Kindness Fellowship. When I wrote the application, I had strep, and I was sick at home. I took the chance and wrote the application. I wasn’t familiar with Riley’s Way, but who would have known that it would be my biggest blessing down the line? And now I’m a 2022 Call For Kindness Fellow; we used all of our grant money to give instruments to kids in the foster system. We placed pianos in their group homes. That’s how I got involved with the Call For Kindness and then I attended the Retreat in 2022 and I was like, “oh my gosh, this organization is crazy cool.” These are some of the best people I’ve ever met in my entire life, like Cheyenne [Rosado, Riley’s Way Program Director] and Naya [Houchen, Program Coordinator], I can just name the entire staff. They gave me one of the best feelings in the entire world that I’ve never had; they are the most genuine group of people. The Call For Kindness Fellows are all so close to me and I talk to them at least once a month. I found a community that meant a lot to me, so I kind of have been doing whatever I can to stay in it. I am mentoring this upcoming year with my entire team and I am also on the Planning Committee for the Youth Leadership Retreat, and just hoping to get more involved. Everyone on the team agrees with me just how truly amazing Riley’s Way has been for us.
How do you feel Riley’s Way intersects with your own personal values and beliefs?
I was born and raised in the south, which has its unique perspectives and challenges that it comes with. One thing that I always grew up with, and I felt alone in, is that I’m a very empathetic person. I found this Instagram video of a raccoon trying to eat cotton candy. But the cotton candy went into the water and so the raccoon couldn’t eat any and I cried over it for like three days. I was 18 years old and crying over a raccoon eating cotton candy. Until I met Riley’s Way, I didn’t understand that empathy was not a curse. Empathy really is a superpower that people have. Riley’s Way was the first organization, or just first group of people that I met that identified empathy as this powerful, powerful idea. And that empathy is valid and can be used to change the world for the better. Understanding each other, really listening and understanding each other, is how you can start making change. It’s when you have a conversation, when you finally listen to someone, and that conversation can lead to solutions. It’s not just one person. My entire team was changed when we went to the Call For Kindness Retreat, when they taught us to be kind. They taught us to be respectful, but also stand up for your own ground, being kind over being nice. So my entire team, we always say all the time, we’re going to be kind and get what we need to get for our organization, but also for ourselves. Being kind and empathy were the two things that really stuck with me, with Riley’s Way.
Can you talk to me about your team? How did you decide to bring them into the project?
It was tough in the beginning. Our organization has a lot of parts to it. There’s the whole instrument parts. The other part of it is managing 15 different writers, editing pieces, posting pieces, and social media for the whole organization.At first, it was just me doing it, which was a horrible idea. But I met this phenomenal woman that loved music kind of the same way I did. I went to high school with her and she was in my French class and I was like, “hey, you don’t know me but I stalked your Instagram and I see you have really cool social media. Will you take over social media for me on Tunes for Kidz?” And she was like, 100% yes. I need someone for instruments, I need someone for budgeting, I need someone to help me with management and now we have 12 people total. That’s kind of how slowly we started getting our team together. The one thing that comes with all these people is they all love music. They can sing, they can belt, they can play at least two instruments. But they understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. So it’s not necessarily even my passion project, it’s ours because they know the importance of music firsthand. That’s wonderful.
How would you describe Tunes For Kidz growth so far and why? Can you tell me about parts of the organization that are similar or different than when you first envisioned the idea?
Tunes for Kids is growing like crazy, especially right now. We went from being this baby organization that would freak out when we got one instrument donated to us and would have literally no clue what to do, to now we’re at 350 instruments that have been donated. Half of those have been donated to the foster care system and those are kids that never get the chance of playing music. We even have a supply chain set up now. It started with, “how can I get this kid an instrument who can’t afford it or is in the foster care system?” As we started adding people, as we started filling more needs and reaching out to schools and local community programs, we realized that there’s more that people need. So we have reached a point where we feel confident in the way we’re handling instruments and we feel confident in the way TFK Times is going. We’re getting kids the instruments and then they’re already free, we have free resources for lessons. And then after they get those lessons, we have TFK Times, the opportunities that people have listed for music. For example, people can go to college for music, there’s scholarships for music, there’s diversity in music. It’s this holistic music education that we’re creating and the next step for us is getting our own 501(c)(3). It’s that passion our whole team has for music is what’s causing that growth to keep going, the dream to keep getting bigger.
