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Bicyclist promoting unity

By SUSAN OLP Of The Gazette Staff

James Houle is going a long way to spread a message of unity and awareness and acceptance of other cultures.

Houle, a Peace Corps volunteer who returned from Ghana, West Africa, last August, is in the midst of a six-month bicycle trek across the United States. On Friday, he arrived in Billings.

Houle visited several groups in town, including Friendship House of Christian Service on Billings' South Side. He presented a slide show to more than a dozen children and answered their questions. Then some of the youth hopped on their bikes and rode around the perimeter of South Park with Houle to see him off on the next leg of his journey.

During the slide show, Houle explained different aspects of the culture of Ghana where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. "This is what most people live in," Houle told his young audience. "This is a house. Does it look like a house?" "No," replied a chorus of voices. The house, Houle said, was made of "sticks and mud - all things that come from the ground." Houle noted that the people he worked with had few material possessions. "They don't have much but they do have each other," he said. "So their bonds are very strong." He also showed a slide of children playing the game of football - called soccer in the United States. "It's the only sport there," Houle said. "If you lived in Ghana, you would play soccer, too."

After the slide show, Houle held a brief question-and-answer session. One boy asked about Houle's shirt, which he explained was hand-woven by a native of Ghana. Another boy asked if Houle's legs get tired. "My legs get very tired, but you people give me strength and it's that strength that gets me through," he said. At the end of the talk, Houle said the children had not only been in Billings on Friday. "But you've been in Ghana, Africa, too," he said.

After the talk, the children filed outside with their bicycles for a brief ride with Houle. They rode behind him, beside him and in front of him as the group rode on the sidewalk around the park. After the ride, Houle said he carries his belongings in a 60-pound trailer that hooks onto the back of his bike. So far Houle has traveled 1,040 miles through Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana on his journey back to New Hampshire.

Montana's mountains have provided him his biggest challenge so far, he said. He'll head for Rapid City, S.D., next.

Houle said his trek sparks interest among people who then are willing to listen to his message. "I think it's our job to understand people who are different and accept them," he said. Houle hopes his visits to classrooms across the country will inspire students to expand their view of the world, and reinforce the values of cross-cultural experiences. "If global interdependence is to be a reality, we must learn to respect people who are different from ourselves," he said. "As communications systems grow, the ability of today's students to function in a growing global community depends on their understanding and appreciation of other cultures."