Walking down Cherokee Street, the storefront for Pianos for People fits in well among the South City neighborhood with its hand-painted signage and brick façade. The baby grand piano in the window is one of a dozen available for the community to use for free. On most days of the week the front room is full of students - sometimes elementary -school aged and other times adults - learning piano basics.

The nonprofit operates a piano- matching program in addition to free classes and community events. Since moving to its Cherokee location 18 months ago, the school size has almost doubled, and the organization is considering expanding to a North County satellite location.

Kayia Smith, head teacher and general manager, has been with Pianos for People since its move to Cherokee. “Piano lessons are pretty expensive, and many people wish they could do that for their kids but just can’t,” Smith explains. “This is allowing us to reach out to a whole new demographic of talented young people that have something to give the world, and we’re helping them develop and grow.”

Smith’s background fully prepared her for Pianos for People. She grew up playing music and continued to play piano for churches after college. She owned her own school, New Horizons School of Music, from 2001 to 2009, and taught music in the Riverview Gardens schools. Her mother met one of the founders of Pianos for People who was looking for someone to teach classes and help manage the programs, and encouraged Smith to reach out.

“I really didn’t think it would pan out to be anything,” she says. “I came to find out that what they needed was a perfect fit for all of the experience I had gained running my own business.”

Pianos for People was founded by Tom and Jeanne Townsend; Joe Jackson, the owner of Jackson Pianos; and Pat Eastman, a music professor at Webster University; in honor of the Townsends’ son and Eastman’s long-time student, Alex, who was killed in a car accident in 2010. Alex Townsend was passionate about music, and according to Kayia Smith, “[Pianos for People] wouldn’t have happened without him. Because he lived, Pianos for People was created and is touching people every day.”

Pianos for People began by delivering unwanted pianos to underserved households. Pianos are first inspected to make sure they are in good condition. Any repairs, tuning or refurbishing needed is done by Jackson Pianos at reduced cost. Recipients are selected on a case-by-case basis considering a variety of factors, including need and the ages of the children.

Since Pianos for People began in 2012, it has delivered over 140 pianos to individuals and community organizations in the St. Louis area. At one point, Pianos for People was delivering an average of one piano per week, but more recently that number has dropped by half due to the increased interest in their free lessons.

The innovative model of Pianos for People is spreading. Smith frequently receives calls asking how the process works and how to establish similar programs elsewhere. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pianos for People spread and branch out to different states,” says Smith.

Smith is excited about what’s ahead for the organization and its students. “I’m looking forward to a few more years down the road when some of the kids have gone on into the world and they’re able to say ‘My roots started with Pianos for People.’ That will be awesome.”

For more information, visit pianosforpeople.org