How has Riley’s Way supported you? How has the organization impacted the vision of your project?
Riley’s Way gave us a whole community, a group of people who are changemakers. It’s hard being young and then dealing with taxes, liability insurance, website design, coding and things like that. So finding people who also understand that same struggle while being young, while being in high school, while applying to college, that was monumental for us. Riley’s Way, on top of that community that they gave us, the support of the staff is crazy. I’ve had so many meetings with Cheyenne and Naya and Lauren [Shenkman, Director of Programs and Partnerships] just to talk about how I keep going with Tunes for Kidz. Riley’s Way gave me the confidence to keep Tunes for Kidz going even though I’m not going to be in high school and living at home, living with my parents. Lastly, they are the ones fully helping us get our 501(c)(3) status. Without them, we would not have access to lawyers, we would not know the filing process. Our ability to make change would have been mitigated, instead it’s being maximized to the biggest potential it could be. That’s amazing.
Why do you think access to music is so important for children today?
Personally, I love singing, nobody knows that. None of my friends know that. My parents know it because they pay for my voice lessons. But none of my friends know it because for me, singing and music was my escape from the world. No expectations were put there. When I would write a song, I would write a song for myself. It was my way of expressing my feelings. I love songwriting because it is such a different way of communicating with the world. Music truly is the universal language. Even if we don’t speak the same languages, everyone can feel a beat. That’s why music education is so important. There are a lot of schools that don’t have music education simply because they can’t afford it, but every child should be awarded the opportunity to try music, to see if it’s their expression, to see if it can relieve their anxiety.
Can you talk about the importance of TFK Times?
TFK Times is a personal idea I came up with because I never understood why I was playing piano pieces or what they were meant to be played for. So, that’s where I got the idea for TFK Times to open up this online resource for kids to get the education that they would typically get in a private lesson, but have it be for free. It was about showing kids the history and the context of crucial pieces in their instruments. So there are cello solos that if you’re going to be a cellist, you need to know. You need to understand what is so critical about them. But you can’t understand that if you can’t afford a private teacher because a private teacher is the one who goes into that. I started TFK Times around the time where society as a whole was not doing well at all and I felt helpless during that time. So that’s when we added the diversity component to it, something to shine a spotlight on artists that deserve to have a spotlight shown on them. And so that’s kind of how we follow the month system. So in each month, you’re going to see at least two pieces that are focused on artists or musicians that can fall into relevant categories. TFK Times is an innovative and cool approach for showing teachers and kids that diversity exists and so do opportunities in the music realm.
What has been one of the biggest highlights of the organization’s history?
This past September, we hosted a fundraiser, one of our first in-person fundraisers, and it was at this place called Blaze Pizzas. If you bought a pizza, 25% of the proceeds would come back to Tunes for Kidz. It was a Wednesday during the school week when college applications were coming around. It was a stressful, stressful time. And I remember, I had debate practice, and I drove quickly to Blaze Pizzas. I set up a whole bunch of decorations: tablecloths, balloons, streamers, and glitter. 4:30pm came around and no one was there, I thought no one’s coming, but then 5:00pm came around and my entire school, half of our entire community, was at Blaze Pizzas. We literally crashed the entire website because so many people were placing online orders. That was a crazy moment for me. I was networking telling people to take a keychain, take a card. Suddenly, this woman comes in and she’s like, what is going on? After I explained it, she started crying. And I was like, oh no, did I say something wrong? Did I make her sad? Did I offend her? She said, “what you’re doing is so cool. And you’ve just given me so much promise for the future.” That moment made me stop to pause and look around. In one corner, I see all of my friends, all of my family, just sitting eating pizza, making sure I’m eating pizza, playing with our merch, taking pictures, making TikToks. In another corner, all the kids and the families we donated to just eating pizza with our balloon logo up there. That was one of the first moments where I realized people enjoy what we’re doing, people care about what we’re doing. We ended up having over $2,000 in sales that night so, I think that was my “I made it ” moment.
Can you talk about what is coming next for you?
We are currently setting up a home base team so there will be a national chapter. We’re hoping to get more local youth involved in that. The second thing is our 501(c)(3) that we’re filing. We’re going to file it and hopefully it goes through and we become our own organization. The third thing is definitely TFK TImes. TFK Times is expanding like crazy. I think it’s going to be so innovative and creative. And you can really see the passion that’s going to be coming into it. It’ll be fun to see what we learn, what we can all bring to the table by going and branching out into different communities.