DeKalb residents run for peace in Russia

By Debra Fleischman

Ending world hunger and creating international peace are two subjects likely to be found at the bottom of the average college student’s list of priorities.

But for NIU sophomore Leisha Billmeyer, getting the chance to travel to Moscow this summer as part of an effort to accomplish the two missions was an offer “too tempting to pass up.”

Billmeyer, along with NIU sociology professor Clinton Jesser, first grade DeKalb schoolteacher Gorann Williams and former NIU computer science professor Lyle Smith, will travel to the Soviet Union Aug. 8 to participate in the fourth annual Moscow International Peace Marathon and 10K race. The race is expected to attract some 5,000 runners from around the world.

The four will travel with “World Runners,” a group aligned with the Hunger Project, which is a movement committed to ending world hunger by the year 2000, Jesser said.

Each of the four DeKalb residents have their own personal goals to accomplish while in the U.S.S.R., but for Billmeyer, the simple joy of traveling around the world is a means of satisfaction.

Even more satisfying for Billmeyer is the number of people who have shown a “deep interest” in donating to her cause. “I am amazed at how many people are so interested in foreign relations. So far, nearly 70 percent of the people I have asked have agreed to support me.”

Billmeyer also plans to “take a close look into” Russian culture during the trip and learn more about what the Russian people “are all about.” She believes many people have misconceptions about the Russian people that need to be dispelled.

Two tours, an 11-day and a 21-day tour, are being offered to the runners at a cost of $1,600 and $2,100, respectively. Both Billmeyer, Jesser, Smith and Williams are raising money for the trip through pledges gained by personal solicitation.

While in the Soviet Union, Jesser wants to “spread the message of peace and get the message out that world hunger can absolutely end.”

“It (world hunger) can absolutely end. It would be the most amazing breakthrough in the history of the world … more than 35,000 people die of hunger every day, but that sort of news doesn’t make the headlines,” Jesser said.

Jesser has been committed to the Hunger Project for about eight years. He will attempt to spread his message through wearing tee shirts emblazoned with “End World Hunger” slogans in Russian, talking to people personally and collecting donations toward the project.

“But it’s not really the money I’m looking for, it’s people’s committment to the cause,” he said.

Williams, a first-grade teacher at Littlejohn School in DeKalb, also is aligned with World Runners, but her mission focuses more on educational communication between the two countries.

She wants to initiate a student/teacher exchange program between the two countries and intends to set up meetings with Soviet educators to accomplish the task.

“There is very little exchange in education between the two countries. We need to expand on that.” She said she wants to set up a “little-sister” program similar to the one used by the City of DeKalb and a city in the Republic of China.

Smith is the only one of the four who actually will run the marathon as opposed to the 10K. Smith, a more experienced runner, has been involved with the hunger project for 10 years.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to go to a new country and carry the message of world hunger. It will be a real challenge,” Smith said.

All four have been training in preparation for the race. Smith said he is optimistic about his luck in the marathon. “I think I’ll finish, that’s for sure. Hopefully, I won’t come in last.”

So far, Sweden, Japan, Australia, Germany, England and Switzerland all have committed to participate in the marathon, Jesser said.