Tom Townsend and his son Alex always had one thing in common: music.
Tom grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where he struggled to fit in. Riddled by pubescent anxiety, he despaired of finding his place in the world. Then, one day, his parents bought a piano.
“It gave me my place,” Tom later told People.
The Baldwin baby grand introduced Tom to his tribe, a community of musicians and artists that would change the course of Tom’s life, and, later, his son’s. The young Tom started playing in bands. Eventually, he used his creativity to fuel a successful career in advertising.
Along the way, Tom met a girl, Jeanne, who would become his wife. Alex was the couple’s first son. It soon became clear that Alex had a lot in common with his father.
Like Tom, Alex never quite fit in as a kid.
“He was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole,” Tom said. But as a young teenager, Alex gravitated toward the arts. He started playing piano, then picked up the drums. He made an award-winning documentary film about World War II when he was just 14.
After high school, Alex went off to Savannah, Georgia to study visual arts at the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design.
“I found my people,” he told his parents after his first semester in Savannah.
During his sophomore year, just 21 years old, Alex died in a car wreck. That was in 2010.
Tom and Jeanne were devastated by grief. But without knowing just what he was doing, Tom had been laying the groundwork for his son’s meaningful afterlife for years. As he mourned, Tom slowly began to realize that his son was inviting him to do something truly transformative for the community in his home town of St. Louis, Missouri. Though Alex is gone, his spirit pervades the life-changing organization that Tom was about to build.
The seed of the idea arrived years earlier.
Knowing that Tom was an experienced pianist, a friend asked him for help picking out a piano. As Tom and his friend searched through the piano dealerships and second-hand shops, Tom realized that the world was full of unloved instruments, quietly falling into disrepair in warehouses and showrooms.
“All of these pianos could change lives if they were put in a home with a young kid,” Tom said. “It was as much about saving the piano as the piano saving the person.”
Pianos for People is already changing lives for the better. They do it every day.
Life is tough on the teenagers who live in the concentrated streams of poverty that run throughout St. Louis city.
Like kids in developing cities all over the United States, St. Louis youth face a host of destructive influences, from drugs to gangs to petty crime. The gift of music provides an alternative that can show these kids the healing power of creativity.
William told People that playing piano helps him handle his stress in a positive way. Amir even credits his musical involvement with helping him do better in school.
Counting note values, for instance, “helped me with my math and stuff,” Amir said. “It made me feel like I could do phenomenal things.”
Today, Tom runs Pianos for People full time.
He sold his ad agency years ago. From a tiny kernel of an idea with just two instruments to place, Pianos for People has grown to a staff of two administrators and five teachers. Donated pianos are pouring into the program at a dizzying rate. Pianos for People is even opening a second studio, in nearby Ferguson.
None of this would have been possible without the guiding presence of Alex.
“I don’t think of him being here constantly,” Tom said. “I think of him dropping in now and then. I think of him being off doing things and keeping an eye on us. The concept that he’s around, I absolutely believe.”