As the crow flies, the city of Paide, Estonia, is more than 4,300 miles and an Atlantic Ocean away from Westminster. But with music, diplomacy and cultural exchange, Sgt. Maj. Thomas Beyard is working to bring the people of these two cities closer.
On Wednesday, Oct. 18, Beyard will be honored in the individual category at the Community Foundation of Carroll County's 12th annual Philanthropists of the Year awards. Nonprofit, youth, family and business award winners will also be recognized at the event.
Beyard, of Westminster, has served in the Maryland National Guard for more than 35 years and is the state's senior enlisted leader for the Guard. He also worked in the Westminster Department of Public Works for about 30 years.
Beyard traveled to Estonia for the first time in 2000 with the military and became enamored with the culture. Shortly after, in 2002, Westminster was beginning a sister cities program with Paide.
Working with the Community Foundation of Carroll County, Beyard joined fundraising efforts to make the cultural connection a meaningful one rather than just something on paper.
"At that time, the city government's posture was, 'It's OK, but you can't use city funds for it,' so we needed to find the means to raise money to actually do things," he said.
This is how he got connected with the Children's Chorus of Carroll County, a nonprofit group with music programs for toddlers through high-schoolers, and began a volunteering partnership that continues to this day.
In 2004, the Children's Chorus traveled with a group of about 70 parents and children to Estonia, Sweden and Finland to perform.
Diane Jones, artistic director emeritus of the chorus, wrote in her nomination for the award: "[Beyard's] passion for this idea convinced me that we could undertake a project of this size and significance. True to form, he was involved with all aspects of the exchange from the initial planning and fundraising to the actual trip."
Beyard said he was proud of the job the kids did.
"One of the things that was really most amazing was that they learned the Estonian anthem in Estonian," Beyard said. "They went to this one event and there were all of these senior Estonians, older ladies, all in their national clothes. They're all kind of looking at these kids going, 'Hmm.'
"[The kids] got up and sang the anthem perfectly. The response was incredible."
The musical exchange between Westminster and Estonia has continued throughout the years, with groups of Estonian singers and folk dancers visiting the city and more Children's Chorus members traveling to Estonia.
Jones said the impact on the members of the Children's Chorus was to open up their experience of other cultures, teaching them that people from different countries can connect with each other when they learn to sing in a common language.
"Part of the reason we do travel as a chorus is to open the world up to these kids. A lot of Carroll County kids do not get out of Carroll County. And we took them way out," she said.
Beyard continues to support the Children's Chorus financially as well as dedicating volunteer hours and organizational expertise.
"I've always had this soft spot for events and exchanges that we do for kids," he said. "If you make the impact with them, you can get so much bang and impact for your dollars over the years.
"Diplomacy is done one person at a time. All the things we do in Washington, to me, really pale to the impact you can have with these kind of things."
Beyard will actually not be able to attend the Philanthropists of the Year award ceremony because he will be traveling with Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford on a diplomatic mission to Estonia.
He said learning of the honor was a huge surprise, and he encouraged others to find something they, too, can be passionate about.
"All of our local organizations, they're all in need of good, hardworking people from the community," he said. "When you say, 'philanthropist,' you think 'Oh, that's just a guy with lots of money.' That's really not necessarily the case with all people.
"What I've done is just one piece, and many other people in this community are doing at least as much or more. But the thing I can say to people is that each of you can do something. There's so much work to be done."
If you go
What: Carroll County Philanthropists of the Year
When: 7 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18
Where: Martin's Westminster, 505 Jermor Lane, Westminster
For tickets: Contact Jacie Mathias Jones at the Community Foundation of Carroll County at 410-876-5505, ext. 102.